Bartow County students who want to go into law enforcement as a career can get an excellent jump-start on that goal before they ever graduate from high school.
The Bartow County College and Career Academy has a public safety lab that encompasses everything students need to learn for a career with a police department or sheriff’s office, from booking suspects to testifying in a court trial.
Instructor Don Moody, who has 25 years of law enforcement experience, teaches roughly 75 students in 10th through 12th grades in three classes: Introduction to Law, Public Safety, Corrections and Security, Criminal Justice Essentials and Criminal Investigation. A fourth class is an internship with the Cartersville Police Department or the Bartow County Sheriff’s Office.
“Student interest was a driving factor for implementing the program,” Principal and CEO Dr. Paul Sabin said. “Additionally, opportunity and good-paying jobs in the area of forensics helped us make the decision to add the program. Post-secondary programs are available to students once they complete the pathway.”
Wednesday afternoon, Moody’s criminal justice — forensics — class created a crime-scene scenario in its public safety lab and conducted a thorough investigation to find the suspect.
The scenario: An officer had been shot. A full-size mannequin with a red dot on its chest to represent a bullet hole was lying on the shooting range floor. A bullet casing was next to the body.
The students blocked off the area with yellow police tape, and anyone who entered the crime scene had to log in on a sign-up sheet.
“Officer safety is the ultimate goal and then securing crime scene,” Moody, a detective for 12 years, said. “Checking for signs of life is the next step.”
Adairsville High junior Cicily Flores was overseer in charge of the crime scene, and she made sure everyone was doing his or her job correctly.
“We have four different groups right now working on the case,” the Rydal resident said. “We’re going to do fibers, which is in the microscopes over there. We’ll also do fingerprints. They’re also going to work the crime scene, so they’re going to do a walk-through in a minute, whenever they get everything all situated. They’ll pick up the evidence so they can start processing. We also have a witness that also heard the commotion, and so she’s going to be talking to the people that are going to be picking up the witness statements.”
Investigators collected evidence, including a fingerprint lifted off a whiskey bottle found at the scene, and used crime-scene software to create a digital representation of the scene.
Students also learn how to create composites of suspects based on descriptions from witnesses and post them on the BOLO — be one look out — board.
“Students pick different parts of people’s faces, like a Mr. Potato Head type thing …,” Moody said, noting no one knew who the suspect was except Cicily. “You know, the witness has a few seconds to tell these kids what the suspect looks like, and then they come, and they sit down and try to put these together.
“The average time for an armed robbery or something is just seconds. The suspects aren’t there for a very long time so a witness comes up with different things. So if you can nail down a composite to a likeliness of 80 percent or 70 percent, you could take that and walk into this classroom and pick him out. That’s what we try to teach them, that you don’t have to have 100 percent likeliness, but if you can get a range of 80 percent, you’re doing good.”
He added many of the composites on the BOLO board were created to look like students in the class or teachers in the school.
The young investigators found a match for the fingerprint found at the scene: classmate Aaron Donnelly, who looked remarkably like one of the composite photos on the BOLO board.
Once an arrest is made — which they haven’t learned about yet — the first stop is the booking area for the suspects’ mug shots and fingerprints.
They are then moved to the interrogation room for interviews before being put into the mock jail, which currently is a storage room.
There’s even a courtroom set up in the lab for arraignments and trials.
“We had two trials last year,” Moody said. “Judge [Carey] Nelson came down, the Superior Court judge, and tried a case for us. And that was probably one of the big highlights of our experience last year.”
The future officers also learn other skills outside of processing a crime scene.
They practice gun use and safety on a shooting range simulator called a laser shot range that would normally cost “probably $30,000 to $40,000, but we got a good deal on it,” Moody said.
“There’s a use-of-force continuum, all the way up to deadly force,” he said. “I don’t let the kids train on those scenarios or anything like that where they take a life, but there’s some scenarios and training clips that put kids in intense situations to make them think, split-second decision-making, things like an officer would feel in a shoot-don’t shoot situation.”
Once a week, students do a fitness standard of a timed 1 ½-mile run, 30 pushups, 30 sit-ups, 330-yard dash and scaling a 70-foot wall.
“We try to make it relevant and fun,” Moody said. “Relevant and fun is what keeps these kids interested.”
And on Nov. 12, students will be going to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation to watch autopsies, Moody said.
Next semester, the lab will add a brand-new dispatch class using the same training equipment that’s found at the police academy and a new curriculum — which will give the students national certification — that’s coming in January, Moody said. The equipment will simulate real calls and have Bartow County maps downloaded.
They’ll learn about the science of radar by throwing baseballs and clocking their speed. They’ll also park a donated sheriff’s car in front of the school and “clock cars going by so kids can see how it sounds and the visuals,” Moody said.
He said he’s also planning to do a modified pepper-spray training — touching the eyes, nose and mouth “so they feel that effect” — with students who are 17 and 18.
Students also can earn their national Community Emergency Response Team certification at the academy, according to Sabin.
“What we try to do is build a portfolio of everything that these students have accomplished during our pathway so they can walk in the sheriff’s office — ‘I’ve done crime scene. I’ve done a gun safety course. I’ve been to pepper spray training,’” Moody said. “Everything that they’ve done, we put in certificate form with their resume and application, and then this is what they take when they look for a job so that the sheriff or the chief of police can look at those things and see how serious they are about it and what they’ve accomplished.”
Nine or 10 graduates have been hired by the sheriff’s office and placed in jail division, Moody said.
“What makes this program successful is when you see these kids in those jobs,” he said. “… That’s what makes it rewarding ... That’s the payoff.”
Cicily, who “never wanted to be a princess or anything” like other little girls, said she’s “very interested” in working in the CSI area for the GBI after high school.
“I’ve always liked helping the people that didn’t have voices,” she said. “Not a lot of people would be willing to be around that type. It’s very stressful. I always wanted to be that type of voice to help people and their loved ones have closure.”
Cicily, who attended a 12-hour day camp at the now-closed National Museum of Crime and Punishment in Washington, D.C., said her desire to be in law enforcement “kind of blossomed as I came in this class,” she said.
“You figure out your high points and stuff that you’re really interested in,” she said, calling the lab “very awesome.”
Created last year, the lab was partly funded by a state grant in 2014, Sabin said.
“Additionally, we have received more than $6,000 in private donations,” he said. “To date, we have spent more than $24,000 on the forensics portion of the public safety program.”
For the future, Moody and his advisory board are considering a corrections and private security certificate that would “provide [job] opportunities in both the private sector and the public sector” for students, Sabin said.