Robert J. O’Shaughnessy
Captain CT State Police (ret.)
The sound of school bells will once again fill the air in the coming weeks as our children begin their new school year. Waterford native Nicole VanOverloop has a unique perspective on what we can do to keep those children safe. Nicole was an elementary school teacher before becoming a Waterford Police Officer for the last 11 years.
As one of the two Youth Officers in the Waterford Public School system for the past six years and the parent of two young children who are not yet of school age, she often finds herself thinking about what information she wants to be able to pass onto her kids as they grow older. In addition, she also wants parents to have the information they need to help keep their children safe and happy throughout the school year.
Nicole explains that—for parents of preschool age to around second grade—this is the time that you want your child to feel comfortable and safe approaching a police officer and not be scared or intimidated. If you find yourself out in public with a young child who is misbehaving—perhaps because they couldn’t get their favorite toy or are just overtired—resist the urge—as tempting as it may be—to point out a nearby police officer and say, “See that police officer? They will take you away if you don’t stop!”
Nicole completely understands that this outburst could be a great, quick fix at the time, but remember that if your child is ever lost, hurt, or afraid you will want them to come to the police—and not fear them. Many towns have great opportunities to meet police officers during the year, like safety fairs and other events. During these early years, let your kids get comfortable with police officers and learn about their uniform, and see that they are not scary and are here to help.
During these younger years also begin teaching your child about being aware of their surroundings and trusting their instincts. If something doesn’t feel right—like a stranger approaching them at the bus stop or on the way home from school—teach kids safe places to go and safe people they can trust in their lives. Safe havens may be a teacher, a family member, or maybe a close neighbor or friend. With so much technology at hand, many of us don’t remember telephone numbers anymore, but it is still important that our children do know important telephone numbers as well as their address, full name, and parents’ names. Young children do not usually have a smart phone to look this information up!
Nicole also encourages parents to create a “family password,” which is a word all the family members know. This way, when a stranger comes to the door or offers to give the child a ride, the child can ask if they know the password. If the person doesn’t know, then the child will know not to let that person in or to get into the car.
You may also want to reconsider sewing or writing “identifiers” such as your child’s name on their backpacks: nor should you put a full name and address in those small, see-through pockets or tags on bags and luggage. Why not? Do not give someone that has bad intentions an easy way to call your child by name—this may confuse your child into believing that this stranger is someone who is a friend of the family.
As a youth officer at the high school one of the most common cases Nicole sees is stolen property. Yes, many schools have video-surveillance cameras now and cellular telephones do have GPS systems. Yet it is still difficult for the police to track these items down once they are lost or stolen. Let your child know that even though this technology is nice and can be helpful at times, it can fail. To prevent thefts, teach children to take pride in their property, lock their items up at school when they are not going to be with them, and lock their vehicle so a favorite baseball glove doesn’t get stolen.
Nicole explains that if police could take all the temptations that can lead to harm to our kids away, they would. She accepts that these temptations are going to be there when her kids are teenagers. She hopes, as a parent, that she and her husband can instill in them that, as they grow and mature, they have to make life choices that can affect them for the rest of their lives. Are they going to stay away from drugs? Are they going to choose not to drink and drive? Are they going to wear their seatbelt? These are choices that our children are going to ultimately have to make for themselves. Whether as parents or police officers, we need to keep doing our part by educating our kids, continuing to have these conversations, and setting boundaries while encouraging them to grow, mature, and make good decisions.
A Youth Officer and a parent have parallel roles. Nicole finds herself caring for the children of Waterford in the same protective way she cares for her own children. She often wonders what they are up to when she sees them in passing when not at work. She feels for them when they have made a decision that leads to a visit from the Youth Officer and maybe a referral to Juvenile Court. She feels proud of them when she has observed them struggling over the years—and then start making great decisions and working hard to do better.
Finally, Nicole hopes some of these tips from her observations over the last six years as a Youth Officer, and almost 11 years as a Police Officer, will be helpful to students and their families.
And, parents: if your son or daughter runs into a hurdle, remember many of us here at the Waterford Police Department are parents ourselves—and we will be here to help.
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