By Ed Brock
Dontavies Mitchell has police officers in his family, so when they found out his high school was holding a citizens' police academy they encouraged him to join.
Now Mitchell, a 16-year-old junior at Riverdale High School, is looking forward to the class on drug use prevention.
"A lot of kids use drugs. Me being a football player I try to encourage them to keep away from drugs," Mitchell said. "It's not going to do nothing but take you down the wrong path."
Mitchell is one of 42 students involved in the academy that the Riverdale Police Department is holding at the school. It's part of the department's Community Policing Unit headed by Sgt. Terry Hargett.
"We've been trying to target high school students (for participation in the citizens' police academy) for two years," Hargett said.
Now, with the help of Riverdale High School Principal Gloria Duncan, the department expects the program to be offered as a course for credit during the next school year and hope it will spread to every school in the county. Duncan said the school system's vocational department is researching that possibility right now.
"We were actually researching it before the program started," Duncan said. "(The program) reassures us that we would have a good response."
Students participating in the academy get a glimpse at how law enforcement works through classes on criminal law, starting a career in law enforcement, crime scene investigation, use of force and the use of a drug detection dog.
"The last class we're going to let them pick the topic," Hargett said. "Right now they want the SWAT team."
Riverdale and several other departments have been offering citizens' police academy courses for adults for several years. This academy started with 31 students but quickly reached its current capacity, the maximum for the class.
"We're turning students away," Hargett said.
Next year they hope to offer two classes and possibly expand the curriculum to include a session in the Fire Arms Training Simulator, a computer program that uses electronic "guns" and video targets.
On Tuesday Riverdale Police Capt. Chris Kent was talking to the students about driving under the influence.
One student asked how many beers it would take to make somebody too drunk to drive.
"For ya'll it better not be any," Kent said.
They may laugh at the videos he showed them of drunk drivers, Kent said, but the topic is very serious.
"In Georgia it is not a right to drive, it is a privilege and that privilege can be taken away," Kent said.
Sophomore Ladonna Smith, 16, said she's planning for a career in law enforcement and that's why she's taking the class.
"I just wanted to know a lot more about law enforcement and what it takes to be a police officer," Smith said.
Jessica Barnett, 17, has similar reasons.
"I'm using this for knowledge for when I go into the military, to be an officer," said Barnett, a junior who was also in the school's Air Force ROTC program.