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Ropes course unveiled at Outward Bound school in Leakin Park

Outward Bound with BGE and Baltimore City Recreation and Parks unveils a ropes course in Leakin Park. (Kim Hairston/Baltimore Sun video)

As Ginger Mihalik looks out at a 40-foot-tall challenge course tucked in Leakin Park, she sees more than wood beams, ropes and a zipline.

She sees a tool for fostering better relationships between the community and Baltimore police during a time of unprecedented violence and intense distrust.

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City and park officials gathered Wednesday at the Baltimore Chesapeake Bay Outward Bound School for a ribbon-cutting ceremony to formally unveil the aerial challenge course, the first of its kind in the city.

The school hosts a weekly program that brings together city youth and police, and aims to change negative perceptions between the two groups.

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"Kids need to trust the cops and the cops need to trust the kids," said Mihalik, the school's executive director. "If you come out here any Thursday, you will see the Baltimore City Police Department and kids out here playing together on the ropes course, building relationships that would never have happened without this structure."

Less than a year from the Democratic primary election, State's Attorney Marilyn Mosby has invested much of her image as Baltimore's top prosecutor in youth and community engagement. She hopes her office's programs break down citizens' distrust of law enforcement — and help keep young people on the right track in a city where crime continues to spike.

Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. has made a three-year, $105,000 commitment toward supporting the Police Youth Challenge program. The Maryland Department of Natural Resources and city's Recreation and Parks department helped fund and create the recently completed ropes course.

The course will enable Outward Bound to triple its capacity as it works to build character through outdoor experiential education. Last year, it served nearly 6,000 city students.

"The new ropes course represents a lot of things for this park, for this community and for the kids that we serve," Mihalik said. "We know this is going to be a great asset for the city."

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The Police Youth Challenge program started in 2008, but was scaled up in recent years after the unrest touched off by the death of 25-year-old Freddie Gray, who suffered fatal injuries while in police custody.

More than 3,300 kids and cops have come through the program since it was expanded in January 2016.

The police department recently has come under fire after the release of two police body camera videos that defense attorneys say show officers planting drugs. Police Commissioner Kevin Davis has cautioned against drawing conclusions about the officers' actions in the videos, which are currently under investigation.

According to a 2017 impact report, 65 percent of youth left the day-long Police Youth Challenge program thinking police were trustworthy, compared to 44 percent who thought so before the program.

About half of officers surveyed said they had significant positive changes in their feeling that the relationship between kids and officers was getting better, the report states.

"When [officers] get here, they say, 'Oh, we're just doing this for the kids,'" said Jen Mayotte, Outward Bound's corporate and independent schools sale associate. "We say, 'OK, yeah, a little, but also for you.'"

City, police announce new training program for officers that includes sessions with Baltimore youth

Lt. Robert Brown, who has spent 17 years with the department, attended the ribbon-cutting. He hasn't been on the course yet, but said he plans to check it out. The department sends 24 officers every Thursday to participate in team-building activities, he said.

It's a good chance to work with young members of the community, Brown said.

"When they see that officers are real people, it makes a difference for the kids," he said.

Annmarie Stewart didn't do the challenge course Wednesday with city police — who come on Thursdays — but rather as part of her Western High School freshmen orientation program. She said she came into the day with a fear of heights and without knowing the names of her future classmates.

But within a few hours, she was going down a zipline and laughing with new friends.

"This is helping me," she said. "We're all learning to trust each other."

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