A friendly little game of dodge ball between Hopewell Junior School students and West Chester Twp. cops is about more than just an athletic event.
Last week, the seventh- and eighth-graders at Hopewell and five Lakota school resource officers squared off after school for the challenge, an event that has become a tradition for three years. The Lakota students bested West Chester’s finest 2-0, but Sergeant John Kleinfeldt said the score isn’t what matters.
He said this is an opportunity for the kids to be able to see the SROs in a different light.
“The police have always been feared, particularly by juveniles, and that’s one of our main focuses is not necessarily be in the schools to police them but more so to protect them and allow the kids to feel comfortable interacting and engaging with us,” he said.
Kleinfeldt said they have taken advantage of other opportunities to interact as well. He said one officer did a pennies for charity fundraiser with Lakota kids, guaranteeing that if they raised enough money he would dress up like “Elf” from the movie. Officers also participate in the “Be the Difference” mentoring program at the high school.
He said the five Lakota SROs aren’t just there to respond to threats in the West Chester schools — the sheriff has SROs in the Liberty Twp. Lakota schools — but to reach beyond the confines of the buildings.
“That’s kind of another goal of being in the schools and that comfort factor, is these kids that may be emotionally or physically abused at home, get them more comfortable with interacting with officers so that they’ll report these incidents,” he said. “Or if they don’t report, they still have that familiarity that when Lakota administration steps in and says we need to get this child some help, they might open up a little more to the officers.”
Hopewell Principal Jeff Rouff said the dodge ball tournament has actually been going on for about a dozen years. It started as a fundraising event for a teacher who had a significant house fire. He said they also have a teacher team that participates in the tournament, but having the cops dodge and weave is special for the students.
“It lets the kids see them in a playful light, which is important,” Rouff said. “We’re in year three or four with the SROs. In the past you would see an SRO in your building or a police officer and you’d think, ‘What’s wrong?’ Now it’s a little more normal and comfortable. But I think the bigger piece now is let’s build these relationships and they (the SROs) want to build those relationships beyond just when they are needed.”