By Samantha VanHoef
The Meridian Times
Haslett High School junior Kailea Williams has always wanted to be a police officer. But for as long as she can remember, Williams has been told by classmates that she shouldn’t. Williams has been told she would get killed, shot in the face, or not be allowed because she is a girl. But on Wednesday nights, Williams gets a taste of the job she dreams of.
“People can tell you everything bad about it … but you just feel like you need to do (the job),” Williams said. “There is a lot of bad stuff, but this class helps me think about what exactly I want to do.”
Every Wednesday from 6:30-8:30 p.m., students from all over Meridian Township come to the Meridian Township Public Safety Building. Here, they attend the Meridian Township Police Youth Academy to learn more about what the police officers do and why they do it.
“The goal is to build a relationship with the youth in the community,” Lt. Greg Frenger said. “The students are some of our strongest supporters in the community as a result of the experience.”
Since its beginnings 10 years ago, the Youth Academy is a part of a community outreach effort by the Meridian Township Police Department. The program targets teenagers and uses an informal set of lessons developed by the police officers themselves throughout the seven-week course.
“Especially now, with all of the scrutiny and intensity of police-citizen relations, I think it’s very important especially for the kids that are coming up to see this,” Sgt. Ed Besonen said. “They’re the future and it’s good for them to more or less humanize us, as well as for them to understand a little more about why we do the things we do.”
Youth Academy session lessons include Use of Force and Crime Scene Investigation, to K-9 Operations and Traffic Enforcement. In addition to time in the classroom, students are given the opportunity for hands-on experience using law enforcement tools and observation of simulation. Demonstrations have included dusting surfaces for fingerprints and seeing several non-lethal weapons and training aids like PepperBalls and Tasers.
“With a positive response like the group tonight, it definitely makes me optimistic,” Besonen said. “It’s nice to see the interest that they had. It definitely makes me hopeful that the message will kind of get out there and we will have those better relations”
While the school curricula of Meridian Township include some public safety education — like the Drug Abuse Resistance Education program — that focus more on avoiding drugs, alcohol, tobacco, and other behaviors, according to .
For students like Anthony Petroff of East Lansing High School, the Youth Academy provides a way to learn beyond the standard D.A.R.E. experience.
“It’s an interesting way to learn more,” Petroff said. “I’ve definitely learned a lot about being a police officer and the job overall. It’s not easy. But it’s cool to hear about their real life experiences and to meet other people, too, who like to learn the same thing you do, so it’s fun and we learn a lot.”
Addison Voss of Mason High School agreed.
“I drive 20 minutes to the Academy every week,” Voss said. “It’s really for the experience. Even if it’s only once a week, it’s worth the drive.”
According to Frenger, many of the officers who teach the course have positive interactions with the students in the same way Besonen has. Frenger also hopes that ultimately, some of the students will choose law enforcement as a career.
Although the Youth Academy’s last session is April 1, for Williams, the education never stops.
“(People) can say you’re going to get shot and stuff, but it’s just what I want to do,” Williams said. “For all of the bad stuff, there can be just one thing that makes want to stay with it … and I keep learning new things.”