“I think it’s loaded,” Vancouver police Detective Adam Millard said.
No, Millard wasn’t talking about a loaded gun. He was joking about a loaded die as he played color-coded Jenga in Ann Corlett’s third-grade classroom Friday.
Millard and the four Fruit Valley Elementary students he was playing with kept rolling red. So, the tower of wooden blocks was stacked precariously high. Even though the tower eventually — and quickly — came crashing down, they asked him to play again.
Millard is one of 14 Vancouver Police Department officers involved in the Police Activities League Patrol, or PAL Patrol, a program that connects officers with elementary school classrooms. He spent about an hour in Corlett’s class before students left for spring break.
The program, new this year, targets students in low-income areas that officers frequent. Ideally, kids are able to form their own opinions about police officers based on their personal experiences, instead of what they see on TV or hear from their parents, said John Andersen, the Vancouver Police Activities League’s executive director.
“We have kids in the community with a negative perspective toward law enforcement,” Andersen said. “Now we see kids approach police officers rather than run away from them.”
Andersen was hired on as the organization’s executive director in June after working 13 years at the Boys & Girls Club of Southwest Washington. PAL Patrol is one of a handful of programs added this year under Andersen’s guidance. The organization had gone without a paid employee for about a year before he was hired on, so the programs needed to be revamped, he said.
The idea for PAL Patrol sprouted from a conversation Andersen had with his wife, who’s a fifth-grade teacher at Burnt Bridge Creek Elementary School. Andersen sent a police officer into her classroom for 30 minutes as an experiment while he watched what unfolded.
The visit lasted an hour because the children had so many questions for the officer. Andersen found that there was something transformative about an officer in uniform entering a classroom.
Millard and the other officers involved in the program began visiting classrooms shortly after school started in the fall. Millard wanted to work at Fruit Valley Elementary School because it’s part of his beat. He covers the west side of the city as a member of the West Neighborhood Response Team.
His daily work consists of ongoing projects, including investigations in drug and gang activity, so he can’t visit the classroom as much as he would like. He’s able to make it about once a month, he said, enough to build relationships with the kids who look forward to his visits.
“It’s fun when he’s here,” said Katya Oleynick, 9, who made Millard a flower crown and necklace during recess.
While he’s in the classroom, the students shoot him a bunch of questions. They ask him his age, where he went yesterday, how many people are in the jail, how a lie detector test works and whether the stereotype that officers eat coffee and doughnuts is true. He answers every question.
“We don’t usually grill him the whole time,” Corlett said.
Teachers can use the visiting officers as a resource to address community problems or reinforce what the students are learning. Corlett said that Millard’s regular visits helps emphasize the expectation that they’ll be safe, responsible and respectful in the classroom. It also gives Corlett some time to work with students individually, who might need help with certain subjects.
Children, particularly in low-income areas, may be used to seeing police in poor circumstances, Millard said. When kids see police come to their homes during an emergency or to arrest one of their parents, it forms an impression.
“The kids hear what’s going on and they learn from that,” Millard said. “I know that’s because of their environment, not who they are.”
That’s a perception the Vancouver Police Activities League hopes to change, Andersen said. “We want kids to know these are the good guys and if you call them up you can count on them.”
Being in the classroom makes Millard more approachable outside of the classroom. When they see him at the grocery store or while he’s out on a emergency call, they wave to him and point him out to their parents. The larger hope is that by developing relationships with kids now, there’s a slimmer change they’ll end up in the back of a patrol car years later.
He’s encouraged the rest of his coworkers on the West Neighborhood Response Team to get involved with PAL — at least the ones who aren’t already doing so. Officer Julie Gabriel coaches boxing at the Fisticuffs Gym, which was one of PAL’s original programs.
By the end of June, PAL Patrol will be serving 15 schools in Clark County, Andersen said. The Clark County Sheriff’s Office is being integrated into the program, with officers starting at Hazel Dell Elementary School after spring break.