Originally published Oct. 20, 2019 in the Springfield News-Leader.
By Harrison Keegan
Gabby Williams’ first interaction with the police was a little tense.
She said she was going to Kansas City with her mom for a dance competition when they were stopped by law enforcement because they matched the description of people being sought in a parental abduction case.
Gabby, 13, said the officers were kind and quickly determined Gabby and her mom weren’t the people they wanted. But the encounter left an impression — police work is serious business.
Now, Gabby and other Springfield seventh-graders are getting the chance to interact with police officers in a more relaxed environment.
A new program called “SPD in PE” has Springfield police officers taking regular trips to Cherokee and Jarrett middle schools this year to participate in physical education classes with the students. The program is designed to promote physical fitness and also help make Springfield’s youths more comfortable being around cops.
“They’re always serious when they’re working,” Gabby said. “But when they’re here, they’re just like normal people.”
On a recent Wednesday afternoon, a half-dozen Springfield police officers donned shorts and T-shirts as they volleyed shuttlecocks back and forth with a gym full of rambunctious seventh-graders at Cherokee Middle School.
Brad Brummel, coordinator of health and physical education for Springfield Public Schools, said there was a little awkwardness the first time the officers showed up to gym class, but that went away quickly once the physical activity started.
“I call it sweat equity,” Brummel said. “The kids start sweating and the police officers start sweating. When you sweat with others, you kind of automatically bond.”
While the main goal of the program is to foster a positive relationship between cops and kids in Springfield, Brummel said there’s also an academic component.
“One of our learning objectives for seventh-grade PE is to teach them different career paths that relate to fitness,” Brummel said. “So police officer is a pretty great career pathway that relates to fitness.”
Brummel said Springfield Public Schools has been contacted by school districts in other cities and states looking to emulate the SPD in PE program. He said he plans to re-evaluate the program at the end of the year to determine if more middle schools should be participating.
Officer Darrell Barge was among the cops swinging badminton rackets at Cherokee last week. As a former youth sports coach, Barge said he knows how athletics can bring people together, and he jumped at the opportunity to volunteer for the SPD in PE program.
“We’re trying to build relationships in this program, versus standing up and teaching them different things,” Barge said. “We try to play with them, get to know them.”
Jasmine Bailey, public affairs officer for the Springfield Police Department, came up with the idea for SPD in PE as she was looking for ways to augment the department’s community outreach efforts.
She said she’s had no trouble finding officers who want to participate.
“I am just so proud and humbled by their willingness to be positive role models to these kids,” Bailey said.