Students clap along to rockers in blue

January 05, 1995|By Dan Thanh Dang | Dan Thanh Dang,Sun Staff Writer

A photo caption in yesterday's editions of The Sun contained incorrect information about a performance of The Heat, a Baltimore County Police Department band. The band was photographed playing at Owings Mills Elementary School, and Sgt. Ralph Bridges was the officer at the microphone.

The Sun regrets the errors.

The Heat is pretty cool.

Cool enough to warm up hundreds of students at Red House Run Elementary School in Rosedale who squirmed, twisted in their seats, bounced and clapped to the beat of aging rockers who happen to be Baltimore County police officers.

"I get a kick out of seeing the kids get a kick out of us," said Officer Bill Price, a 24-year veteran of the force and trumpet player with The Heat, a troupe formed eight years ago to give students painless lessons about preventing crime and staying out of trouble.


"It's almost like they're saying, 'Holy cow. There are cops up there and they're playing music.' "

The officers -- eight musicians, three actors, an emcee and a sound technician -- volunteer their time and talent four or five times a month during the school year to entertain and teach about avoiding guns, strangers and drugs. More important, they say, they want to teach students to believe in themselves.

wanted to definitely create a different way to get through to the kids about drug prevention and crime," said Detective John Unkart, the bass guitarist and founder of the band. "The response we get back is just outstanding."

Typically, their young audiences don't expect much from a bunch of guys in blue-and-white police uniforms. But fourth-grader Chris Day was captivated by a polished rendition of "Get on Your Feet," by Gloria Estefan and the Miami Sound Machine. In fact, he thought at first that the band was lip-synching to a record.

"Were you really singing that?" he asked. "Wow!"

Powell Cuchiella, a fifth-grader, was too busy to talk. He was grooving to "YMCA," the Village People song that topped the charts long before his time. He and his friends howled with delight when teachers paraded to the front to spell out the letters with their hands. One student clapped so hard she had to blow on her hands to cool off the sting.

Most of The Heat's members are longtime musicians who played or sang in bands in their younger days and now enjoy finding an outlet for their musical talent.

"I always wanted to be a police officer," said Detective Unkart, who began playing guitar at 12 and started his first band at 13. "It's something I really enjoy doing. But I never thought or dreamed that my musical hobby would be something I could do in my professional work."

Officer Vanessa Rhodes, the female lead singer who spends most of her time patrolling the Garrison Precinct, studied at the Peabody Conservatory and sang with the Morgan State University Choir before she joined the police force in 1986.

"I think it gives kids a positive outlook on police," Officer Rhodes said of her performances with The Heat. "Television always portrays negative parts of the police department like when we're locking someone up or using excessive force. But this program shows we really care and that we worry about the health and well-being of these kids."

Throughout the performance, in Rosedale, between songs and skits, Detective Ron Creed walked around with a microphone, reminding students that they're "too special and unique to waste your lives on drugs."

"It's a tough world out there nowadays," said Detective Creed, the band's emcee and a 21-year veteran of the force. "If we can reach them at an early age with this assembly and point them in the right direction, everybody will be better off for it.

ZTC "A lot of the kids aren't getting the support and guidance they need from their homes. Our ultimate goal is to do what is best for these students and to teach them how not to become victims of the crimes in society today. Are we reaching every kid? Probably not. But every kid listens to us at one point or another in the program. It all sticks with them."

The Heat plays mostly Top 40 songs, with the exception of one song called "Guns Ain't Kid Stuff," written by Detective Unkart and Sgt. Ralph Bridges, the lead male singer and keyboard player.

At the end of each song, there was a skit. In one skit, all eyes in the gym focused on Detectives Bill Barker and David Horn, who played "Bill" and "Dave," two young boys out to learn the important lessons in life.

In one scene, Bill grumbled angrily about being yanked off the football team for bad grades. Then sly Dave sauntered in, carrying a brown bag full of promises.

"These pills will help you get better grades and play football better," said Dave, accompanied by a tune of doom in the background. "Come on, just try one."

While Bill contemplated the offer, he was bombarded with shouts of "NO!" from hundreds of students. Much to their relief and to loud cheers of approval, Bill stood fast and Dave was booed off the stage.

"Music tied in with the skits is a fun way of learning for the kids," said Doris Lyttle, a fifth-grade teacher. "I think they'll really remember this more then if they read it in books or were told about it. It's a wonderful way of teaching."

If the execution is different, the concept isn't new, Detective Barker said. He recalled the days when "Officer Friendly" showed up at his school to play the piano, sing songs and talk about bicycle safety.

"I never really thought that much about it until I started doing similar stuff in this program," Detective Barker said. "Then I thought, 'Oh wow. History repeats itself.' That image of Officer Friendly sticks with me even now. Maybe years from now, our assembly will stick with these kids too."

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