HISD offers a variety of resources to support mental health. In 2021, the HISD Police Department and Social and Emotional Learning Department joined forces to create PAWS, a program designed to provide comfort and support in crisis situations.
Justice, a two-year-old bernedoodle, is HISD’s first emotional support canine and is certified in providing mental health relief and comfort to all students and staff. Her handler, Officer Steven Bennett, sat down with HISD Strategic Communications Specialist Travion Harmon for an exclusive interview to provide insight on how campuses can request support from PAWS.
Q: Thank you for joining me today, Officer Bennett! It’s always a pleasure to speak with you and see Justice. Let’s go ahead and start with learning a little bit about yourself. When did you officially join the HISD Police Department?
A: Well first, I want to say thank you for interviewing me and allowing me the chance to talk a little bit about myself, Justice, and the PAWS program. I’ve been with HISD almost five years and in law enforcement for 12 years. Ten of those 12 years have been in the school base capacity. I just love being around youth and being around the kids and mentoring them. I feel as a law enforcement officer, my time is best served helping the future.
Q: What does PAWS stand for, and what types of services are offered to students and staff?
A: PAWS, which stands for Police Animal Wellness Services, has been around for about two years now, and I have to tell you, it’s an amazing program! It feels good to visit campuses with Justice to offer support to students who are dealing with emotional support issues, mental health, depression, anxiety, trauma, etc. Justice can provide comfort and help kids decompress, cope, and have a better day.
Q: Speaking of which, for those who are not already familiar with our good friend Justice, could you tell us who she is?
A: That’s the million-dollar question! Justice, Justice, Justice! Everybody loves Justice, and so do I. Justice is a two-year-old bernedoodle who also happens to be hypoallergenic. We have a lot of students and staff who are dog lovers but apprehensive to touch her because they think they might become sick, so I have to reassure them she’s hypoallergenic and they won’t get sick. Safety is our biggest priority, so our department did a really good job conducting research to figure out what dog breed to get for this program because it requires us to interact with a lot of staff, faculty, parents and most importantly, our precious students. She is so unbelievably adorable, loving, well-mannered, and behaved. She’s a treat and a joy and I’m blessed to be her handler!
Q: Can you share a little about what led to the creation of the PAWS program?
A: Our Chief of Police, Pedro Lopez Jr., had a vision of bringing this program to the district to help support students who were dealing with mental health concerns. A lot of kids suppress them, or they don’t know how to talk about mental health, so I think it’s one of the most amazing moves our department has made. Mental health is a real epidemic in our country right now and even more of an epidemic in our schools. I’ve gotten lots of calls from administrators, social workers, and counselors in our schools to see if me and Justice are available to visit with a student who isn’t feeling well. You would think I would be used to it by now, but I am always amazed by how she provides comfort to our students within a matter of minutes to help them have a good day.
Q: How are campuses able to request PAWS support?
A: As of now, they can send me an email me to Steven.Bennett@Houstonisd.org. I’m good at responding quickly because I know it’s a need. We can get out to your campus and have a conversation and see how we can provide support to your campus.
Q: What can we expect next from the PAWS program?
A: We’re thinking about doing some summer programs. My command staff and I have been in discussion about Justice and I making comfort home visits to students who need our services during summer break. That’s really the main thing we’re working on right now as far as future add on services.
Learn more about HISD PAWS program and follow Justice on Twitter here.