Newark, New Jersey — A high school in New Jersey is trying to bridge the gap between police and students of color who may distrust law enforcement.
In an effort to break down misconceptions, St. Benedict’s Preparatory School in Newark is pairing students with New Jersey State Police for a day of intense bonding. The day started at the crack of dawn. Students and troopers were paired up to compete in activities such as biking, rowing and climbing.
Sixteen-year-old Seth De Matas was paired with trooper Mike Guenther. “He’s a little bit smaller than me,” De Matas said of his first impression of Guenther. At 5 feet and 7 inches, Guenther is smaller, but can bench almost twice his partner’s weight.
De Matas said he doesn’t trust law enforcement “because of the recent stories and basically the influence that I’m growing up in, as dark-skinned male and tall. I’m not programmed to trust the police.”
Guenther said the troopers are trying to fix that. “We’re here to build this relationship with the community,” he said.
It’s a relationship headmaster Father Edwin Leahy wants to nourish to improve the fabric and future of their community.
“I hope that they talk,” he said. “Kids talk to kids in their neighborhood, and say, ‘You know what? They’re not what you think they are or what you may think they are.’ And I hope that the police begin to think that — think about some of these kids that they’ve encountered — who have a face and a name, when they have to deal with somebody in a difficult situation.”
The day of activities is an exhausting experience that hopefully helps strangers to see each other as partners.
Guenther, who has worked for the state police for a decade, called the experience one of the highlights of his career.
“It was awesome,” he said. “That’s the first time in a long time someone came to me in the community and gave me a hug. Immediately made me respect and love the students here and this school.”