By Katie Wildes

You can start training for the police force early.

The Lexington Police Department and Lylburn Downing Middle School have converged to create the Junior Lexington Police Academy.

Starting Sept. 1, 13 eighth-grade students took part on a six-week program in place of Physical Education classes.

Detective Robert Smith of the Lexington Police Department contacted Steve Eckstrom, the Lylburn Downing principal, to initiate the program.

Smith said the program is based on a national program called the Junior Police Academy. The goal was to educate middle school students not only on law enforcement topics, but also on good leadership and good citizenship.

Eighth-grade students interested in law enforcement could apply for the program, which teaches strategies and everyday tasks for force members.

This program was a way to help students get over possible fear of officers by offering a transparent view into their profession.

“We want to teach them the same thing we practice every day – topics that are of great importance to us,” Smith said. “With the middle school students, we are teaching police tactics and getting them involved. A lot of the things we cover are things and training we received when going through our basic police academy.”

Principal Eckstrom said the LPD succeeded at doing just that. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, the days of the program, Eckstrom said, he would see the participants wearing their Junior Police Academy t-shirts proudly.

“A few of them mentioned it got them even further interested in possibly pursuing a career in law enforcement. There was a significant amount of positivity,” Eckstrom said.

Lexington Police partnered with Lylburn Downing to teach students about leadership and citizenship

The program expanded past the classroom. Each session would begin with a lecture on the topic, but would most times become very hands-on.

Each lesson would have a different focus. Students learned techniques from officers in different agencies in the area.

Post Police from Virginia Military Institute came in to teach about SWAT techniques and others volunteered to teach about investigations, traffic policing, drug awareness, bike patrol, lethal and non-lethal weapons, and K-9 training.

The children were able to experience what most people wonder about. They handled equipment used by police, rode in police cars, were put in realistic scenarios and had to make decisions based on the information they were given. Overall, Eckstrom said the kids enjoyed the program.

The Lexington Police Department felt that enjoyment from both the parents and students.

“We got excellent feedback from the parents, which was huge,” Smith said. “It was really nice to hear how appreciative the parents were with the program. It was pretty regular for parents to say ‘Our kids come home from school and act excited and want to tell their parents what they did.’ It was good to not only work with the kids, but to get that kind of feedback.”

On Oct. 9, students at Lylburn Downing had a Junior Lexington Police Academy graduation celebration.

Smith said he hopes the program will be offered again every fall at Lylburn Downing. It could also be adapted to the university level, he said. The lectures could be more graphic and physical adventures could be more intense.

As of now, there aren’t specific programs for high school and college students. However, there is an opportunity for community members of all ages in the ride-along program where a citizen can accompany a police officer out during an afternoon or night and shadow what it is like to be in their shoes.

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