Hundreds of students enjoyed free pizza, ice cream and video games at the Town Common on Oct. 20 as part of the town’s first Early Release Hangout.
“It turned out to be a great event,” said Detective Sgt. Scott van Raalten, who spearheaded it on behalf of the HPD. “The rain held off just long enough to get it in. It appeared as though everybody had quite a great time, and our officers got to interact with students of all ages.”
The festivities included video game trailers provided by Ultimate Mobile Gaming, impromptu football and Frisbee games, and complimentary snacks and drinks. Event sponsors included Bill’s Pizzeria, Hop-Yo, Muffin House Cafe and Middlesex Savings Bank. The Hopkinton Public Library also hosted its second half-day gaming event of the school year, which attracted 161 patrons of various ages.
Equally important was the opportunity for students, officers and downtown merchants to connect in a relaxed setting. Over the past year, teens have been accused by some business owners of shoplifting and vandalizing property. When the situation came to a head in the spring, some residents called for a teen center to provide a place for young adults to socialize.
In response, HPD Chief Joseph Bennett brainstormed activities that would engage and entertain young people after school. Partnering with School Resource Officer Matthew Santoro, van Raalten got feedback from school administrators to see if the event was feasible and to determine the best location and activities.
“We ended up choosing the common because that’s where most of the kids were going to end up anyway,” van Raalten said. “We were really looking to incorporate the businesses downtown and also to alleviate the pressure on those businesses.”
At one point, he added, there were about 300 students at the Town Common. Some of them played with Frisbees and footballs donated by Middlesex Savings Bank.
Hosting the event on the Town Common “gave the students the opportunity to spread out” and prevented them from overwhelming businesses shortly after the dismissal time. It also encouraged foot traffic on Main Street throughout the afternoon.
“It’s not new for the police department to work with local businesses,” added van Raalten. “I opened it up to all the businesses, even though some of them aren’t really affected by the half-day.”
Van Raalten praised the sponsoring businesses for being “happy to jump on board and assist us” in the first event of its kind in town. He also collaborated with the library, recognizing the importance of its “giving teens an outlet for the few hours after school lets out.”
In addition to middle and high school students, several parents brought younger children to enjoy the day, van Raalten said, creating “a wide age range to the event.”
Many of the students told Santoro they really enjoyed the event.
“I’ve also spoken with the principals at the middle school and some of the elementary schools,” he said. “They’ve gotten really good reviews from the parents. A lot of the parents were very thankful that we were able to do that.”
While van Raalten said this type of event shouldn’t be expected on every early dismissal day, he encouraged local organizations to take the lead in running similar activities.
“We’re going to continue to have discussions to see what we can do in the future to collaborate,” he added. “It worked out well with the weather, with the students and with the business owners downtown. We’re happy everyone had a fun and safe day.”
The one lesson van Raalten said he learned was to anticipate high turnouts during good weather. Hop-Yo gave out 200 ice creams “in about 10 minutes,” he said. About 800 slices of pizza came from Bill’s, with the department ordering more pizza four times.
It is important to note that while the event was a success overall, there were three reports of incidents involving youths causing disturbances on Main Street reported to police during the event’s time frame. According to the police log, Sergeant Matthew McNeil responded to a complaint at 1:07 p.m, where “[t]he owner of a Main Street business reported six youths hanging out in the lobby and interfering with business, and he wanted them removed.” At 1:33 p.m., a manager of a Main Street store “reported out-of-control youths on his property and climbing the building.” McNeil responded to this complaint, in addition to a report at 1:42, where he “removed a group of kids causing a disturbance on Main Street.”
Library holds teen gaming series event
The library’s half-day teen gaming series was the brainchild of Jak Miller, the young adult librarian, according to Hopkinton Public Library director Nanci Hill. While they worked to expand programming for teens and tweens at the library during the last school year, Miller observed that the library’s traditional programming of movies, board games and crafting was “missing the mark” with this demographic.
“We noticed an increase of teens in the downtown area,” Miller added via an email, “which was causing some friction between business owners, residents and tweens/teens. This came to a head in the late spring of 2023.”
She decided to reach out to One Up Games, a Plainville-based gaming company, to create a summer program “that focused on in-person events to promote socialization, but also to cater to recreational needs of young people in town.” The summer series was a success, prompting a discussion about a series for early dismissal days.
The Hopkinton Public Library Foundation was enthusiastic about Miller’s proposed program series, funding it for all upcoming early release days this school year (with one exception the day before Thanksgiving).
While the September kickoff was “a hit” with 84 young children, tweens and teens enjoying traditional video game systems and virtual reality gaming systems, Miller said nearly twice that many came on Oct. 20.
“Teens had the opportunity to choose the games they wished to play, from single player Minecraft adventures to the latest Madden multiplayer game,” she continued. “Because all games are loaded onto the systems and are not connected to the internet, gaming is controlled in the sense that it is age-appropriate, and a safer alternative to internet-based gaming.”
The library gaming series will resume on Jan. 26, with subsequent events on March 15 and May 10.