‘High fives’ from police too hot for a community

The police in Northampton, Mass., found out the hard way that even the best of intentions can be a problem.

They instituted “High Five Friday” in December. Once a week, officers would show up at one of the city’s elementary schools and give the kids “high fives” on their way into school.

Photos via Northampton Police Department

Judging by some letters and cards posted by the department on its Facebook page, kids seemed to like it fine.

Photo via Northampton Police Department Facebook page

But High Five Friday is over.

The department has now posted on its Facebook page that it’s ending the program over concern about its impact on children “who may have had negative experiences with the police.”

We are aware that there is an article circulating through social media related to NPD’s High Five Friday program. There are several components of the article that are false. We’re not going to address each of them. Instead, we wanted to take a moment to provide some facts about the program and how it started and stopped in Northampton.

The High Five Friday program was presented at the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) conference in San Diego last fall. The concept involves police officers welcoming kids to school and giving them high fives on Friday mornings before school begins.

It was presented as an inexpensive (aka free) way for police officers to positively engage with youth in their communities and to show support for local schools. We loved the idea! We reached out to Superintendent Provost and asked him if he would support the program and if he would communicate with the four Northampton elementary school principals to see if they were interested in having us visit once a month on a Friday.

Everyone was on board. Principals and teachers communicated the High Five Friday plan to staff, students, and families. We went to all of the elementary schools, exchanged high fives, and even snuck in some playground time with kids.

While we received a lot of support on social media, we also heard a few concerns about the program. Chief Kasper was invited to attend a school committee meeting to explain the program and to field questions.

During that meeting, a concern was raised that not all kids may feel comfortable with a police presence at the beginning of their school day. Others questioned the long-term impacts of the program and wondered if it was truly valuable. Shortly after the meeting, NPD was asked to pause the program, which we did.

Chief Kasper was then invited to attend a follow-up meeting with members of the public to discuss High Five Fridays. About 12-15 people attended the meeting. Concerns were shared that some kids might respond negatively to a group of uniformed officers at their school.

People were specifically concerned about kids of color, undocumented children, or any children who may have had negative experiences with the police. After the meeting, Chief Kasper and Superintendent Provost spoke and decided to stop the High Five Friday, but they remain committed to exploring alternative programs.

NPD really enjoyed greeting kids as they arrived at school. But, as much as we enjoyed the visits, we also took time to listen to the thoughts of some school committee members, school staff, and past and present parents/families.

For a large portion of our population this program may not seem controversial. However, we cannot overlook the fact that this program may be received differently by some members of our community. Most importantly, we want kids to arrive at school enthusiastic and ready to learn!

Luckily, we still accept high fives, low fives, and fist bumps. If you see any of us out there on the streets, feel free to ask for one!

“I could see how some families wouldn’t be comfortable with it,” parent Joy Ohm tells the Hampshire Gazette. “I don’t know what the process was but it seems like they should’ve consulted the community first.”

“I was fine with it,” her 10-year-old daughter said.

The story has set social media aflame after an unidentified blogger wrote a post with several fallacies and made-up quotes.

The school superintendent is trying to calm the reaction.

“I have had many conversations with parents and community members with diverse opinions about the program,” superintendent John Provost said. “I have found all of those conversations to be positive and productive. It dismays me that much of the online discussion has been so hurtful. Children learn by observing adult behavior.”