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School security chief focuses on relating to students

Aaron V. Young is a familiar presence throughout Bennett High School. As he walks the halls of the Main Street building, students recognize him immediately.

Some know him as coach of the football team. Others see the school district security chief simply as Officer Young.

But many also call him mentor and friend.

"He’s a good motivator. He sees people for their potential. If you’re not living up to it, he reminds you and gets you back in there and gets you focused on what’s right," said senior Nigel Robinson.

"He wants to see all of us achieve," added classmate Kendrick Benson.

Those qualities caught the attention of Police Commissioner Daniel Derenda, who appointed Young chief of three specialized units last June: schools, housing and the Strike Force.

But the schools unit is where Young’s predisposition for mentoring children helps most.

Amid national talk about "community policing" and confrontations between cops and citizens – particularly young African-American males – Young’s rapport with students seems the embodiment of what’s seen as a way of preventing conflicts rather than dealing with their aftermath.

"He’s a perfect fit. His heart is always in it," Derenda said.

Standing in the hallway near the front of the cavernous school just before classes start, Young – a 1991 Bennett graduate – greets arriving students. His uniform’s white shirt makes him stand out as an authority figure and sets him apart from two other resource officers with him one recent morning – Juan Phillips and Michael Bennett.

Only 100 12th-graders comprise the traditional Bennett High School, which is being phased out. Maybe the small number of students is why so many are familiar with Chief Young. Or maybe it’s his easy smile and accessible demeanor.

As they file in, he greets the students with a wave of the hand or a salutation, and they respond with handshakes and sometimes a hug.

"What’s up, man?" Young says to one boy. "It’s good," the young man responds.

About an hour later, Young is in the interior hallways, helping herd kids into their classes, clapping his hands to punctuate the officers' directives.

By the time the tone sounds, the hallways are clear.

Teaching as policing

Young’s 11 school resource officers cover 61 city schools, but they are not based in the buildings; instead, they patrol the schools on their beats. They respond to emergencies, but also are expected to cultivate relationships with students and staff, whether there’s a problem in the building or not.

"They have to visit that school, find out what any issues are, find out how the day is going," Young said. "Just being visible within that school, especially the lunches... because that’s where students are more calm and more freeflowing. To sit down with kids while they’re having lunch, asking how their day is going – that helps with that engagement."

The officers also attend school meetings, PTA sessions, and block club and other community gatherings to strengthen relationships.

"That’s my big plan," Young said. "I don’t want our students looking at any officer as just a uniform, badge and a gun. I want that student looking at that officer as, ‘That’s Officer Young. That’s Officer Westbrook.’ I want that student not being apprehensive speaking with that officer about anything."

The approach seems to be working, judging by the adjectives students used to describe Young: caring, inspiring, dependable and intelligent.

"He keeps pushing me, telling me how to fix things. He gives me pointers on life and stuff. He tells me to surround myself with a lot of good people," said student Alex Dildy.

"He teaches you things about life, how hard things can get and how to overcome them, to never give up," said fellow student Marcelus Toliver.

Once the kids realize you care, the discipline part takes care of itself, said Phillips. The 34-year department veteran says being a schools officer allows him to teach, as well as police. As an assistant basketball coach at McKinley High School, Phillips uses that opportunity to mentor the young men.

"It’s all about building character. We spend time with them. We do outings together. We talk to them about what it takes to be a young man. We talk about morals and values and hold them to it," Phillips said, adding that the job goes way beyond school buildings and the 4 p.m. dismissal time.

"We have found that sometimes the student can only talk to you - even if it’s a home issue. They may not communicate well with Momma, Nana, Uncle or administrators at the school," Phillips said. "They will text you, call you, get to you. They’ll reach out to you. The father just got incarcerated or Mom is on drugs or Grandma is terminally ill.

"Some reach out in the morning. Some reach out late at night. I’ve been called to a home for sickness or emergencies to cry with them, to support them. They reach out because they realize Officer Phillips cares about their tomorrows, cares about what happens to them today."

Even when the kids get in trouble, that’s a teachable moment – after things have calmed a bit.

"I tell them, ‘When you’re sitting in back of a police car handcuffed, this is not the beginning. You can make the decision to never have to be handcuffed again in life. Let’s talk about what took place. Why did it take place? Now that you’ve calmed down, can we handle this differently?’" Phillips said. "By the end, the problem is not as large as they perceived it to be."

More mentor than cop

That type of mentoring consumes most of the resource officers’ time – about 60 percent, Phillips estimated – as opposed to breaking up fights, confiscating weapons and dealing with other forms of trouble typically associated, fairly or not, with urban schools.

The Buffalo Police Department does not keep separate police reports for schools, Young said. However, districts must report violent and disruptive incidents at each school to the New York State Department of Education, which compiles an annual report.

Data from 2014-15 – the most recent available – showed there were 134 assaults in Buffalo schools using a weapon and resulting in injury. There also were 2,544 non-violent, minor altercations, as well as 1,016 non-violent acts of intimidation, harassment, menacing or bullying. Students were caught with weapons 194 times, and there were 5,154 other non-violent disruptions.

"That’s not an every day, every hour occurrence,’ Phillips said of the types of incidents that make headlines. "The majority of what we’re doing is interacting with school administrators and students. We spend most of our time mentoring. That’s how it should be. That’s the relationship building."

That mindset trickled down from top brass. The better officers can engage with the community, the better they can do their job, said Derenda, who wants all of the department’s officers to be more pro-active.

"Everything adds up, and I think we have a good relationship with the schools, but we can certainly do better," he said.

Kevin Eberle, school district chief operations officer, agreed about the importance of the community policing aspect of the schools unit, which began in 2007.

"I think it’s much more important than just responding to an emergency," he said, such as when four students were caught last month sipping a concoction of soda, cold medication and sleep aids. "We have to go to emergencies, but community policing in itself is very important."

Real talk, real kids

A Buffalo native raised in the Central Park Plaza neighborhood, Young, 43, grew up with two sisters, a brother and both parents in the home. He credits his upbringing with helping him stay focused.

He knew since childhood that he wanted to be a cop. He didn’t get into a lot of trouble as a kid, but remembers officers taking time to speak with him about what was going on in the neighborhood and with him personally. Cops on patrol would stop and interact with him and his friends while they were playing street football.

That went a long way, Young said. He learned about mentoring from his family and police, he said, because it’s what he received growing up.

Before becoming an officer, Young studied to be a social worker, worked as a substitute teacher in city schools and as a residential aid at two group homes in the city – gleaning knowledge that has been particularly useful as a cop.

And for years before he became chief of the schools unit, Young – who coaches football at Bennett – had been visiting and volunteering at schools, showing up at open houses and trying to cultivate relationships with students, said School Board Member Sharon Belton-Cottman.

"He would come out on his own. He has a lunch thing with kids. He sits down and talks to them. He brings them food," said Belton-Cottman. "He’s just trying to make a difference in the lives of these kids, give them a positive role model."

The lunch program she referred to is Real Talk at Lunch at Community School 53 on Roehrer Avenue, which started after teachers overheard students’ talking at lunch about how they feel about cops and about life in general. The program is a way to humanize police officers.

Street-smart kids participate as well as "kids who know nothing more than video games," Young said. The group is limited to no more than 12 or 13 seventh- and eighth-graders to keep the sessions more personal. It is all-male – for now – and meets two Fridays each month for an hour during lunch break. Young provides the food, usually pizza. The teacher leaves the room, and the only adults usually are Young, another school resource officer and Murray Holman of the Buffalo Peacemakers.

In addition, there’s often a guest - like basketball players from the University at Buffalo or Buffalo News sports writer Miguel Rodriguez - to speak to the boys. The players gave the boys free tickets to a UB game.

Changing perceptions

Working with community groups like the Buffalo Peacemakers is one of the strides the city has made in community policing, but there’s plenty more to be done to improve police-community relations, according to a recent study by the Partnership for the Public Good.

The report praised department leaders for hiring community police officers, providing all officers with some community policing training and creating a scholarship program to diversify its recruits. But the study also said the department needs to do more training, including in implicit bias, restorative justice, adolescent development and de-escalation techniques.

For Young, practically every day can be a teachable moment in how to de-escalate potential confrontations. He recalled a student who recounted how a police officer questioned the boy and some of his friends, telling them they could not stand in front of a convenience store. The boys felt singled out and harassed.

Then Young explained the larger picture.

"‘Here is why that officer said you can’t stand in front of that deli,’" said Young, retelling the story. "‘It’s a law called no loitering. You were loitering, so he has a job that he has to do. His boss says we received some complaints about youth congregating in front of a business. So now on his patrol, he has to go make sure no one is standing out in front of that store as part of his job responsibility. He didn’t wake up and say let me stop at this store, find you and say don’t stand in front of that store. That business owner has to make sure his business has access to customers walking in and out.’ When I said that, the student said, ‘All right, I can see that.’"

Young also asked the boy if the cop was mean in his approach.

"No, the kid said. He just stopped and said you can’t stand in front of the store," Young said. "So the next time it happens, he can say to his friends, ‘No, no they’re just doing their job. We can’t be standing in front of the store.’"

That one-on-one engagement can go a long way in shaping what kids think about law enforcement officers, Young said.

"That’s what we have to change," Young said. "Judge how you feel about police officers based on your dealing with police officers. Don’t judge by what you see on the news as all police officers are like that."

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