The students at Blue Ridge Elementary lined the hallways on Wednesday afternoon for a parade celebrating National Police Week and thanking Columbia police officers for their work.
Jess Beringer's kindergarten class kicked off the parade with an unprompted cheer of "Go team go! Go team go!" and eagerly gave out high-fives to almost 20 uniformed police officers as the officers paraded through the halls.
The kids were familiar with Officers Maria Phelps and Tony Parker because they spent the last year getting to know the students as members of the Community Outreach Unit.
The unit expanded its coverage to Blue Ridge Elementary's neighborhood in July as part of the city's shift to community oriented policing, which takes a proactive approach to preventing crime, as officers spend more time in parks and schools to build community connections.
When Officers Phelps and Parker are not in the school, they are patrolling the neighborhood the students live in. Working with the children provides a direct link to their parents.
"They see us here, and they see us at home," Phelps said. "So when students run up to say hello outside of school, their parents often introduce themselves and have a conversation as well."
The school has a strong connection to the Police Department, with two teachers who are retired officers and two teachers who are married to officers. The teachers who are married to officers suggested the kids write letters to thank Phelps and Parker, and the idea for a parade grew from there.
Blue Ridge Principal Kristen Palmer said when Phelps and Parker first came to introduce themselves to the students at the beginning of the school year, they were met with wide eyes, dropped jaws and fear that someone was in trouble.
"Now, it's completely different," Phelps said.
After a year of playing at recess, reading together and seeing the officers at school events, the kids now run up to "Tony and Maria" to give them hugs and high-fives.
"Being in one of the higher crime areas of Columbia," Palmer said, the school does anything it can "to help build that bridge between the community and the police officers, so that these kids grow up knowing these are people that are here to serve and help you."
Blue Ridge Elementary students range from pre-K to fifth grade, which allows the officers to make positive impressions early.
"Middle school is really the time when kids start making decisions," Phelps said. Being in the school with the younger kids allows them to address any behavioral issues "before they really become a problem," she said.
"It's really about the kids who might need some more positive influences," Phelps said.
When it comes to the older generations, Parker said, "they already have their preconceived notions" about police, and changing their past experiences is "impossible." The younger students can help build a positive bridge between the police and their parents.
Palmer said that now that parents know the officers are there, they are more open to talk to Phelps or Parker at school about any problems they might be facing.
Beringer said a major benefit of having Phelps and Parker in the classrooms was that the police came to be seen as normal people rather than just police officers.
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