Clarksdale High students from left) Aveyunna Ranson, Marcus Harris, and Javin Twilley graduated from the Bridging the Gap program. Credit: Aallyah Wright, Mississippi Today

CLARKSDALE – A five-day program held here last month is the first time a new Department of Justice outreach program to students was presented in Mississippi.

Brian Carr, FBI Public Affairs Specialist, said the agency hopes the Bridging the Gap program helps open a line of communication between teenagers and law enforcement.

“I learned what the cops go through in everyday life,” said Aveyunna Ranson, 16, a program participant and a junior at Clarksdale High School. “I think the program will better the community because it’ll better the communication between the civilians and the cops.”

The national program’s presence here was an outgrowth of community efforts to heal in the wake of the killing two years ago of local resident Myrtle Messenger by a gang member in retaliation against her grandson, said Mayor Bill Luckett. The local effort was named Operation Messenger to honor her, Luckett said.

Clarksdale Police Chief William Read said Messenger’s killing illustrated a need for his department to improve the way it interacts with the community.

Luckett said he started working closely with the U.S. Attorney’s office of the Northern District of Mississippi. This led to conversations with the FBI Drug Enforcement Administration, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives, Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics, and the Clarksdale Police Department to initially put together a project that would “repurpose drug sellers to redirect their lives.”

The federal Building the Gap program melded those desires and reached 130 students from Clarksdale High School and W.A Higgins Middle School in the Clarksdale Municipal School District during the week of March 20-24.

Students were able to switch roles with police officers and see how it felt to be an officer. On the flip side, police officers stepped into the shoes of the students.

“The main goal here is so that not only can teenagers understand law enforcement but law enforcement can understand teenagers,” said Carr. “So the way that we did that was put the kids through scenarios that law enforcement go through every day.”

Added Luckett: “It demonstrated how difficult it is to be an officer and sometimes how difficult it is to be a student or teenager in a police investigation situation or traffic stop or something like that.”

Javin Twilley Credit: Aallyah Wright, Mississippi Today

Javin Twilley, 16, a sophomore at Clarksdale High, said of the program: “They showed us that there’s always a reaction to everything that they do.”

One goal of the program, Luckett said, was for students to not fear or hate law enforcement, but build relationships with them.

After seeing media coverage of law enforcement in the country, Read said some things are done wrong and other things are blown out of context, both contributing to creating a fear of law enforcement in youth.

“There are young children out there that actually fear the police because of the things they’ve seen on the media. Don’t judge the whole book by its cover,” said Read.

Read said locally the department is trying to show the students there are good police officers in the world although mistakes happen.

“We may wear the uniform but we’re still human beings,” said Read.

Read said through mentoring and interacting with the students during the Bridging the Gap program, his officers became closer with the students and he hopes to continue this work.

“My main goal is to make sure this isn’t the end but the beginning,” said Read.

“We talk about bringing the program here and benefiting the kids, but I can assure you the officers that have been involved benefited as much or more than the kids,” said Christopher Freeze, Special Agent in Charge of the FBI’s Jackson Division.

Marcus Harris Credit: Aallyah Wright, Mississippi Today

Marcus Harris, 18, a junior at Clarksdale High, said he learned through the program that “even though you may have a hard day at work or at school, you should be respectful of the cops.”

Each day about 30 students participated in the program, but their schedules were adjusted so that they only missed a half of day of instruction time. Every day, different sets of students would participate in the program.

Luckett said the impact from this program is to allow police to do their jobs while showing respect to the citizens as well.

“Ultimately, the more people we reach, we’ll have a better community,” he said.

Freeze said from his understanding the program started in Mobile, Ala. in partnership with the U.S. attorney’s office, the FBI, and local police there. He said he heard about the program through personal relationships with the U.S. Attorney’s office of the Northern District of Mississippi, and the Clarksdale Police Department wanted to give it a try.

“After hearing all of the logistics of the program, we were very excited to have them come to Clarksdale High School,” said Dr. Manika Kemp, principal of Clarksdale High School.

Kemp said they chose students who would be honest in their dialogue with law enforcement, benefit from their reactions to law enforcement and give feedback about the quality of the program. Kemp said she talked to the selected students individually and informed their parents about the program.

Dennis Dupree, Superintendent of the Clarksdale Municipal School District, said the program was no cost to the district and he would love to bring in more programs such as Bridging the Gap.

Freeze said there are other school districts that could benefit from this program and they would like to go to other districts if the districts are willing.

On the last day of the program, the Jackson Field Office hosted a media advisory and graduation celebration for the students who completed the program at the high school’s baseball stadium. Students received certificates and free barbecue from The Clarksdale Police Department.

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Aallyah Wright is a native of Clarksdale, and was a Mississippi Delta reporter covering education and local government. She was also a weekly news co-host on WROX Radio (97.5 FM) and collaborator with StoryWorks/Reveal Labs from the Center for Investigative Reporting. Aallyah has a bachelor’s in journalism with minors in communications and theater from Delta State University. She is a 2018 Educating Children in Mississippi Fellow at the Hechinger Report, and co-founder of the Mississippi Delta Public Newsroom.