It's Friday afternoon and a group of students and officers with the Memphis Police Department are gathered at Kirby High School, eating nachos and bantering back and forth.
After lunch, they begin a discussion on Hickory Hill crime statistics and constructive ways to respond to stress and anger.
These meetings happen every Friday during school hours.
The student volunteers are participants of the Memphis Youth Crime Watch. MYCW is part of Memphis Police Department’s Community Outreach Program, which facilitates a variety of youth programs throughout the year.
The program launched in March 2012. There are approximately 60 police officers in the C.O.P.
Students Tanesha Wilson and Nya Collins are members of the Kirby High MYCW.
“I like this program because it tells us stuff that's going on in the world,” said Wilson. “How to be better [individuals] and how to be safe in the community.”
“Kids these days don't really watch the news so [this program] gives us insight,” added Collins.
MYCW is ultimately aimed at reducing juvenile crime with preemptive work in the community.
Officers help youth consider consequences before impulsive actions and understand the circumstances and motivations that precipitate criminal acts. The discussions include personal safety, property crime, drug related crimes, and violent crime.
Principal Dr. Steevon Hunter said the program has impacted students' peer interactions.
“It's bringing awareness around the school because the students in this program have a great influence on their peers,” said Hunter. “As they help their peers, it helps the overall culture of the school and the community.”
Crime rates are a concern for Hickory Hill residents, but Hunter said the MYCW program has reduced criminal incidents at Kirby High School and possibly incidents in the surrounding neighborhood. Officer William Walker confirmed there have been no major incidences at Kirby High in over two months.
The students will put on a theater performance in December. It’s an original take on Tyler Perry's "Madea's Family Christmas.”
Helen Collins, a Kirby Hill parent and MPD's liaison for the school, said a lot of students with behavioral issues are very creative, they just need positive ways to redirect their behaviors.
In March 2020, the partners will pilot a new mentoring program. It's still in the planning stages.
Making A Connection
Walker often represents MPD at Kirby High, as does Patrolman Derrick Muhammad.
Patrolman Derrick Muhammad leads a discussion safe and healthy responses to stress and anger. (A.J. Dugger)
“We found that if children can relate to police officers, they're more inclined to talk to [us] and keep us in the loop of what's going on in the school community," said Walker.
Walker is young. He knows the latest slang and can relate to the teens better than many senior officers. He feels his relationship with many of the students is more older brother than police and citizen. It's a level of trust Muhammad and Walker wish all youth had with law enforcement.
The C.O.P. initiative also serves the community around Kirby High. It recently worked with nonprofit Feed The Needy to deliver Thanksgiving meals to those in need.
Gloria Bailey is a longtime Hickory Hill resident who has seen the C.O.P. in action several times. A retired accountant, Bailey is glad to see police and teens making an effort to work together.
“What [MPD is] doing is a real good thing,” she said. “There are plenty of smart and polite children around, but they all need guidance sometimes. They need mentors.”
Back at Home
Helen Collins is Nya Collin's mother. She's also an MPD ambassador and its liaison for Kirby High, as well as the founder of local nonprofit, Heart of Hickory Hill.
Collins is another regular presence at MYCW meetings and, like Walker, has a good relationship with the students.
“Some of our kids had attitudes. You couldn't tell them nothing,” said Collins of their first weeks together. “[Now,] I want to make sure they give the teachers the same respect they give me.”
Collins said Kirby's students have been involved with MYCW for four years. They met bi-monthly until this year when they began meeting weekly.
Collins said MYCW moved off-site in 2018 when students were displaced due to snake and rodent infestations. When the students returned, the program followed.
Collins said she was glad they were back in their original meeting spot. She called Kirby High a community school and important part of the fabric of Hickory Hill.