Twenty-three 4- and 5-year-olds sprinted out of their classrooms at Kidz World Preschool at 50 50th St. S., to meet Officer Lauren Pilkenton of the St. Petersburg Police Department for their biweekly POPs program on Friday, August 20.
Part of Enough is Enough – an initiative to tackle gun violence and racial inequities in St. Pete – fueled by St. Petersburg Councilmembers Deborah Figgs-Sanders and Lisa Wheeler-Bowman, the Preschool Officer Program works to build better relationships with the community’s youngest members.
“We need to change their perception of what so many of our young people are getting from television, from parents, from news articles, from news stations, always reporting something bad,” Figgs-Sanders said.
The idea, she explained, is to encourage regular, friendly interaction between community police officers and young children.
Thirteen schools are enrolled in the POPs program, which the city launched in July. To keep it fun for the kids, the program plays on the word “POP.” The officers and teachers have popsicles, blow bubbles or have popcorn. During her biweekly visit to Kidz World, Officer Pilkenton learned all of the kids’ names, blew bubbles, slid down the slide, played ball and hugged them during the Friday fun day.
A year ago Figgs-Sanders was scrolling Facebook and came across three daycares looking to introduce a program between police and preschoolers to foster love and trust. After brainstorming ideas, Figgs-Sanders pitched the POPs to St. Petersburg Police Chief Anthony Holloway.
Figgs-Sanders said that when the preschoolers grow up, she hopes these early, positive connections will resonate with them.
“We don’t focus on the negative, we elevate the positive,” Figgs-Sanders said, noting that the program does not focus on weapons or violence, but the protection police provide to the community.
“A lot of [parents] when they found out about it, they will let us know that their children may be standoffish or apprehensive about the officers because some of them will be upfront to let you know that [the kids have] had some really negative experiences with officers,” Arthurene Williams, the owner of Kidz World said.
According to WIlliams, one student enrolled in Kidz World has only had negative experiences with police. Her grandma warned the staff that she might react negatively during the POPs sessions. However, after the initial day, the little girl ran to Officer Pilkenton for a hug.
“She’s seeing her differently,” Williams said. “I feel that if [Pilkenton] had just come in, sat down, read a book, got up and left, that she would not have been able to see that side of her. It would not have been that fun, positive side.”
It’s a hopeful sign for the future, according to Williams.
“That’s why we feel this program is so important. Because they’ve had such a negative connotation of officers and now they’ll be able to experience the positivity and the fun with each visit, realizing that the officers are really good people and they are there to help, but if you do something wrong….there are consequences,” Williams said.