On the Thursday morning before students went on winter break, Officers Bill St. Pierre, Ryan Hardy and K9 Officer Steve Honer walked into Kennedy Elementary School.
Nothing bad had happened. There was no suspicious activity. The officers simply came to spend time with the elementary school students and faculty.
Since 2013, Butte Police have casually visited Kennedy and occasionally a few other elementary schools. In November 2018, officers were assigned to every Butte school as part of the law enforcement department’s revamp of their "adopt-a-cop" — or adopt-a-school — program.
According to Lieutenant John O’Brien, Butte Police started talking about the revamp last March. In November, roughly 15 officers signed up to routinely stop into a specific school while on or off duty to hang out or participate in school events. East Middle School and Butte High are not included in the program since they already have school resource officers.
“We want to develop positive relationships with the kids at the elementary schools, to show them we’re just people too and we’re there to help,” O’Brien said.
One of Butte’s school resource officers, Tim McMahon, helped get the program off the ground, O’Brien said. However, the idea for the citywide program stemmed from the positive work St. Pierre, Honer and Sergeant Russ Robertson put in at Kennedy, he said.
As St. Pierre, Hardy and Honer walked through the classrooms, they received overwhelmingly positive responses. Some young students ran up to greet them and others talked with the men while they worked at their desks. A couple of children said they wanted to be a police officer one day. One young girl drew a picture of a Christmas tree that she gave to St. Pierre as he was leaving her classroom.
“I am happy when the officers come to our classroom because when I’m good, they give me a badge,” David Elliott, a 7-year-old Kennedy student said.
But one little girl said she was scared of the police. She didn’t want to talk with the officers and ran away when they approached her. The children that have this sort of response to police presence is exactly why the officers started casually coming into the school in the first place, St. Pierre said.
“Some of these kids have seen their mom, dad or relatives arrested by us and they don’t understand why,” St. Pierre said. “Our presence here (school) helps us build relationships on a positive tone instead of the stigma surrounding police officers nationwide.”
For about eight years, St. Pierre has visited Kennedy. His wife is a third grade teacher there, and she is the one who originally encouraged him to come in and read to her students as a way to portray police in a positive light, he said. Honer and Robertson started stopping in a few years later, and the three have been visible at Kennedy ever since.
“The officers are phenomenal, we love having them at Kennedy. They show the kids a career path and help us all feel safe,” Principal Travis Johnson said. “They are part of the Kennedy community.”
Now, over a dozen officers including St. Pierre, Honer and Robertson visit their assigned schools whenever they can to play with students on the playground, do classroom visits and help hand out awards.
And for many officers, like both St. Pierre and Honer, the reach of the adopt-a-cop program extends outside of the school. The men said if a student sees them at Walmart, the mall or around town, they’ll come up and say hi.
“It’s really positive to see the aftermath of it (the program),” St. Pierre said. “The last thing we want to do is scare kids.”