By Noell Wolfgram Evans
Up until a few years ago, Bob Stewart wouldn’t have believed the change half an hour a week would make.
The assistant director at the Columbus Department of Public Safety is a retired police officer who has spent plenty of time dealing with youth on the streets. When he heard from a friend about a program in Houston, Texas that was making a major difference in the relationship between youth, the police, and the community he was skeptical but willing to give it a try.
In 2013, the Teens and Police Services (TAPS) Academy started at two schools in the city of Columbus. The transformation of all participants – students and the police advisor/teachers – was so striking that when the session ended, Stewart immediately set about trying to obtain funding to maintain the project.
In Stewart’s words TAPS exceeded their goal of “looking to help kids who’ve made a bad decision.”
At the beginning of the month, Columbus City Council authorized the final pieces to restart the program, this time on a city-wide basis. Thanks to a grant from the Franklin County Court of Common Pleas, Division of Domestic Relations and Juvenile Branch, the TAPS Academy will be instituted in four schools across the 2017/18 school year.
The program has a goal of reaching students in each part of the city. Classes are currently being held at Champion Middle School and Dominion Middle School. Stewart is hoping to have classes in Starling Middle School and Afrocentric Middle School as well. At each participating school, principals look for kids who might be struggling academically, with attendance, or having behavior issues. Those students who are identified as having the need for the program as well as the potential to benefit from it must get parental permission to join.
Columbus City Councilman Mitchell Brown says that the effects of the program on the Westside will be cohesive.
“When the TAPS program is expanded to students residing on the Westside, it will provide them the opportunity interact with police officers and build positive relationships and allow them to discuss issues that concern them. Through the interactive sessions with officers, students will gain skills to manage these issues and to make better life-decisions,” Brown said.
Working with the students are members of the Columbus Police Department who’ve been specially trained for TAPS. When possible, officers stationed in the areas where the program is being taught are the ones selected to participate. This allows some continuation of that consistency for the students once the session is over.
“The officers are looking at these kids like parents would,” Stewart said. “They’re trying to show that they are not the enemy and they want to help them make themselves a success.”
The program lasts for ten weeks with a different topic to be covered each week. These could include drug usage, conflict management, and bullying. If students come in though and have a particular subject they want to discuss, the officers will adjust as the idea isn’t as much to make sure that students learn these ten specific points but that they have an overall
experience that gives them a better sense of self and of their community.
Classes include between 25 and 30 kids with two officers for each five kids. The students and officers are grouped across five tables to make it easier to facilitate actual discussions. Stewart said the format provides “stability” for many of those in attendance.
“For ten weeks at least, these students know they can count on someone to listen to them and treat them as young adults who just might need a little help.”
Stewart added, “Knowledge is a powerful tool for youth and through the TAPS Academy program they are building skills to make positives decisions in their daily lives. They are given the tools to help them become better citizens in their schools and communities and to show respect for their peers their parents and themselves.”