Sixteen-year-old Liam Vertressee was skeptical when selected to participate in a bridge-building event with N.J. State Troopers at his Newark high school on Monday.
“I didn’t know what to expect because there is typically not a lot of trust when it comes to law enforcement and communities of color,” said Vertressee, who is Black.
“But I knew I wanted to try,” the St. Benedict’s Prep junior said.
So around 6:30 a.m., Vertressee and 11 peers gathered in the school’s conference room to meet the troopers they would spend the next 10 hours with.
Pairing up, the troopers and the students formed teams that competed in timed challenges and bonded through exercises that forced them to rely on each other.
First, there was a bear crawl from the school’s second floor to the downstairs gymnasium, one partner following the other on hands and knees. Next, the teams faced off in rounds of tug-a-war, where the competitive nature of the troopers and teens was on full display. Later, it was on to the school’s pool, where the troopers and their student partners bound themselves together by the wrists with rope and then pushed a weight across the pool bottom, from one side to the other.
“With the events of the day, the hope is that students and officers will notice similarities between one another and gain a sense of trust,” said Chris Howe, a senior leader with Clinton-based Victory Road. The leadership development group specializes in team building and coordinates the exercises at St. Benedict’s.
St. Benedict’s Preparatory School, State Police and Victory Road established the Building Bridges program in 2021 following nationwide protests after a Minneapolis police officer murdered George Floyd months before.
Alexandra Craft, St. Benedict’s communications director, said the goal is to bridge the gap between kids of color and law enforcement by building trust and better understanding through team-building exercises.
St Benedict’s, a private Catholic school on Martin Luther King Boulevard near William Street, enrolls 966 ninth through 12th graders — 48% Black, 32% Hispanic, 11% white, and 9% Asian. The racial makeup is similar to Newark’s, where 48.2% of the residents are Black, 36.8% are Hispanic, and 9% are white, according to the U.S. Census.
The school hosts bridge-building events several times each school year, Craft said. Monday’s was the first this school year and the 10th since the program began. The Davis Polk law firm in Piscataway and those affiliated with the Summit-based nonprofit Other Fellow First Foundation, which helps distressed families, fund the program.
About 30 girls and 40 boys volunteer for each program, Craft said. Then, the school’s team leaders whittle the number down to 12.
This time around, sophomore Essence Hogue, 14, made the cut.
“Each time the officers come, the events of the day are challenging but very beneficial,” said Hogue, 14, who partnered with Det. Joseph Drew. “The troopers coming to spend the day with us means a lot, given the huge divide between the police and Black and brown people in the country.”
Drew, a St. Benedict’s alum, said the goal is simple.
“There is a fundamental lack of trust between officers and the public,” he said. “We are trying to gain a better understanding and develop trust amongst each other.”
Another state trooper, Daliana Berardi, was paired with junior Brianna Patterson, 16. Berardi said she always looks forward to the event.
“I really love how the event shows us in a different light to these kids,” Berardi said. “The students get to see our fun and competitive sides and that we are just like them.”
So far, St. Benedict’s is the only school participating in the program. But State Police hope to expand it to others.
“Fostering trust is the foundation of any effective relationship, and that is especially certain in building connections with young people, said Lt. Wesley Garland, a spokesman for the State Police. “These partnerships are a vital portion in the process of building meaningful, community-police relations.”
Edwin Leahy, St. Benedict’s headmaster, said he has high expectations each go-around.
“It’s powerful to see how this event gives the students a clearer vision of police officers,” he said. “The idea is to get young people and the troopers to better understand each other, and I think Building Bridges does that.”
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