A first encounter with law enforcement -- whether in a school, neighborhood, or social service setting -- can create a lasting impression on the way kids perceive law enforcement. A negative encounter might lead kids to mistrust officers, act out against them, and get into trouble later.
These are some of the reasons why St. Cloud Police Chief William Blair Anderson started the St. Cloud Youth Leadership Academy (SCYLA) in 2012. Modeled after the original Michigan Youth Leadership Academy, SCYLA forges connections between kids and officers in the greater St. Cloud metro. The program is also geared to steer teenagers, ages 13 to 16, who may be heading down the wrong path, into a more positive direction by teaching leadership skills and building confidence to be future leaders in the community.
The breakdown on building up community
SCYLA consists of a week-long, overnight summer camp, graduation ceremony, touch bases during the school year and reunions. The camp focuses on three pillars:respect, responsibility, and trust. These pillars are addressed in the classroom as well as through team-building activities.
“We try to take real-world issues that kids are facing and build classroom work around that,”said Adam Meierding, St. Cloud Police Lieutenant and SCYLA Lead. Some of these issues are the importance of healthy relationships, the dangers of social media, suicide awareness, stress and relaxation management, and the impact of positive self-esteem and self-worth. In addition, students have mentoring sessions with officers each night to discuss issues that they are dealing with at home. Throughout the week,students are also asked about plans after high school and encouraged to attend college.
SCYLA participants learn teamwork and communication skills through activities like a high-ropes course, challenge courses, and paintball. If the team doesn’t work together, they join together in push-ups, planks or other physical exercises to refocus. “We want them to stick together and build that bond, so when they face challenges after camp they can rely on one another,” Adam said.
Camp wraps up with a graduation ceremony at the St. Cloud Police Department with friends and family as well as the mayor of St. Cloud. Following graduation, students are provided contact information for the officers who participated in camp.Officers even stop by the schools to check in and say hello. SCYLA participants also can attend reunions until they are 18. “You only get out what you put in,”shares one SCYLA participant who attended camp twice. She said, “With SCYLA,it’s all about your effort and willingness to better yourself.”
A force for change
SCYLA’s development relies heavily on St. Cloud School District 742 school resource officers (SRO’s). SRO’s work in the schools, know the students, and encourage them to apply for the program. “What I am looking for are the kids who have a history and are considered troublemakers,” explains Sara Gangle, school resource officer at North Junior High and Madison Elementary. “We also look for kids who may not have a good support system at home or kids that don’t like or trust the police.”
The St.Cloud Police Department typically has ten officers as part of the cadre that plans, organizes, and participates with campers throughout camp week. “This definitely is one of the most rewarding things I do as an officer,” Adam says.“Officers apply early in the year to be a part of it.” He believes SCYLA is just as impactful on the officers that participate as it is on the kids. “We’reteaching the officers the importance of giving back to their community in a different manner than they do in their day-to-day duties.”
More than 150 kids have been through SCYLA. Participants tend to receive better grades in school, have better relationships with parents and teachers, become captains on their sports teams, graduate high school, and attend college. That’s when the program really shines. “There is no better feeling than when the kids come back and say, this is because of SCYLA,” Adam says. “That’s why we do this: to seethe kids succeed.”
For more information on SCYLA visit the city of St. Cloud's Website here