For the last decade, the Nutley Police Department has hosted scores of fifth- through eighth-graders each summer for its Junior Police Academy. Two weeks ago, the kids completed the week-long program and from all accounts, it was an extremely informative and fun experience for all of the cadets.
The academy itself, in operation since 2013, has greatly improved over the years, organizers say and it hs become a township staple years under the leadership of Nutley Police Lt. Michael Padilla. During the week of June 26, students the John H. Walker Middle School students learned basic police fundamentals including marching, self-defense and crime-scene processing, while participating in a variety of presentations.
“I am incredibly proud of everyone who participated in this year’s Junior Police Academy,” Public Safety Director and Commissioner Alphonse Petracco said. “It was an incredible turnout and I want to especially thank all of the police officers, firemen and EMTs for taking the time to educate our township’s youth in public safety. It was a rewarding experience for all.”
Padilla says one of the biggest challenges in the 21st century for students is managing the constant presence of social media. This was a major topic explored throughout the academy.
“It’s easy to become desensitized by smartphone activity and lose awareness of the real world,” Padilla said. “We attempt to teach students how decisions affect others and how, despite the increased use of social media, we must continue to be mindful of one another.”
By the end of the week, the organizers say, there was a significant difference in how students interacted with each other as they held the door for one another and spoke to people they previously hadn’t. It was clear the message of mindfulness had been received.
In addition to exploring real-world awareness in the face of social media, students also experienced first-hand crime scene processing and obtained investigation skills. Following directions, discipline and respect are key traits needed by a first-responder or law-enforcement official, and each of those areas were paramount throughout the course of the week.
Additionally, a special opportunity was provided to Nutley High School students interested in a law enforcement career as they were able to serve as squad leaders. The older kids worked on team-building leading drills as a unit to complete tasks and learn more about police equipment.
Student Ryan Kenny has participated in the program for five years. He started off as a blue shirt (beginner) and has since moved up in rank to a yellow shirt, signifying his advancement to a leadership role.
“As a blue shirt, I learned how to form a team and work together as a group,” he said. In his upgraded position, this year, he “found new confidence to be able to speak out and grow as an individual.”
Similarly, recent Nutley High School graduate Milan Ramirez participated in the program last year and spoke of being highly “impressed by everything the police department did to make it all happen.”
As she explained, “I want to go into the criminal-justice field, so it’s a really good experience for me to be able to have this background knowledge and apply it to my future endeavors.”
On the final day of the program, students were lauded for their efforts at a graduation ceremony.
Lt. Padilla spoke of the program’s ability to run all these years without ever having to charge.
“Our goal is to make the academy all-inclusive for everyone,” he said. “We want everyone to have equal opportunity. That’s important to what we do.”
As a result, the police department says it hopes to create a welcoming environment among cadets to “be comfortable to be able to talk to us in what’s going on and and how we can help because that is our job,” Padilla said.
With special opportunities, including bringing in the EMS, participants were able to learn CPR and develop necessary communication skills that will ultimately build their life resume.
The academy is looking at feedback from parents and students to evolve its structure and to keep the program sustainable. Students are encouraged to return as they will encounter new speakers and activities to keep them engaged in the following years.
One parent, Gina Thomas, shared her daughter’s incredible experience in a Facebook post:
“A big thank you to Nutley PD, Fire and EMS during this week for the Junior Police Academy,” she wrote. “Gia was born profoundly deaf and she uses American sign language to communicate. Participating in large events is very challenging for her, but this team made it possible for my girl to have the best time of her life. Police officers are her favorite, so spending a week hanging out with them made her dream come true.”
Next year, the program will return to Spring Garden School and Padilla says he is excited to invite new helping hands as the program continues to adapt in creating impactful experiences for the children.
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Kevin A. Canessa Jr. is the editor of and broadcaster at The Observer, a place where he has served on and off since 2006. He is responsible for the editorial content of the newspaper and website, the production of the e-Newspaper, writing several stories per week (including the weekly editorial), conducting live broadcasts on Facebook Live, including a weekly recap of the news — and much more behind the scenes. Between 2006 and 2008, he introduced the newspaper to its first-ever blog — which included podcasts, audio and video. Originally from Jersey City, Kevin lived in Kearny until 2004, lived in Port St. Lucie. Florida, for four years until February 2016 and in March of that year, he moved back to West Hudson to return to The Observer full time. Click Here to send Kevin an email.