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WELLSTON — When cops get that cafeteria pizza craving, they can just pop into any Normandy school.

All seven schools in the Normandy Schools Collaborative are welcoming local police officers for free breakfast and lunch with students through a new ‘Brunch Patrol’ program.

“Usually when police and students interact, it’s negative,” said Steve Harmon, the school district’s chief of security. “It’s breaking down barriers so when these kids go home and they see these officers, they’ll see them differently.”

School officials hosted a kickoff event Thursday at Normandy High School for officers to sample selections from the Viking Grill cafeteria with student leaders. Harmon sent invitations to the chiefs of nine police departments covering the 24 municipalities where Normandy students live, plus the University of Missouri-St. Louis police.

The students and officers acknowledged ongoing tensions between African American residents and police, stemming in part from problems in Normandy schools. Harmon was hired in 2018 to replace former Normandy school security director Fred Abernathy, who was arrested in April 2018 for allegedly using a stun gun on a student at Normandy’s middle school. A Post-Dispatch investigation found that other Normandy school security officers had used force on students and carried unauthorized weapons.

The district has seen improvements, including a drop in the number of out-of-school suspensions to 584 last year from 713 in 2014.

Some of the students said they hoped meeting more officers through the Brunch Patrol would help build trust. Tommie Pollard, 17, told two St. Louis County police officers at the event that he was recently pulled over and he doesn’t know why. The officer handcuffed the student and searched his car before letting him go, Tommie said.

Tommie said he didn’t ask any questions because, “I don’t like arguing with police.”

Another student told a more positive story about a recent interaction with an officer. Genesis Gregory, 17, said someone had broken into her mom’s car two weeks ago and stolen the battery. North County Police Cooperative officer Kirk Muehlebach responded to the call, then left to buy a new battery and came back to install it, Genesis said.

The story came as a surprise to the department’s Chief John Buchannan, who said Muehlebach didn’t tell anyone at the department about the incident.

“Our department lives and breathes community engagement,” Buchannan said. “If we can build a better relationship with the kids, that’s something we want and encourage.”

Normandy police chief Frank Mininni said he has always encouraged officers to stop in for lunch or recess at local schools, and now that the meals are free, he expects high participation.

“You’re there to eat, share stories, tell jokes, build a relationship,” Mininni said. “We’re all on the same team. We all want to knock crime down and have a great quality of life.”

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