BENTON HARBOR — Bennie Bowers of Benton Harbor is on a mission to help young people keep themselves safe.

The retired lieutenant from the Michigan State Police said that can be done by teaching youth to be respectful and cooperative when they encounter law enforcement officers.

That message is literally being drilled into about 20 soon-to-be eighth- and ninth-grade young men during the Benton Harbor Area Schools Character Education Leadership Academy at Arts & Communications Academy on Napier Avenue, which started Monday.

“All this military drill is for discipline, structure and it’s preparing them for graduation,” said Bowers, who was hired as the school district’s safety director and school compliance officer last fall.  

Bowers said the academy is modeled after the Michigan State Police Youth Leadership Academy he started in 1995 to teach leadership skills to high school students. After a week at the academy, which runs 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., he said there’s usually a few tears shed by proud parents as they watch their children march in during the graduation ceremony.

In this new academy, he said he’s focusing on middle school-aged youth instead of teens who are in high school.

“We had an impact on the older boys and older girls,” Bowers said. “... But after being in education for a few years, I can see where we can have a bigger impact on middle school-aged boys and girls.”

He said he still focuses on his motto – “Show me your friends and I’ll show you your future.”

“Make sure you’re making the right decision as far as friends,” he said. “Teach them early about character and being responsible and respectful and trustworthy.”

Running the academy with Bowers is retired MSP Trooper Maurice Burton.

“Do not let what people say to you keep you from your goals in life,” he told the youth as they marched behind the school Monday.

Burton encouraged the youth to march in unison.

“Just remember – march sound, one sound,” he said. “What did they say in ‘Drumline?’ ... One band, one sound.”

In addition, Bowers said young people need to be taught what their rights are and how to object when law enforcement officers are wrong. The students are watching parts of the Netflix original series “When They See Us,” which depicts five black teens from Harlem who were falsely accused of raping a female jogger in New York City’s Central Park.

He said the falsely accused teens were 14 and 15 years old when they were accused and then interrogated by police. Bowers and Burton talked to the students about what the police did wrong in the show. 

“In the movie, these young men were cooperative, and the police department was bad,” Bowers said.

However, he said people need to be careful how they object to a police officer so they keep themselves safe.

“You can’t determine if an officer is doing something wrong when it is happening,” he said. “Cooperate. Because if you don’t cooperate, and he’s doing something wrong, it could be worse for you. Cooperation with law enforcement is critical. It makes the encounter a lot safer.”

He said juveniles should ask for their parents, and adults should ask for their lawyers. 

“You have to trust in the system and cooperate and know that you did the right thing,” he said. 

Bowers said the show is part of the American history they are teaching the youth.

Helping Bowers and Burton is basketball standout Carlos Johnson, who will be a senior this fall at Benton Harbor High School.

Bowers said Johnson’s job is to put the youth through basketball drills later in the afternoon.

“We’ve got to give them some type of fun break,” he said.

He said Johnson is also a role model to the youth.

The program was paid for using federal funds earmarked for health and safety, said Tracy Spaulding, the district’s state and federal program director.

Contact: lwrege@TheHP.com, 932-0361, Twitter: @HPWrege