The Gaithersburg Police Department began conducting a “Junior Police Academy” Feb. 6 at Gaithersburg Middle School.
The six-week program, which meets on Wednesdays for an hour, is designed to introduce sixth- and seventh-graders to police work and help them make good life choices.
“Kids that age are starting to figure out who they are, who they want to identify with, who they think is important and not important,” said Kristy Keteltas, a social worker in the school mental health program at Family Services Inc. in Gaithersburg. “It gives them a model to think about making better decisions. A lot of kids think police officers are cool, and we want them to stay on the right side of the law.”
A similar program could be introduced in Kentlands-area schools if residents show enough interest, Gaithersburg Police Officer Dan Lane said.
The program is a partnership between the Police Department and Linkages to Learning, a school-based collaboration between the Montgomery County Department of Health and Human Services, Montgomery County public schools, and nonprofit organizations to provide accessible services to at-risk children and their families.
Keteltas, who worked for Linkages to Learning when the Junior Police Academy started at Forest Oak Middle School three years ago and still has a hand in the program, said organizers are looking for kids who might be receptive and “not connected yet” with another social modeling program or after-school activity.
Lane said 12 to 16 Junior Police Academy participants receive a general introduction to law enforcement, including how to become a police officer, what the real policy academy requires, and different career paths available in law enforcement. Classes also address problem solving, physical fitness, alcohol and drugs, and what K-9 officers do.
At the end of the program, the police chief passes out certificates and speaks to the students about making the most of their lives.
On Jan. 30, the Police Department concluded a similar program called the Teen Police Academy, held in partnership with the Olde Towne Youth Center in Gaithersburg. Lane said this program is geared more toward teens’ concerns like shoplifting and goes into more depth about criminal investigations, the juvenile detention process, etc.
By all accounts, Lane and Keteltas said, most students have benefitted greatly from the two programs. But police officers benefit, too.
“I think the officers are excited about it because they really do see a change in the kids,” Keteltas said. “They go from being sort of apathetic to being very interested and proud of what they accomplish. A lot of them go from getting in trouble to wanting to please the officers and make them proud. It has been very rewarding to the officers to see those kids change.”
Lane agreed and said the program has been such a success that he would like to see it expand to other Montgomery County schools. However, both he and Keteltas said someone would have to take the initiative to make that happen.
“The program could move independently if it had a host,” Keteltas said. “If a community nonprofit wanted to partner with the police and take it into the Kentlands schools, that would be very feasible.”