URBANA, Illinois — Shaniece Cooper’s weekly class at Urbana Middle School doesn’t teach math or history. It teaches positivity and community.
“We have a curriculum, but we’re at the point where they tell us what they want to learn,” she said.
Cooper is the Juvenile Engagement Coordinator at the University of Illinois Police Department, and she also coordinates the department’s involvement in the Police Athletics/Activities League (PAL). The goal of PAL is to bridge the gap between law enforcement and young members of the community.
Cooper has been visiting Urbana Middle School every Tuesday since September, when the PAL program began. It’s open to all sixth through eighth graders – currently, all the students enrolled in the program happen to be in seventh grade.
There’s a theme every month – February focused on Black History Month, and March has been all about women’s issues in recognition of Women’s History Month.
“We try to provide opportunities for bonding and talking about the real-life issues these young ladies are facing or might face in the future,” Cooper said.
March ended with a community service project selected by the students in the program. They said they wanted to beautify their school, so the final class of the month was devoted to picking up trash around the school grounds.
A little gross, the students said, but worth it.
“The girls had a great time,” Cooper said. “They complained a little, but they understood what the purpose was. I think that’s what’s great with our mentors, Miss Beverly and Miss MiYanna (volunteers who support the program), just helping these young girls realize that the school is your community, and we want to make sure it looks nice. Just build that positive awareness in our young ladies.”
Cooper’s mantra with the students is “endeavor to be better,” and she says that could have a different meaning for each student.
“We’ve seen growth,” Cooper said. “When we started, it was difficult to get the ladies talking and engaged. Now, they are engaged, they are holding each other accountable, and we’ve created a safe space where they can be open in speaking about things that are affecting them.”
U. of I. Police Chief Alice Cary was the catalyst for the department getting involved in PAL. She said she saw it as an opportunity to connect with the community.
“We’re here for the safety of the community, and a big part of that is reaching out to young people in the Champaign-Urbana community and making sure they are safe too,” Cary said. “PAL is an opportunity for them to feel cared for and supported by law enforcement, and hopefully this opens up those lines of communication if they are ever experiencing issues or need help with something.”
Cary added that Cooper is a perfect fit for the PAL program and her other responsibilities engaging with young people.
“She’s caring, she’s patient, and she’s a great mentor,” Cary said. “She’s also willing to speak up and set you on a better path if she notices that you might be straying. That balance makes a great fit for what she does.”
UIPD’s involvement in PAL was funded in 2022 and the beginning of 2023 through a grant from the National PAL association. That grant has since run out, and the department is seeking funding to continue the program in the future.
“We are looking for opportunities, either through grants or fundraising,” Cary said. “The PAL program is an important piece of our Community Outreach and Support Team activities, and we really want to continue this positive momentum.”
Cooper said she hopes it continues too.
“PAL is that extra boost,” Cooper said. “This is a wonderful group of young ladies, and they all want to return to the program next year. We definitely hope we are able to provide that opportunity.”