The St. John’s High School classroom was bustling with a mix of excitement and fear as students filed in to be met by a row of six police officers.
While some students confidently took a seat at the front of the room just a few feet from the men with guns and Tasers strapped to their belts, others chose to stick to the back. Some of the stragglers opted to stand to avoid the only seats left in the front row.
The students and officers of the Charleston Police Department were there April 23 to participate in an open discussion, which the school refers to as community circles. The task of the day was to talk about how teenagers respond to authority figures.
Senior Bruna De Jesus was the first to ask a question of the six men that sat before them.
“Does it feel the same, a Taser and a gun?” she asked.
The question referred to the April officer-involved shooting of Daunte Wright in Minneapolis; he died as a result of his injuries. The longtime officer who shot Wright said she confused her gun and her Taser in the moment, according to The Associated Press.
The officers looked at each other for a brief moment before almost unanimously responding “no.” They went on to explain that context and the heat of the moment can have a lot of impact on situations like the one that resulted in the death of Wright and that the students should always think of the bigger picture.
Once a month, a handful of police officers go to the high school on Johns Island to participate in circle discussions with students just like this one. The conversation was just a glimpse of the wide variety of topics the students and the officers discuss during the community circles events.
An opportunity to connect
St. John’s resource officer Adam Deming drafted the idea for the program after a police officer killed George Floyd last year in Minneapolis. Deming wanted to provide a space for the students to get to know officers and dismantle some of the mystery surrounding their jobs.
Throughout his four years as a resource officer, Deming has developed close relationships with students at the school. As videos and photos of police-brutality cases surfaced from across the nation, he started to get questions from the students looking for an explanation.
De Jesus was one of those students.
“I just had a lot of questions,” she said. “I didn’t know what was going on. I wanted to talk to people that knew what the profession was like and could give answers.”
Deming sees himself as a representative of the police force in his position at the school. He hopes that the circles help students see other officers out in the community not as their enemy but as another version of himself.
“It’s able to continue to bridge that gap, and they feel even more comfortable with me,” he said.
The circles start with a 40-minute question-and-answer session, in which the students are given the opportunity to ask the officers whatever they want. After that session is over, the group breaks into smaller circles, where a designated circle leader, who is a student, guides a 20-minute discussion about the day’s topic.
The first part gives the officers a chance to explain their perspective and answer any questions from the students. The second part allows the students to share their thoughts and opinions while the officers are meant to listen.
If the officers interject too often in the small circle conversation, a teacher instructs them to be quiet for 10 to 15 minutes as the goal is to hear from the students.
The conversation on April 23 weaved from topic to topic, ranging from what to do when pulled over to the origins of police officers’ love of doughnuts.
For some students the conversations have demystified the presence of police officers.
“At first, I really didn’t want to deal with the police,” junior Kayla Carry said. “But now I do actually learn a lot from the police. Everyone is not the same. … They’re people, too.”
A learning experience
Although they take place in a school environment, the community circles are just as much an opportunity for the officer to learn as they are for the students.
Most of the students who have signed up for the program did so because they wanted their voice to be heard.
“A lot of students don’t get to put their thoughts out there,” sophomore Swarkena Foggy said. “But once I saw that it actually deals with real-world problems and they actually listen to us, I took advantage of that opportunity.”
Students like Foggy, De Jesus and Carry don’t mince words. They use the conversations as an opportunity to show the officers how they feel.
The act of speaking their mind is educational in itself, St. John’s Principal Steve Larson said.
“To be able to get your point across in a way that others can hear it, others can react to it, and it promotes a dialogue is just essential,” Larson said. “Particularly as kids get older, that’s something that the world demands of them.”
It’s not just the students who are learning, however. The circles provide the officers with a greater understanding of the people they serve, Deming said.
One of the biggest takeaways for Deming is the fact that many of the students, even those who have participated in all seven of the circle events so far, don’t feel like they can trust the police in their everyday life.
“Even though they feel comfortable with me here in the school and even these officers that I’ve brought on, they still do not feel as comfortable outside of these school walls,” he said. “How do we as police officers and community members bridge that gap?”
Since it began in the fall, the program has expanded both within St. John’s and throughout the district. The program is now in place at West Ashley, Burke and James Island Charter high schools, as well as at Haut Gap Middle School.
St. John’s has been able to recruit more students into the conversations, and Deming hopes to have larger events once pandemic restrictions are eased.
As the program expands, De Jesus, one of the first students to be involved, hopes more students will join in.
“I feel safer in a way,” she said. “Knowing that the police that are in the streets are hearing from my community makes me feel good. I have a personal relationship with them, so I know they’re a person instead of just a police officer.”