Police get place to ‘hang their hats’ at Bristol Elementary

BRISTOL — For the first time in several years, Bristol police will soon begin keeping a regular but informal presence at Bristol Elementary School.
“We just want a presence there, and we’re offering whatever services teachers think they could use, whether it’s bicycle safety or Internet safety classes for the kids, any number of things,” said Bristol Police Chief Kevin Gibbs.
Gibbs describes the difference that hanging out with kids can make to community policing by describing the changes in relationships that resulted when the department first starting presenting the DARE (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) program at Bristol Elementary two decades ago.
“We started teaching DARE in 1994 and what I used to tell people was, in 1993 if we drove by the elementary school one, maybe two kids might sheepishly wave at the police car. But by ’94, ’95, the entire group of kids standing out on the sidewalk would wave at the police car,” said Gibbs. “I used to joke that the only down side was they’d be yelling ‘Hi, Officer Scrodin’ or ‘Hi, Officer Chris’ — because Chris Scrodin was our DARE officer — when it was me in the car. It didn’t matter to me — they’re all waving anyway. So you could see a difference just in a one-year period of the relationship between the kids and the police officers just because they got to see them a lot.
“I want to go back that way even if we’re just hanging around.”
The police department and Bristol Elementary have worked out an informal arrangement whereby the officers are being given the use of a small office, right next to the school nurse. Gibbs expects that he and Officer Josh Otey will, between them, be at the school around two or three times a week around lunch time, between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m.
Gibbs said that the department had a regular presence at the school from around 1993 to 2010, when they taught the DARE program. Around 2010, however, changes in funding and staffing made it no longer feasible to continue the program and the department ceased having a regular presence there.
Then during a recent in-service presentation on the ALICE protocol for responding to active shooters (Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter, Evacuate), Gibbs spoke with Bristol Principal Sandy Jump about moving back in. Together they developed a plan for police to have use of the vacant office, starting at the beginning of 2016.
Jump said she welcomes the police into the school.
“We are pleased that our local law enforcement officers believe it is important to develop positive relationships with our students, and that we have the space for them to ‘hang their hats’ while they are in the building,” she said.
Gibbs said that officers would use the time in the school to multi-task. They might bring paperwork that they would otherwise be doing in a staff car or in the department’s office at BristolWorks. They would be there as a resource to offer presentations as requested in areas of expertise like bike safety, Internet safety, anti-bullying, or sexual abuse prevention.
Most importantly, they would be building relationships with the community’s children, having lunch in the cafeteria, hanging out on the playground or high-fiving them in the halls.
This informal time is important in several ways, Gibbs said, but the primary objective is to let children know that police officers are there to help. Gibbs gave the example of a child whose first exposure to police might be during a domestic crisis, a scary and confusing event. He described the all-too-typical interactions in which parents threaten their kids that they’ll be arrested if they do something wrong.
“One thing we deal with all the time is the parent who comes out of the store and points to the police officer and says, ‘If you’re not good, he’s going to arrest you,’” Gibbs said. “I always stop what I’m doing and I’ll talk to the kid and I’ll say, ‘No I won’t, I’m here to help you. If you ever need help, I’m there for you.’ And I tell the parent, usually away from the kid, ‘You bring your kid down to the Fourth of July to enjoy the parade and your kid takes off, do you think they’re going to come to me for help if you keep telling them this kind of stuff?’”
Gibbs, for decades Bristol’s investigator for sexual abuse cases, said knowing an officer on a friendly basis can make it easier for victims of physical or sexual abuse to seek help. He said this is especially important because the majority of cases — and indeed all local cases that he’s been involved with — involve not strangers but close figures in children’s lives: fathers, stepfathers, brothers, uncles.
“There’s a lot of anecdotal evidence that police officers will throw at you to show that these kind of relationships are important and this would be one of them,” Gibbs said. “We had a female subject who was sexually assaulted and she wasn’t comfortable talking with a trooper. So her parents called me. I had been her DARE instructor. So I went and was able to get her to tell me what happened and we were able to make a case. And even if it does that once in a while, it’s worthwhile if a kid who becomes a victim of something is able to talk to the officer because they’ve established that relationship.”
With the rise of opiate abuse in Addison County, Gibbs has noticed an increase in how that has affected children and families. He said Bristol police have been called to the school for isolated incidents involving violence and substance abuse. He also said that he has seen more incidents with minors involving substance abuse as the conversation around legalizing marijuana has become more public.
“I think that the child piece is getting worse because what they are seeing is the discussion by adults to legalize marijuana,” said Gibbs.
One of the predominant issues for Gibbs is kids misusing social media to engage in bullying and name calling.
“We’ve had a lot of problems at both the high school and the elementary school level with social media issues. I think there’s been a lot of stuff on it in the media about how people are more willing to say things on social media that they wouldn’t say to someone’s face.”
Based on his experience with the DARE program, Gibbs said it’s important to build relationships when kids are young and that that provides a basis for helping them make better choices as they move on to middle school and high school.
Gibbs said that the Bristol police department is working on a memorandum of understanding with Mount Abraham Union High School to set up a similar arrangement at the middle and high schools. But in the meantime, they’re focusing on setting up their small spot at Bristol Elementary.
“When a police officer is just kind of hanging out at the school, when they’re exposed to them in a different light, kids get to understand that they’re kind of a normal person, and it increases the comfort level.”
Reporter Gaen Murphree is at [email protected].

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