Officers reach out to youths Mentor program gives students role models


When third-grader Rias Jones sits down at his desk at Swansfield Elementary School once a week and looks at Howard County Police Officer Luther M. Johnson III, he's reminded he has a chance.

Rias sees he can grow up to be a police officer or any other kind of successful person.

The officer is the 8-year-old's mentor. For one hour each week he stops chasing bad guys to visit Rias at his school on Cedar Lane.

Mr. Johnson helps Rias do his schoolwork, and they discuss things that are bothering the boy.

In October, Mr. Johnson and 11 other members of the Howard County Police Department's Minority Police Officers Association joined the school's mentorship program.

"We basically want to provide positive role models for black youths in Howard County," said Sgt. Kevin Burnett, the group's vice president. If the officers can influence the children, he said, maybe the children will avoid trouble in the future.

With the police department's OK, the officers spend an hour each week while on duty making the visits.

"I like working with kids," Officer Johnson said on a recent visit. "I'm just glad I can give my time."

Swansfield's 3-year-old mentorship program is designed to "give kids who are having some difficulty in certain areas . . . extra support, an extra boost, an extra shoulder to lean on," said John Hunter, the Mentorship Program's Coordinator. For students who don't necessarily need help, the mentors encourage them to continue doing well.

Originally the program was to establish mentors only for young black males. But it has expanded to include all races and girls, Mr. Hunter.

For the past six weeks, Officer Johnson, 30, has been getting to know quick-tempered Rias.

The boy has had disciplinary problems since his father moved to Indiana six years ago, said his mother, Vicki Werner. At home, Rias is surrounded by females -- his mother and two sisters.

"Rias is in great need of a male role model," Ms. Werner said. Last year her hyperactive son was suspended for misbehaving -- a problem she says is directly connected to his father's absence.

When Mr. Johnson and the handsome boy get together, they talk, joke, eat pizza and sometimes play video games at the officer's home. Rias notes that Officer Johnson isn't a very good player.

"I like him because he's nice," Rias said of his mentor. The boy adds that he might be a police officer one day.

On a recent Thursday, the two worked on Rias' project about an ... TC egg hunt. The young boy cut paper and the man assisted, seasoning the activity with conversation.

Officer Johnson said he's noticed some changes in Rias since their first meeting.

"He's warmed up to me a lot. In the beginning he was real quiet and shy," he said. Rias shares things with him sometimes that he doesn't tell his mother or teachers.

"I just want him to know that I'm there," Officer Johnson said. "He has my home number and can call me."

Ms. Werner said she knows the relationship has helped her son because he feels comfortable with his mentor.

Other students with mentors have changed, too. They've developed self-esteem and socialization skills, and have improved their work habits, Mr. Hunter said. Those without mentors are envious.

Students get a kick out of officers paying attention to them. They are proud to be seen "with this big strong proud man who's looked up to," he said. The students think: " 'Maybe I'll be something [successful when they grow up]. Maybe I'll be a police officer.' "

He added, "When they look at the officers. They are reminded that 'Life's all right.' They see, 'There I am in a few years. I seem to be doing all right.' "

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