State police launch teen summer program at two area schools

By Tony E. Windsor

Sgt. Bernard Miller takes the whistle that hangs around his neck and signals to the group of teenage boys scattered across the floor of the Woodbridge Middle School gymnasium to "huddle up." The group is involved in an indoor game of flag football and the two teams are made up of area youth who share the wooden "gridiron" with members of the Delaware State Police.

This is the scene during one of two western Sussex County youth programs implemented by the Delaware State Police; another is held at Seaford High School. The teen outreach programs are the brainchild of Miller who heads up the state police Youth Aid division in Sussex County.

According to Cpl. 1 Juanita Huey-Long, a Sussex County Community Outreach Officer who is involved in the youth programs, Miller oversees School Resource Officers who are stationed at local schools to assist with student security. In an effort to utilize school space, namely the gymnasiums, the state police approached Seaford and Woodbridge school districts with the idea of a summer youth program.

"Having School Resource Officers at the schools helped to determine where we may want to hold the first programs," Huey-Long said. "The school were totally on board with the idea and this allowed us a great venue for providing a safe place for the youth to come and be active."

The two programs started in June and state police officers volunteered their time to help provide the mentor component of the largely recreational activities held each day Monday through Thursday. State Police also partnered with Boys & Girls Clubs of Delaware and the Seaford School District, both of which are sponsors in the annual USDA Summer Food Program. This partnership enabled the program to receive free breakfast and lunch for the daily program.

Huey-Long said the teenagers reported to the schools each morning and upon arrival were able to take part in whatever recreational or social activities they chose until after breakfast, when organized activities of such things as basketball, flag football and dodge ball took place.

"We initially hoped for about 50 teens at each program," she said. "We did not get that many, but we got a core group of kids that came every day and really enjoyed the opportunity to spend time with the officers.

This accomplished what we hoped to see happen where the kids had a safe place to come and be active, while having quality time with our officers."

The youth were treated to full day of fun activities, but it was also important that there be opportunity to have opportunities to provide prevention education. "At the end of the day, the teens gathered with officers to just sit and talk about issues that they are interested in," Huey-Long said. "During these discussions our police officers were able to share information about such topics as bullying, dealing with strangers; things that can help them be safe and educated about these serious social issues."

While the state police youth programs were successful in a mission to have officers reach out to young people as mentors, it was not without challenges. Huey-Long said this was the first year for the programs and a great deal was learned about how to proceed in the future. She said one of the biggest challenges was dealing with staffing the two programs.

During the summer the Delaware State Police have a variety of outreach programs active throughout the state and in Sussex County, including the Camp Barnes project and the Delaware State Fair. Having officers available, especially during the summer months is an area that will be strategized on for next year.

The staffing concern resulted in having to end the two programs earlier than anticipated. The goal was to operate the two programs through Aug 18. The programs had to be closed at the height of the State Fair, when a large contingency of officers were needed for security at that venue.

Huey-Long said not only will the state police work to overcome some of the staffing challenges, but plan to operate the teen programs next year and hopefully expand the program in the future.

"The teens that came to the program really enjoyed the time they spent with the officers and many of them told us that if they were not attending our program they would just be sitting around playing video games," she said.

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