COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — When Akie Benjamin saw police officers gathered in his school’s library, he assumed that he was in trouble or that something dangerous had happened.
Weeks later, he recalled the situation and laughed. Center stage in the Sherwood Middle School auditorium, he wore a medal and held a certificate from those officers. They shared hugs and high-fives.
“I thought I was in the wrong place,” the 13-year-old seventh-grader said. “But after a few weeks, I started looking forward to seeing them every Thursday. They taught me a lot.”
Columbus Division of Police officers visit Columbus City Schools buildings weekly, mentoring students, teaching them about officers’ jobs and encouraging them to make good choices. Officers volunteer to participate.
The 11-week TAPS Academy — TAPS is an acronym for Teen and Police Service — started in 2014 in high schools and is now exclusively for middle schools, where officers can have the greatest, earliest impact, police division spokesman Sgt. James Fuqua said. Topics covered include bullying prevention, traffic stops, healthy living and avoiding drugs and violence.
Benjamin said his favorite experience was sitting in the front seat of a police cruiser while learning about traffic stops.
Students who complete the program celebrate at a graduation ceremony with family, friends and officials from the city and school district. Sherwood graduated 26 students last month, and Benjamin was the class orator and gave a speech. Columbus Africentric Early College is to graduate another 26 students on Tuesday. Both schools are on the East Side.
TAPS officers have a presence in four middle schools each year and have been in eight since 2014, serving some more than once. The officers will go to Yorktown on the Far East Side and Dominion on the North Side, TAPS coordinator Jenny Benson said.
To complete the program, students must stay out of trouble and maintain good grades and attendance in addition to attending weekly two-hour classes during school.
The local program is an offshoot of one of the same name that started in Houston and has since expanded to Alabama, Florida, New York, Virginia, Puerto Rico and the two-island Caribbean nation of St. Kitts and Nevis.
Franklin County Juvenile Court is also a partner, allocating $165,000 annually to support the local program and help with planning.
Students are paired with an officer who serves as a mentor. Students also complete a service project together as a class. At Sherwood, the children painted a mural in the school. At Africentric, they collected items from classmates to donate to a homeless shelter.
Benjamin’s mother, Tiffany Hammons, 37, said she’s glad her son had the experience.
“Growing up African American, you might be told to look at cops differently, or be afraid of them,” Hammons said. “This gives him an insight that’s different than the negative stories you read and things you see on social media. They were able to build trust.”
Officers said they also learn a lot from the program about the communities they patrol and the issues that youths face today.
Lt. Elrico Alli said it’s an honor to participate.
“So often, there’s a disconnect between young people and police,” said Alli, Benjamin’s mentor. “The great part of this program is building connections with them and teaching them values that they can carry into adulthood.”
Jason Brammer, a detective with the division’s missing-persons unit, said another benefit is guiding students to resources such as the Huckleberry House, a local nonprofit group that helps teens in crisis.
After a lesson on truancy, for example, one child approached Brammer and said he had considered running away from home. They discussed the boy’s situation at home and alternatives.
“We want to help them fix the problems, so they don’t end up becoming another statistic,” Brammer said. “Sometimes they just need to talk to somebody who will listen.”
While serious, the program offers plenty of laughs, too.
Africentric students rehearsed last week for graduation and reviewed what they learned by playing Wheel of TAPS, a game inspired by the TV game show “Wheel of Fortune.” Students who answered questions correctly spun a wheel and received prizes, such as snacks, T-shirts, books and gift cards.
Alli, half referee and half host, tried to keep the excited kids orderly as they shouted answers to questions about nutrition, types of dangerous drugs and even the names of the division’s therapy dogs.
Olivia Groce, 13, an eighth-grader who received a bracelet for knowing what the TAPS acronym stands for, said she’d recommend the program to any teen.
She had never met an officer before participating, she said.
“They helped us learn right from wrong, and that if you have to tell on somebody, you can,” Groce said. “Police aren’t bad people. They’re here to help.”