Officer Adam Heavner talks with Jacob Torba (Left) and Gage… (Lloyd Fox/Baltimore Sun )
When Baltimore County police squad cars arrive at Chase Elementary in Middle River, it is usually for a social call. Uniformed officers, carrying several bags of carryout from a local deli, head to the fifth-grade classroom.
The school on Eastern Avenue has organized a mentor program that pairs a dozen students with county police officers from the Essex precinct. The officers rotate the days, according to their shift assignments, but typically spend one lunch hour every other week with the child they are mentoring.
Officer Adam Heavner introduced the concept to parents at Back to School night last fall.
"We didn't want alarms to go off when parents saw three police cars parked at school," he said. "We talked about mentoring and how we would be hanging out with kids."
The county officers quickly became known to the children who greet them in the halls and cafeteria, wave to them from bus stops and look for them in their neighborhoods.
"A lot of kids have negative perceptions of the police," said Wendy Adey, fifth-grade teacher and organizer of the program. "That has changed dramatically with this program."
The school "makes us all feel like rock stars," said Officer Christina Bauer, who admitted that initially she was skeptical about the program.
"We are never invited in for tea and cookies," she said. "When a parent or a neighbor calls the police about a juvenile, there is a problem. Most of the time, we are dealing with the bad stuff. But here at school, it is all positive. There is nothing to fix. These kids are just happy to see us. It has changed our views and the kids' views of us."
Bauer soon was recruiting fellow officers and found the whole precinct supportive of the program, she said. While an officer is at school, another one takes over routine duties. One officer, en route to school with several lunches, was called to an armed robbery. Another officer delivered the lunches with an apology from his colleague.
Bauer has forged a friendship with 10-year-old Tia Allen.
"We talk all the time," said Tia. "I text her or call her, sometimes just to say how my day was and what I'm doing."
Five months into the program, officers and students banter like familiar friends about what is happening at school and home. They might play a computer game or go over a homework assignment.
"Because of this program, we are seeing higher attendance, less tardiness and a higher level of self-esteem among these students," said Principal Douglas C. Elmendorf.
He, along with the fifth-grade teachers and the guidance counselor, chose the 12 students who would most benefit from the program. The candidates ran the gamut academically and none was considered high risk.
"We chose the students we thought most needed that extra person to talk to, those who would benefit from that one-on-one boost," Elmendorf said.
Sarah Hemminger, founder of the similar Incentive Mentoring Program in Baltimore City, has helped underachieving high school students for the past eight years. All those involved in the program to date have graduated and most went on to college. Mentoring efforts help form an extended family for children, she said.
"A mentor is the definition of an adult who cares," said Hemminger. "Having a personal relationship with someone who believes in you and sees your potential is critical to anyone's success."
Those relationships are building at Chase Elementary.
"The relationship building has been unbelievable," said Adey, who usually joins the classroom lunch bunch. "Kids look forward to coming to school and are delighted when their officer pops in."
One student's officer visited, sent cards and called every day during a child's weeklong hospitalization. Another officer hand-delivered a steamy cup of cocoa to a student celebrating her birthday on a school field trip. When one child had trouble getting to school on time, his mentor started giving him a daily 7 a.m. wake-up call.
Heavner, the only officer mentoring two students, has found a way to interest both boys in reading.
"They don't like to read, so I buy them comic books," he said. "They live in the same neighborhood and swap them. It is working out really well."
Heavner has been invited to birthday parties, recreation games and field trips.
Officer James Johns arrived at school last week without his lunch or Brandon Diaz's favorite pizza. The student missed a few homework assignments and had to forgo the reward of a deli lunch. He understood it would be cafeteria's fare, instead.
"No special lunch for me either," Johns said. "But we will get back on track for next time."
Johns spoke gently to Brandon as they put together a schedule that would ensure the student made better use of his time.
"You are going to have homework, wherever you go," Johns told Brandon. "Try to focus and stay on schedule."
He promised pizza and a favorite side at the next lunch, if Brandon stayed on task.
Elmendorf said he would like to expand the program next year. Adey is helping a fellow teacher set up a similar effort between Chadwick Elementary and the Woodlawn precinct.
If every school added a similar program, Heavner said, "the world would be a better place and my job as a police officer would be easier as these children grow into adulthood."