Graduation season usually kicks into full gear in May, but I got to sit in on a very special ceremony recently.
Twenty-one young people graduated from the Teens and Police Service Academy (TAPS) at Wedgewood Middle School; and another 25 graduated from Africentric Early College. These graduates received a medal, certificate, handshakes and hugs from families, teachers and their mentors – Columbus Police Division officers.
Dante Miles, an eighth-grader at Wedgewood, told the crowd that he didn’t think very highly of police officers before he entered TAPS. But now he considers them friends.
TAPS is a public safety program that helps at-risk youth through mentoring by police officers. The TAPS program came to Columbus several years ago, in partnership with the Franklin County Juvenile Court. Since 2013, officers have mentored approximately 300 students to develop life skills, and tackle serious issues like bullying, anger management and gangs.
We have grown our local TAPS program from two schools a year to four. Some of the schools in our suburban neighborhoods have expressed interest as well. It’s a program with such positive results, I’d like to see it in every middle school in the region.
For many of these young people, it is their first interaction with the police. For others, it is the first positive interaction.
Our young people are faced with difficult choices every day – guns, drugs, gangs.
Our police officers deal with the outcomes of bad decisions every day, making them uniquely qualified to address some of these challenges. Maya Angelou said, “In order to be a mentor, and an effective one, one must care. Know what you know and care about the person, care about what you know and care about the person you’re sharing with.”
During the 11-week program, the students and their mentors meet once a week. They form a bond and develop a level of trust. The students get to see that police officers are more than the uniform – they are parents, they are neighbors, they are people.
And the police officers get to interact with the young people on a different level, too.
I am grateful to our police officers, who volunteer their time with TAPS – which is above and beyond the call of duty. I am also proud of the students who complete the program and are committed to making changes in their lives and their communities.
Andrew Ginther is Columbus Mayor.