I have always believed that my job as a Police Officer was about serving and protecting my community with compassion. Early in my career, I realized many people feel the police are heavy-handed enforcers of the law, devoid of empathy and reliability. And for many, many years, I was upset with these people. How can they paint us with such a broad brush?
When I began studying mindfulness, I started to understand how complex these relationships really were. I realized my defensive attitude only contributed to the breakdown of these relationships. I noticed that although I had compassion for people, I still saw them as different from me and unknowingly, created an “us and them.” Through my mindfulness practice, I was able to see the interconnectedness of all people, and protect and serve in a truly authentic way. I became more focused on listening, thinking and acting with “kindness and curiosity” (mindfulness as defined by Dr. Amy Saltzman).
Several years ago, I began a new assignment as a School Resource Officer. I wanted to offer more than police presence; I wanted to help children succeed, and build relationships within my community. However, I also knew I would have to work hard to repair relationships that had already been damaged. Many children had already experienced negative interactions with police through personal experiences, and others absorbed negative impressions of police through their family, friends and/or environment.
With this in mind, I leaped into my new role. The kids noticed my energy and passion, and appeared to be enjoying my presence in their school. I implemented the L.E.A.P. Program, which helped me further connect with students, staff members, teachers, community partners and parents. I felt like I was making a difference and truly helping people!
I learned a lot of lessons in my first year, one of which was that despite my energy and passion, I couldn’t fix everything. When we had an especially challenging student with no family support, the Assistant Principal would say, “Michelle, you have to remember that you can care about the child, and I can care, but if the family doesn’t care..the tripod will tip over.” I felt defeated, but decided that this was an area for me to lean into more with support as an SRO. I vowed to continue collaborating with families to support them to find ways to stabilize their tripod and empower themselves. In November I had my first tripod repair with a child named “delinquent” and a family named “hopeless.”
Michael was frequently in the Principal’s office. Michael was issued detention after detention and was frequently absent from school. People would say, “there is no hope unless he gets shipped off to military school.” I heard a voice inside my head say the same thing. This student was troubled, and I felt as though nothing I did was working. He was in my L.E.A.P. class, AND I had one-on-one meetings with him when he got into “trouble.” As hard as I tried to get through to Michael, he remained resistant.
After some time, I realized I was going about this wrong. I was only showing up when Michael was in trouble. I was trying to befriend him when he was angry and upset. When I looked inside myself, I realized this “befriending” was a bogus way of trying to correct the behavior, or solicit information about what he did wrong. Rightfully so, Michael didn’t trust me. He saw the blue uniform and badge and recalled all of the things his father said about police being dishonest. He saw me as an authority figure and one who would respond with a heavy hand when he stepped out of line. Most importantly, he saw me as I was; trying to be his friend in a way that was not completely genuine.
I decided to think about the goals I set for myself when I began my role as a School Resource Officer; to compassionately protect and serve by investigating issues with kindness and curiosity. I began using my own mindfulness techniques to understand that Michael was not behaving this way towards me because he wanted to make my life miserable (even though sometimes it felt this way). Instead, he was a child whose behavior needed investigating from a place of care and concern, and dare I say, love.
Through reflection, I began to notice Michael consistently lived in both the past and the future. He would say things like, “I knew you would say that,” or “What does it matter, I always screw up!” Michael had no idea how to live in the present moment. When I met with him, I would often be dwelling on the past and projecting to the future alongside him. Though my intentions were good, I wasn’t helping the situation. I realized I needed to connect with Michael in the present moment, and make an effort to engage with him when he wasn’t in trouble.
Ultimately, Michael and I bonded over our shared difficulties of living in the present (yes, that’s right, even after years of yoga and mindfulness practices, I still have to work every day on being present). I also decided to take an interest in Michael’s life, even though I thought the video games he adored weren’t good for his brain. I had to relate him, but mostly, I had to see him as a child who was in need of an adult that would connect with him in an honest and from-the-heart kind of way.
While Michael still has his behavioral moments, he has a way of rolling with it. He now knows that I won’t reject or depreciate him. I served him with a giant dose of “I’m here for you, unconditionally” and protected him, in the very best way I know how. Our relationship had a ripple effect, in that Michael now sees Police Officers in a different light. He once said, “You know…I used to think cops just wanted to be tough guys and arrest everyone.” We both rejoiced in knowing laughter.
Michelle Palladini is a Detective and School Resource Officer at the Norfolk Police Department in Norfolk, Massachusetts. Michelle has been working in the field of law enforcement since 2004. She graduated Magna Cum Laude from Stonehill College, with a Bachelor of Arts in Criminal Justice. Michelle believes in the benefits of community-based policing. She frequently offers programs within her community such as women's self-defense classes, public information meetings, safety seminars for senior citizens, and programs for special needs children. She also founded and facilitates her departments Community Crisis Intervention Team. Due to her desire to offer more to the children in her community and beyond, she developed the L.E.A.P. Program. L.E.A.P. offers a method for connecting the police, schools and parents as a pathway to children's success in four areas: happiness, health, safety and resilience. Michelle consistently trains School Resource Officers in the L.E.A.P method, offering ways to approach the position mindfully, and with a great deal of compassion for our young people who face so many challenges. Additionally, Michelle is a children's yoga and mindfulness teacher, trained through Little Flower Yoga. She teaches children and teenagers at the King Philip Middle School and Sacred Tree Yoga in Norfolk. Michelle is the wife of an incredibly supportive husband, and a Mommy to a six-year-old daughter, three amazing bonus children, and a Siberian Husky named Denali.
I recently had the pleasure of being a panelist for the East Harlem Scholars Academy charter network community in a discussion about how to cope in the face of the rash of conspicuous police brutality, terror attacks, not to mention the inflammatory and degrading remarks provoked by presidential campaigns, and innumerable other anxiety producing incidents that have flooded our cultural landscape. The audience was made up of EHSA teachers, administrators, parents, and community members and was held at St. Lucy’s Catholic Church in East Harlem. That a forum was this community’s response to the surging social and racial challenges of our times; that the EHSA's collective energy was focused on how to come together, to listen, and to connect with one another touched me profoundly.
The panel was composed of a cross-section of diverse perspectives and areas of relevant expertise: a child psychiatrist, a parent of three children in theEHSA schools, a middle school faculty member, a recent EHSA high school graduate and sophomore in college, a doctoral student studying the relationship between trauma and learning, and me, a specialist who works to support the wellbeing of our kids and school communities using the combined tools of yoga and mindfulness. The moderator made a few notable inquiries: 1) What were some of our raw emotional reactions to the back to back murders of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile ; 2) What is the appropriate age that parents and teachers should consider talking to children of color about possessing an undervalued and abused status in a society plagued by the complex issues of race, class, socio-economic access, education, poverty and a history of violence?; 3) What is the most important thing that we can do as educators to support our students and be allies during upsetting times of conflict within our society?; 4) In the face of all this madness, what brings you joy?
Each question offered panelists and members of the community an opportunity to reflect, and tap that tender emotional place in ourselves that had been affected by the recent violence. As we all listened to each other, the collective sighs and murmurs made clear the well of empathy felt for the diverse spectrum of emotional and intellectual responses to the questions. Many sought strategies to cope with this trauma that had affected us all. Yes, trauma. It is arguable that watching or listening to the murders of Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, Eric Garner, Mike Brown, and Trayvon Martin (and so many others) die and then be denied the basic human dignity of an acknowledgment of the wrongness of their deaths has put this entire nation, let alone our children, into a deeply traumatized state. To witness a serious injury to, or the death of, someone else is a traumatic event. And when experiencing such traumatic events repeatedly calls forth overwhelming feelings of terror, horror, or helplessness, it can’t help but be traumatizing to the national psyche on a large scale.
Our panel discussion asserted that trauma can be soothed when one's experience and emotions are heard. There was a felt sense that a real catharsis was silently and sometimes audibly occurring within the hearts and minds of those present in the church. This release came about through the act of empathetic communication, which creates space for the possibility of authentic sharing of innermost fears, feelings and concerns. It’s amazing the way even some of the toughest and most upsetting events, when shared in a safe place can yield deep healing. The more questions we answered as panelists, the more collaborative our responses became, as one panelist’s response dovetailed with another’s, or one echoed the phrasing or continued the thread of a previous panelist’s thoughts.
When the discussion ended, each person who approached me to thank me or introduce his or herself mentioned that she wished we had more opportunities to participate in forums like this one. It was simultaneously an obvious and remarkable request. We live in community, we work in community, we transition from place to place in community, and yet we rarely make time to simply connect in real and meaningful ways. We often wait until a crisis has occurred to pool our collective resources of wisdom and empower ourselves by coming together.
While this panel asked the room of mostly adults to reflect on “What Can We Do When the World Feels Like It's Falling Apart?”, the parallels between the challenges and responses shared and what happens in the many classrooms I’ve taught in was uncanny. I was reminded that being a teacher affords me the critical opportunity to create a little microcosm of the world where my students and I can learn to cherish the full spectrum of what it means to be thinking, feeling, active, complicated, and creative human beings. This full spectrum includes EVERYTHING that can occur while being human in relationship with others: from the uglier or more unpleasant conflicts and upsets that arise in the classroom community, to the simple routines and procedures that ritualize being together, and finally when the learning and application of skills and new knowledge are integrated by my students in a seamless and thrillingly empowering way. As a teacher to both adults and youth, I have learned to obsess less on the content I have taught or teach, and more on what kind of human being I am supporting my students to become. ELA, math, STEM, SEL, yoga and mindfulness are vitally important content areas. However they are all merely the tools that I may offer my students to help them access themselves, their power, their fullest potential, their self-realization.
I hope to remember that a singularly powerful remedy when things fall apart is to create safe spaces to come together and share how we feel. I hope we continue as we did during the forum to practice seeing each other. I hope we listen with kindness and curiosity. I hope we trust that we will be heard and valued. I hope that we repair. I hope that we heal. I hope that we learn from each other. I hope we collaborate and create new possibilities for ourselves and our world. In doing all this, I hope we come to know ourselves better and become less fearful about putting ourselves out into the world in the most fully expressed way. I hope that then we can take each step in our individual journeys from a less bound and more resilient place.