When the school year ended last month, most Nutley students couldn’t wait to jump right into summer vacation. However, 59 local youngsters couldn’t wait to go back to school — John H. Walker Middle School, to be precise — where they spent another week, from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. daily, receiving a different type of education.
From June 27 through July 1, the 59 “recruits” — students who had just completed 5th through 8th grades — participated in the Nutley PD’s Junior Police Academy. There were lessons in physical fitness and self-defense and crime scene investigation. There were also life lessons in how the wrong choices can change the course of one’s future. And how discipline and order and respect and courtesy and teamwork can do the same — in the better direction.
Thanks to funding from the Nutley Municipal Alliance, the entire course — which ended with an outing to the USS Intrepid in New York — cost the participants not one penny.
“The reason we try to keep it free is that it truly is open to anyone and everyone when there is no cost,” said NPD Det. Sgt. Mike Padilla.
Other Nutley officers also volunteer their time, doing instruction or helping out for a day or two, but Padilla is in overall charge of the academy. Nutley High School students also volunteer as “squad leaders.” This year, there were 10 teens who gave of their time. Citing their dedication and enthusiasm, Padilla noted, “By the end of the week, they could probably run the program themselves.”
The goal of the academy is not only to offer an insight into police work, but also to help promote self-confidence and an understanding “of why it is important to respect others,” Padilla said. “On the first day,” he continued, most of the recruits “are focused on themselves. But by the last day, you see them all looking out for each other.”
That first day starts with an orientation and an explanation of what will be expected of the recruits — such as lining up in formation the instant that order is given. And every day begins with the salute to the flag.
(For the sake of those kids who might discount the importance of following rules and orders, Padilla shared a personal story. “When I was in the Essex County Police Academy, I had to guard a rock for a week,” he recalled. “I had to carry it with me at all times, and at lunch, I had to stand at parade rest with the rock between my feet.” The reason for the discipline? One day, he had forgotten to wear his name tag.)
In the afternoon, five members of the N.J. National Guard conducted “team-building” exercises for the kids, in one of which individual recruits maneuvered through an obstacle course — while blindfolded. Successful completion depended upon verbal guidance from their team members. This, obviously, also involved trust-building. And communication.
(Speaking of which: While the youngsters are allowed to bring their cell phones to the school, the devices must stay in the backpacks the academy provides. “They spend the week without texting or going on social media,” said Padilla. “They have to directly communicate with each other.”)
Other academy programs included:
• Exercise classes taught by staff from the Krank Gym. “This emphasizes the importance of staying fit and being able to help people who need their help,” the sergeant said.
• A CSI class, with Dets. Jim Baunhuber and Sean Swift leading the cadets in the investigation of a mock crime scene, specifically a burglary. The youngsters learned about crime-scene photography and such skills as how to dust for fingerprints and analyze the results.
• Self-defense instruction from Paul Carnicella MMA of Clifton. Carnicella, himself a Newark police officer, teaches at the Essex County Police Academy.
• A visit by three young adults — currently incarcerated by the N.J. Department of Corrections — who shared their personal tragedies. Called Project Pride, the program aims to instill in youngsters the lessons of how “the mistakes you make in life, you have to pay for,” Padilla explained. Example: One of the guests was locked up at age 18. An athlete and exceptional student, he had a potentially brilliant future. But one night he drove drunk — and killed his best friend.
“At their (the recruits’) age, they don’t think about what could happen to them,” Padilla said. “They need to know what’s in front of them, not just where they’re standing now.” The idea was not to frighten the kids but to raise their awareness. “We want them to make choices the right way the first time,” the sergeant said.
After the July 1 graduation at Walker Middle School, both the youngsters and their parents were invited to fill out forms rating, on a scale of 1 to 5 (with 5 being the highest), the academy’s programs and its staff. We perused them and found the vast majority scoring everything “5.” (Some even wrote in a “6.”)
There was also a place for personal comments.
Just a sampling of the parents’ remarks: “Great week! Most definitely a confidence booster.” And: “Thank you so much for this!” And: “[My son] enjoyed everything and had so much to talk about every day.” And: “[My daughter] was so moved by the inmates who came to tell them about bad choices.”
Credit for the academy’s success is shared by Police Chief Thomas Strumolo, Director of Public Safety Alphonse Petracco and Juvenile Aid Bureau Clerk Dana Melillo, each of whom Padilla thanked for their support of and work on the program.
Summing up, Padilla said, “It’s a lot of work, but it’s worth it. It’s about us getting to know the community and them getting to know us.”
Or, as one of the parents wrote: “Love this town! One big family!”