ST. LOUIS • A uniformed guard greets students as they enter Gateway Middle School just northwest of downtown.
Students pass a “Black Lives Matter” poster in the hallway leading to the library, where, on Wednesday, about a half dozen uniformed city police officers met with about 20 of them.
For about an hour, they stared at each other, talked a little trash and tried to outmaneuver one another — over the checkered patterns of portable chess boards.
The scene will play out at least once a week for the rest of the school year at Gateway as well as at Kennard and Stix elementary schools as part of the newly launched CHESS Cops program, or Cops Helping Enhance Student Skills. The plan is to recruit more officers to serve as chess instructors to work with students at the public schools in the districts they patrol, according to organizers with the Chess Club and Scholastic Center.
The group already has instructors at 29 St. Louis public schools, but training officers to become instructors offers an added bonus to teaching children the strategy, focus and patience that come with the game, said Rex Sinquefield, founder of the Chess Club.
“It’s a great way for them to see police officers in a different setting where there is no antagonism and where the stress is over the chess board,” Sinquefield said, as he watched the students challenge the officers.
“Every decision has a consequence. Little moves now can mean a lot down the road, just like how the little things you do now in life can turn out to be important later in life.”
Sinquefield is one of the biggest supporters of the nonprofit St. Louis Police Foundation. The nonprofit tapped Lt. Perri Johnson, commander of the city police department’s juvenile division, who then asked officers to volunteer.
So far, eight officers have been through two days of training to become instructors.
“There are a lot of frustrated officers out there right now, frustrated at the negative actions of other officers, so they’re seeking opportunities to show kids, ‘I can dispel what you’re seeing every week, that’s not me, that’s not how I am,’” Johnson said. “It’s giving the officers a platform to rewrite the story.”
Pat Burton, the chess club’s faculty sponsor at Gateway, said she had seen how the game can transform students.
“Through chess, I’ve seen better test scores and academics because you have to concentrate and remember information,” she said. “And this is a nice community connection because so often middle school is where preconceived notions about police begin. Instead of, ‘Oh, that’s the man with a gun,’ they’ll think, ‘That’s the guy I played chess with.’”
Christian Watkins, 14, watched as his fellow chess enthusiast and Ragin’ Rook team member John Selvy, 14, played Lt. John Green. Usually, Green spends his days overseeing the city’s homicide division. Those joining him included Detective Matthew Manley, a member of the department’s Special Operations Unit, and Officer Nate McCraw of the Child Abuse division.
“People usually describe police officers as bad and that they hurt people, so it’s good to connect with the people that help us,” Christian said.
Chief Sam Dotson said the chess program rounded out his department’s youth-oriented community policing programs, which include the Police Athletic League.
“This gives them a chance to sit down at a table and look at a cop in the eyes and understand and communicate. What better way to make inroads?” Dotson said.
Green said he didn’t wear his uniform to his first session with students Tuesday.
“They didn’t know I was a cop, and when I told them I was, a few took some deep breaths,” said Green, who said he was worried he would lose the connection with the students.
“But I was shocked, I gave a quiz at the end, and they did great,” Green said.