Chicago cops mentor teenage boys who lack male role models

Cordell Taylor was ready to speak. Cordell, 14, an incoming freshman at Chicago's Dunbar High School, recited his name for the 30 boys and seven police officers gathered in Stuart Hall, with plenty of enthusiasm for someone who had been awake since 6 a.m.

His less-alert neighbor was drooped over his desk until a policeman's stern voice brought the teenage boy's attention back to the meeting. Instead of the economics and linguistics classes usually taking place in Stuart classrooms, this was a meeting of the Chicago Youth Leadership Academy, a flagship program for local teenagers that the Chicago Police Department administers in collaboration with the University of Chicago and the New Communities Program in Woodlawn.

For one week, the teenage boys -all Chicago Public Schools students and residents of Woodlawn or neighboring South Side communities-experienced college life first-hand and got to know 3rd District police officers as mentors, not rivals.

Temporarily living in the Max Palevsky residence hall and eating their meals in Bartlett dining hall, the boys were challenged both physically and mentally with training exercises in the morning and leadership seminars in the afternoons. The activities made for an exhausting and an enriching week.

"Are you tired?" Lt. Bennie Bowers, a Michigan state police officer and the program's creator, bellowed at his students during a group reflection. "How you feel right now is how I felt several times in college. I was tired, 700 miles away from my home, away from my mom and dad, and just 17 years old. And I didn't go to class because anybody told me to get out of bed. Not like you the other day," he said pointing at the front row. "You had me banging on the door telling you to get up."

Bowers, who brought the academy to Chicago for the first time this summer, doesn't mind the mundane parts of his job, waking up the boys and reminding them to brush their teeth. In fact, he says the chance for Chicago police officers to support and bond with local youth outside their normal roles as law enforcers is exactly the point.

"The intimacy of the residential stay helps provide a bond that goes beyond the classroom setting," Bowers explained-something particularly important for the students, most of whom do not have fathers in their lives. "It allows us to say to them, 'we're adult men, professional men, and we're concerned about your well-being.' These boys are 13, 14, 16 years old, and half of them are the oldest man in their homes."

Besides chaperoning the students on campus, the police officers led day trips to the lakefront and to visit Michael Jackson's birth home and memorial in Gary, Ind. They met the CPD's mounted and canine units, and the officers also provided the boys with an opportunity to talk with Chicago Police Superintendent Jody Weis.

"I told their parents, for one week you don't have to worry about your kid being shot, shooting someone, or getting harmed," said Chicago Police Officer Charles O'Connor, the program's team leader. "And that's a real concern for those parents…some were actually crying because they were so happy for their child."

Deonte Lemons, 16, a junior at Dunbar, couldn't believe how quickly he grew close to the officers. "I thought I didn't like police officers," he said over a lunch of chicken nuggets and fruit in Bartlett dining hall. "But these guys have really influenced my life in this one week's time," says Lemons. The officers fostered those bonds by encouraging long discussions about school and home over meals and in the classrooms, and by sharing the struggles they faced growing up.

O'Connor knows it can seem unusual to see police officers eating lunch with teenagers who aren't getting in trouble. He recalls a woman and her young daughter walking by the line-up of boys on 56th Street earlier in the week. "She said: 'Those kids are bad, so they have to clean up out here.' And I said, 'that is not true.'"

Once O'Connor described the academy program to the residents passing by, they were enthusiastic. But he wishes the program were better recognized for its positive influence on the teens, who do not necessarily have other activities to keep them busy in the summer months.

He and Bowers are hoping that in coming years the CPD will be able to fund similar academies in other neighborhoods, for girls and boys.

The Chicago Youth Leadership Academy "gives the students something to aspire to; it shows them that there is another life besides gangs, drugs and violence [on the South Side]," said Rudy Nimocks, the University's Director of Community Partnerships.

"In that sense, it is the perfect opportunity for the University to reach out to and share its resources with Woodlawn."