Photo by Heather Middleton
By Kathy Jefcoats
They aren't old enough to drink alcohol or drive but dozens of Clayton County middle-schoolers recently experienced what it's like to operate a vehicle while under the influence of an intoxicant, just by donning a pair of goggles.
"It was fun to just drive, because it's driving, that's cool," said Rhiana Long, 12. "But it was hard and difficult to drive while wearing the goggles. I learned that driving under the influence of alcohol is not a good thing."
The drunk goggles distort the wearer's vision, to mimic being under the influence of alcohol or drugs. Clayton County police set up a serpentine obstacle course in the west parking lot of the Virginia Gray Recreation Center in Riverdale and let about 40 kids take turns manning a golf cart.
"It was really blurry," said Kayla Milner, 11. "It taught me not to drink and drive at all. You can really see how easy it is to have a crash trying to drive that way."
The Clayton County Police Department has partnered with the Clayton County Parks and Recreation Department in forming the Clayton County Police Athletic League (PAL). PAL officers will spend three days a week during the summer working with middle school students. Clayton police Lt. Tina Daniel said the goal is to help the students learn various skills and to trust police officers.
"We're teaching them to build a rapport with the police officers and learn we are a lot more than just mean people," she said. "We're introducing them to team-building and leadership skills. So far, they really seem to enjoy it."
Chief Greg Porter said it is important that young people experience for themselves that police officers can be a valuable part of their lives.
"Our youth [are] our future, and we want them to understand that our officers truly care about them," he said. "We want to see them succeed and become productive citizens."
Three days a week police interact with about 40 children at each of the county's recreation centers. Officer Phong Nguyen said the classes are making a difference.
"A lot of the kids didn't have teamwork skills at all coming into this," he said. "But they are very much improved. I am seeing a lot of progress."
In addition to learning the perils of drinking and driving, the children met the police K-9 units and explored the county's mobile command center. They even took a field trip to Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport and toured the air traffic control tower.
Antavious Copeland, 13, said he's enjoyed playing flag football but is also learning valuable lessons.
"I think this is great because the cops are showing us what not to do in order to stay out of trouble," he said. "Especially not drinking and driving. You have to be safe or you can get killed, or kill someone else."