Kids ask questions, connect with police officers in summer program

·4 min read

Jun. 25—"What happens when someone escapes jail?" a child asked Frederick Police Department Officer Maggie Lee on Thursday.

"What's the dumbest thing someone stole?" another inquired.

"I know police love donuts," a third declared confidently. "I love donuts."

Kids at the Centro Hispano's Éxito STEAM Program spent Thursday learning what police officers and firefighters do. They had lots of questions.

This was the second day public safety officials came in to educate kids. The program is a partnership between Frederick police and Centro Hispano, a nonprofit that helps immigrants.

The partners have been doing this outreach for four years, Centro Hispano Director and instructor Damaris Ponciano-Jackson said.

Éxito — a summer program teaching reading, science and life skills to kids — has three sessions during the summer. Police officers and firefighters visit one day each session, Ponciano-Jackson said.

The purpose is to have kids get familiar with the police and dispel any misconceptions and fear about them, she said.

Many children come from countries where they're raised to be more afraid of the police than thieves. She said she was raised with that fear in Guatemala.

"I think it's important to educate them that they don't have to be afraid of the police, that they don't have to be afraid, that they're here to protect us and where there might be bad police. The majority are good police officers that care about our safety," she said.

In a classroom littered with small science projects and hand drawings of the circulatory system, kids got to ask whatever was on their mind to Lee and Cpl. Travis Rohrer from the Frederick County Sheriff's Office.

The pair gave the kids a tour of their gun belts, showing them what was on it, including handcuffs, a tourniquet, a baton and a Taser.

The kids fired scenarios at Lee and Rohrer, like what police would do if someone stole gold. Rohrer said not many people steal gold in Frederick County. He then used the question as an opportunity to talk about fraud, such as fake emails seeking money.

Lee divulged that city police Chief Jason Lando prefers bagels to donuts, which was met with a collective gasp of shock.

Before the Q&A session, kids got to interact with the Frederick County Division of Fire and Rescue, as well as meet Frederick police Sgt. Rebecca Carrado and her therapy dog, Nevada, who comforts victims of crimes.

Because the summer program revolves around science, Lando said during the first session on June 9, the police department tries to focus on things that are fun and exciting. For example, police bring their drone unit and talk about the technology.

They also bring the K-9 unit and the Special Response Team, which carries tactical gear that kids can try on.

"Really for us, it's just as much more important to be building relationships with the kids and when they see a police car driving down the street or there's an incident where they're involved and an officer's involved that they don't have that level of fear," Lando said.

Volunteer Amanda Puentes, 16, said Ponciano-Jackson asks the police every year about people in the Hispanic community being afraid of calling the police since they could be deported.

"[The kids] kind of act like a messenger in between the police and their parents," Puentes said. "She brings it up every single year because there are students that come here that have immigrated here."

The police are always quick to reassure that those who immigrated will be OK if they call the police, another volunteer, Kyan Diaz, 15, said. A lot of people in their community don't speak English, Diaz said, so with the kids being educated about immigration and calling the police, it brings about more awareness.

Angie Jackson, 17, said the discussion gave kids an open and honest environment to express their worries.

"[They] can ask whatever questions they have and get that information and ... they start to understand basically through [police] and from them into their families and to their parents that it's OK," she said.

Follow Clara Niel on Twitter: @clarasniel