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Back to Archives | Back to May 2005 Contents 

Community Programs - The Zone: Making a Difference

Larry G. Thoren, Chief of Police, Hastings, Nebraska

he social outreach committee of a church located across the street from the middle school became concerned about students loitering after school, smoking, fighting, and getting into other types of trouble. To resolve this concern, the outreach committee met with several students and discovered that there were no programs available for poor families. The kids said they had nothing to do and nowhere to go, so they just hung around the school.

The committee found no organizations interested in helping them solve the problem, but in May 1998 the Hastings Police Department made the youth of the community their top priority, and police administrators focused on solving the lack of after-school activities.

At first the police department partnered with the YWCA and the after-school program called the Zone began in the fall of 1998. The Zone originally opened at the YWCA three days a week, Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, and quickly outgrew the YWCA facility and had to move. The next site was the empty Adams County Annex building. The offices in that building had moved to a new courthouse and the building was currently empty. Although it was available at no cost, the building was not ideal for the Zone, as it was a former office building that had too many areas where students could secret themselves from adult supervision.

When the city bought a 36,000-square-foot former school, complete with a gymnasium and auditorium, for the police department, the Zone moved into the same building. The new police station opened in 2001.

Supervising the Program

During the first year, when the program was not housed at the police station, the DARE officers stopped in periodically. This was more sporadic than scheduled, depending upon calls for service, since the DARE officers worked from 8:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. and had patrol duties.

The chief of police would visit once or twice a week. During the first few visits, the students were skeptical of the chief. Observers could tell where the chief was because the students were in the opposite area. After a few weeks, things changed; observers could tell where the chief was because the students had become friendly and surrounded him. Once the barriers were broken down, the students became comfortable with the police officers.

These programs are not without problems. For example, midway through the spring program, while the Zone was housed in the county building, a couple of the students vandalized the building. They broke several panels of drywall and some of the lights and spray-painted other walls. To stay in the building, the police department had to commit to increase supervision and maintain a police presence. The offenders were charged with criminal complaints and expelled from the program, and all the students learned a valuable lesson about individual accountability and how the behavior of a couple of people could jeopardize their entire program.

At last the Zone opened at the new Hastings police station with a gala affair. A local limousine company donated the use of one of their limousines, and the students in the program were chauffeured to the Zone’s new home at the new police station. Most of the kids had never ridden in such a vehicle and the concern that the kids would never voluntarily go to the police station was quickly erased.


The Nebraska Crime Commission provides most of the funding for the Zone through a grant, and the students raise funds by having dinners, training dogs, and other events. The program also receives a grant from the Hastings Foundation and donations from church groups and businesses.


During the past five years the Hastings Police Department has made a positive impact on young lives with positive reinforcement. Many of the students had not received much attention for doing good things; most received attention only for doing negative things, such as skipping school, shoplifting, and being rude.

The initial activities centered on crafts, and one of the first projects involved building birdhouses. When the birdhouses were complete the students took a field trip and placed them in the community. They received many positive comments from the community. Those comments were infectious and the students wanted to do more good things.

Box City: The Zone works in partnership with many local organizations, and one of the first events was in conjunction with the Hunger and Homeless Awareness Week in November. The Zone students built a simulated homeless city out of appliance boxes. Thirty students braved the cool November weather in central Nebraska and camped out all night. The Salvation Army provided a pot of chili that was cooked over a campfire, and the kids stayed warm by huddling around a fire built in a 55-gallon barrel. Many of the students come from single parent homes and they said that they did not realize how lucky they are because they have a home or apartment and food to eat. In November 2005, participants in the Zone will build the program’s fifth annual “Box City.”

Zone Bucks: Zone students earn Zone Bucks for doing chores such as sweeping, picking up debris, and taking out the garbage. The students use Zone Bucks for purchasing items from a garage sale, for buying used computers, or for going on field trips or outings. Last year the program began awarding Zone Bucks for getting good grades. Through the use of Zone Bucks students learn responsibility and accountability for their behavior.

Time Zone: The Time Zone is a newsletter published by the students through cooperation with a volunteer from the Hastings Tribune. The students wrote their own articles, edited, and entered their own work into the computer. Zone members took great pride in their work and learned just how capable they are of putting together a newsletter.

Zone Dogs: Zone Dogs is a program that brings in volunteers to teach the students how to train dogs. The goal is to have the students train dogs from the animal shelter so that the animals will be more adoptable.

Once students learn with dogs that are already trained, they work with untrained shelter dogs. This provides the students with the discipline necessary to handle dogs and requires them to attend 10 classes. Students celebrate their graduation from Zone Dogs by staging a dog show for parents and teachers. The students also receive a graduation certificate for their success.

An organization called WAGS, Wonderful Animals Great Space, is raising funds to build a new animal shelter in the city. As a fundraising effort, WAGS partnered with the Zone to host a dinner theater. Before the dinner, students received instruction in the proper etiquette of meeting and greeting people. The students responded well to the training and did an excellent job as greeters. During the event, they welcomed guests and introduced themselves. They also introduced guests to a Zone dog and explained the Zone dog program.

The students have served as greeters at several other events. One of the events was a dog show called the Bow Wow Benefit, where four of the Zone students participated by showing four of the Zone dogs.
Talent Shows: At least twice a year, the students invite the community and their families to their talent show. The talent show again provides students with the opportunity to receive attention for doing positive things.

Imagination Is the Only Limitation: Developing activities for the Zone students requires determining what will interest the children and how to relate students’ interests to the goal of teaching responsibility and values. Some of the other activities that have worked for the Zone program include outings to professional hockey games and arena football games and overnight camping trips. A prerequisite to going on the outings is good behavior and earning enough Zone Bucks to qualify. To expose other youth to the Zone, dances are held where the students can bring two friends who are not members of the Zone. Cooking classes have even been part of the program.

Giving Back

The Zone students recognize that many in that community have given time and money to help their program, and the students seek opportunities to give back. The Zone students have provided helped charities unload donations, have participated in community cleanup campaigns, and have helped service clubs at various events.

The Reward

The Zone room can become vibrant with enthusiasm and excitement. Naturally, the behavior of the students is regulated by a set of rules. A violation of the rules results in reprimands, suspensions, and expulsions. This policy reinforces accountability for one’s actions. But most importantly the Zone is a place where troubled kids feel safe and can hang out, play games, do their homework, and interact with police officers while learning important life skills.
As the chief of police, I am very pleased with the results of the Zone. Students have shown an improvement in their behavior, have earned better grades, and have developed a positive relationship with the police. I describe the program’s results this way: now, students wave at the police using all of their fingers. The Zone is the only place where I have been called “awesome.”

Actual examples will demonstrate how the Zone has made a difference. The mother of one our students came to see me because of a domestic violence situation. During the conversation she told me that her daughter said, “I have to be good, or else Chief Thoren will be very disappointed in me.”

We have one student who could not seem to get along with anyone at school, at home, or anywhere else except at the Zone. Professionals assigned to his case inquired with the police chief and the Zone staff to determine why we are successful. The answer is simple: the student functioned well in a place where he is welcome, knows the rules, is accountable for his behavior and is expected to behave, and receives positive reinforcement.

Middle school counselors say there has been a tremendous improvement in behavior at school by the Zone students. The students are seeking positive recognition, avoiding trouble, and demonstrating that they have a better concept of themselves. The Zone is having a positive impact on many young people in the community. This positive impact occurs at a time in their lives when they are very vulnerable.

For more information, write to Chief Larry G. Thoren, Hastings Police Department, 317 South Burlington Avenue, Hastings, NE 68901; call himat 402-461-2380; send a fax to him at 402-461-2393; or send him an e-mail message at


From The Police Chief, vol. 72, no. 5, May 2005. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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