High schoolers flock to criminal justice classes

High schoolers flock to criminal justice classes

May 12th, 2009 by Todd South in News

Methamphetamine labs, blood splatters, murder trials, traffic stops and domestic violence are all in a day's work for your average ... high school student?

Area high schools that offer criminal justice or public safety courses begin with the basics of law, the U.S. Constitution and police procedure but soon dip students into hands-on labs that offer as close to the real deal of justice work as a teenager can get.

Law enforcement leaders hope the classes could lead students to become police officers or at least educate them in the duties of the criminal justice system.

Chattanooga police Deputy Chief Mark Rawlston said most programs are too new for his department to have accepted any students as officers, because police officers must be 21 before they are hired. But he said the program and others like it already have proven their worth, at least in Chattanooga.

"It not only gives them a view of what we do, it also gives them a view of other people in the justice system," Chief Rawlston said.

All facets of law enforcement-related work from police and courts to safety and emergency services will benefit when students are exposed to them in high school, he said.

Perry Fouts, a former full-time detective with the Walker County, Ga., Sheriff's Office, now teaches three levels of criminal justice courses to students at LaFayette High School.

During a class last week, members of the Lookout Mountain Judicial Task Force set up the ingredients of a mock meth lab in the classroom and students wore plastic suits complete with air tanks and masks to move, identify and tag all the meth-making materials.

As students plodded along, sweating in suits despite the air-conditioned room, task force officers explained the dangers of what they were handling had they been working at an actual crime scene.

Rhonda Kelley, a junior at the school, said she took the classes to see if she wanted to work in criminal justice. She does, but maybe not while wearing a plastic suit, she said.

"Now, I definitely don't want to work on the drug task force," said the teen.

Sgt. Pedro Bacon is one of two criminal justice teachers at Brainerd High School, where the program is one of the vocational career paths offered to students.

"Students are pre-certified before they leave school," the former school resource officer and still-active Chattanooga police officer said.

On Monday, his students learned how to lift fingerprints off potato chip bags and read different print patterns in the samples they took.

That class and others have been a way to bring a childhood fascination to life for Brainerd High junior Garrison Baker.

"I watch a lot of 'Law and Order,'" the 17-year-old said. "It's just interesting to me to see when criminals do things and how (police) figure it out."

His desire after college is to become a detective, he said.

Evelyn Anderson built the program at Central High School in Harrison from a combination of aspects of criminal and civil law. Her students have taken field trips to courtrooms, state prisons, execution chambers and other justice-related venues.

She keeps topics current. Last week, the class studied the legal consequences of "sexting," a recent phenomenon in which some cell phone users take sexually explicit photos of themselves or others and send them to other phones.

"Out of 29 kids, 27 agreed that it shouldn't occur," she said.

Some of the classwork goes beyond what's shown on television or even in the courtroom. At Heritage High School in Ringgold, Ga., students run through a mock domestic violence scenario in a school room set up like a home.

Teacher Chance Nix said he'll have students work different roles, sometimes as the couple in a domestic dispute, sometimes as the police officer or a neighbor. By walking through the roles, students get a real feel for what's going on in any crime-related situation and see how the legal system touches their lives in many ways almost daily, he said.