Shelton police officer bridging communication gap with city's youth

Shelton Police Officer John Staples directs traffic as school lets out at Perry Hill School, in Shelton, Conn. April 29, 2021.

Shelton Police Officer John Staples directs traffic as school lets out at Perry Hill School, in Shelton, Conn. April 29, 2021.

Ned Gerard / Hearst Connecticut Media

SHELTON — George Floyd’s death at the hands of Derek Chauvin sparked a year of rage and further deteriorated the public’s trust in law enforcement on a national level.

Police Officer John Staples, in his city of some 41,000 people, is working to rebuild that trust.

“We’re so far apart right now, police and the public,” Staples said. “The only way to overcome this and get back to any kind of normalcy is to communicate.”

Staples, known among the city’s youth as Officer Bubbles or Bubbz, is bringing his Small City Big Dreams initiative to the Shelton schools. He is already working with students at Perry Hill School and will soon be spending days at the high and intermediate schools.

“Everything right now is negative about law enforcement,” Staples, who has the dual role of crime prevention officer and school resource officer, said. “This program is so important. We need a way to connect with youth, to rebuild that trust. We all want the same thing - for our youth to stay safe, make better decisions, be a success in life. I feel I can help with that.”

Perry Hill fifth grade teacher Steve Giroux said students view Staples in a positive light.

“He is the perfect example for young children establishing an initial perception of a police officer,” Giroux added.

Perry Hill fifth grade teacher Courtney Dishian said Staples — whose personal motto is “Live with Honor, Serve with Pride” — is helping develop relationships within the community of trust, respect and safety.

“It helps our students understand the act of one does not define the police force as a whole,” Dishian said. “Building relationships is at the forefront of our teaching and now that extends to our community.”

Staples’s program is designed to build relationships and acquaint children and young adults with law enforcement officials while providing safety, crime prevention within the school and throughout the community. Staples also acts as a mentor to dozens of local youths.

“I appreciated the fact that he wanted to volunteer in our school because he is showing us that not all police are scary — some are amazing and here to help us,” Perry Hill School student Donyeliz Council said.

The curriculum for the program is slightly different for each school. At Perry Hill, Staples focuses on how to interact with a police officer, bullying, defusing tension and being aware of surroundings.

"I thought that Officer Staples' message was very important,” Perry Hill School student Akshita Upadhyay said, “and I like how he explained that there are four different types of bullies: cyber, physical, verbal and relational. He had said to make a doughnut with our hands and that was how many times we should tolerate bullying ... zero."

At the intermediate school, Staples tackles effective communication; how to interact with police and what you should do if you are involved in a police matter; bullying and cyber-bullying; impacts of vaping and tobacco products; and growth and opportunities.

Staples said his high school curriculum mirrors that of the intermediate school, with the additional focus on personal relationships. He said he teaches youth it is “OK” to agree to disagree. He also works with students on the importance of networking and negotiating.

"I think that Officer Staples did a great job talking to us about bullies and different types of bullies,” Council said. “I liked the fact that he was talking to us about bullying because kids tend to bully people because of their own personal problems.”

Council said Staples helped students see that sometimes bullies are not just mean kids; sometimes they just do not know what to do about their own problems.

Perry Hill Principal Lorraine Williams said Staples’ presence, although only once a week, has been immensely positive for students and staff.

“One student ran into Officer Staples in the community,” Williams said. “He told the class that he went right up to him and reminded him that he was a PHS student. I think that is great if students — and families — feel welcome to approach an officer outside of school.”

Shelton High Principal Kathy Riddle echoed Williams’ sentiments.

Shelton Police Officer John Staples, the department's school resource officer and crime prevention officer, with students at Shelton High. Staples is offering his Small City Big Dreams program to students at Perry Hill, Shelton Intermediate and Shelton High schools.

Shelton Police Officer John Staples, the department's school resource officer and crime prevention officer, with students at Shelton High. Staples is offering his Small City Big Dreams program to students at Perry Hill, Shelton Intermediate and Shelton High schools.

Shelton High School / Contributed photo

“Officer Staples serves as a positive role model for our students and is willing to work with families as well,” Riddle said. “Despite COVID, he has been able to connect with our students and encourage them to make positive life choices. I hope to see his program grow in future years."

Giroux said Staples is incredibly kind and charismatic, and the students take to him immediately.

Dishian agreed, specifically citing Staples’ ability to reach students on the difficult topic of bullying.

“Identifying the different types of bullies — verbal, physical, relational, cyber — has led students to understand that bullying is not just physical, it can be emotional,” Dishian said.

“In our follow-up classroom discussions, students have expressed that they, themselves, have changed their behavior when online with friends and have also spoken up to their friends who are portraying mean behavior,” Dishian said. “We have discussed that stopping mean behavior can end bullying before it starts.”

Staples said his goal is to make young people feel comfortable dealing with law enforcement, and if he can create a positive connection, the students will go home and talk to their parents or guardians about what they have learned.

“Right now, we’re not everyone’s favorite,” Staples said about police. “Through programs like this, we can talk, we can express ourselves, young people can get to know how to address an officer. Kids will get home safe, and officers can conduct their business in a safe and respectful way.”

Staples called the breakdown of the connection between public and law enforcement scary.

“People are looking at us through the same lens (as Chauven, the White officer convicted of second-degree murder, among other charges, in Floyd’s death), but not all officers are bad, not all kids are bad,” Staples said. “The only way the world can change is through communication. In order to get respect, you have to give respect. This is a time to come together and talk. I’m hoping these kids are echoing what I have taught them when they get home.”

brian.gioiele@hearstmediact.com