In a unique form of community policing, students at Cleveland Junior Naval Academy High School in St. Louis talked Monday with two former juvenile offenders trying to change their lives after committing crimes.

“It’s about us building these relationships and us being able to talk,” said St. Louis Police Lt. Perri Johnson, commander of the juvenile division, to 15 Cleveland students. “And just have some real talk because the point of this is that we can learn from each other.”

For Johnson, real talk includes the way society often views young black men.

“People in the world today expect young black males to kill young black males,” Johnson told the students. “They don’t expect us to reach out and help each other out.”

The program at Cleveland Naval Academy led by Lt. Johnson is called Man Up, helping young men learn about formulas for success in life. Part of the program involved sending questions to juvenile offenders at the Hogan Street Youth Center in St. Louis. Among the juvenile offenders to respond to the questionnaire was Vernon Taylor.

“Vernon gave a quote that I thought was tremendous,” said Lt. Johnson. “He says ‘I’m thankful for my struggle because without it I wouldn’t have stumbled across my strength.’”

Vernon Taylor shared that he was often angry about an absentee father and unhappy with his life.

“I never expressed myself to my family,” said Taylor to the Cleveland students. “I left everything inside. All that stuff was adding up, adding up, so eventually I let it out by robbing people and stuff like that and it led me down the wrong path.”

Marquis Major, another juvenile offender recently released, expressed his determination to change his life.

“I don’t want to go back, so I’ve got to keep myself motivated,” Major told the students.

As commander of the juvenile division, Lt. Johnson wants to build trust with high school students and young offenders.

“There are police officers out there that care enough to come and show these young people that because you made one mistake, we’re not going to condemn you, we’re not going to judge you, and we’re not going to give up on you.”