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July 26, 2013

Kids enjoy police academy

TERRE HAUTE — Taking aim at a balloon attached to a target board, Ethan Rubinacci tried to win a prize by popping the balloon with one shot from a paintball gun.

He came close, and so did many of the other youths participating in the Junior Police Academy on Thursday at Sarah Scott Middle School.

Shooting paintballs at targets outside the school was just one of the skills activities for the 100-plus youths in the four-day academy. On Monday, they learned about the police bomb squad and watched as a watermelon went kaboom.

They learned about gun safety, watched K-9 officers do their stuff and saw a “suspect” get tazed. On Thursday, they saw a demonstration by a SWAT team responding to an “emergency” situation.

“I like that we were actually able to shoot paintball guns,” said Chase Green after shooting 30 paintball pellets at a target on Wednesday morning.

Garrett Carlson agreed. “I like that they make you do the gun safety earlier.”

Both youths are in their second year of attending the camp, though Chase said he missed half of the camp last year because of a non-academy-related injury involving a misfired firework.

Rubinacci is in his third year attending the academy. He said he doesn’t plan to seek a career in law enforcement.

“I’m more into science,” he said. But, he is looking forward to being a counselor for the academy when he gets older. “I enjoy this.”

Sebastian Moats is also in his third year attending the academy.

“It’s been interesting for me,” he said after shooting the paintball gun. “I’m debating whether to go into drug enforcement or firearms manufacturing.”

The Junior Police Academy is the cooperative effort of law enforcement with the Vigo County Sheriff’s Department, Indiana State University Police, Terre Haute Police and West Terre Haute Police. More than 500 girls and boys in fourth, fifth and sixth grades signed up for one of the three four-day academies.

Staffed by police officers, with the assistance of counselors who have attended past academies, the outreach is a good way to connect with youths in the community and share the training that goes into policing and keeping the public safe.

“I think it’s very important, mostly in today’s society, when police aren’t looked on in a positive way,” said organizer Sean Trevarthan, a sheriff’s deputy and school liaison officer. “Kids get to come here and bond with us and see police differently.”

Some counselors have helped at the academy for several summers.

Holly Osburn, a senior at Terre Haute North Vigo High School, actively helped the youngsters at the paintball station.

“I love it,” Osburn said of the academy, “and I love helping the kids.”

She is planning for a career in elementary education.

Officer Brian Pierce of ISU Police said the firearms session taught some good lessons — most notably that it can be hard to tell a real firearm from a fake gun, so they should always be careful when they see what looks like a firearm.

“We taught them that police officers responding to a situation don’t have time to figure out if it’s real or a fake gun,” Pierce said.

The youths also saw a video of two friends playing with a gun and then the accidental shooting of one of those children by his friend. It was a sobering lesson.

And speaking of sober, the youths who wore the drunken driving goggles didn’t see things the same way as they went through the field sobriety tests administered by officer Marcia Bahr of THPD.

Bahr showed the youngsters what officers look for in an intoxicated motorist, and she shared some photos of accidents caused by drunken drivers.

The deadliest drunken driving crash in U.S. history occurred in May 1988, she said, when a drunken driver collided with a school bus, killing 27 people in a fiery twist of metal. The youths saw photographic remnants of that charred yellow school bus with a burned out interior — no seats left.

That drunken driver received a 16-year prison sentence, Bahr said, and he served about 11 years in prison.

But not all drunken driving victims die, the children learned, seeing photographs of a young woman who lost her ears, nose, eyelids and fingers to the flames of a drunken driving crash.

After putting on goggles that simulated blood-alcohol equivalents of about 0.25 percent, two of the youths failed miserably in walking a straight line. Two more had trouble balancing on one foot while counting.

One youth, who volunteered to be a suspect in a SWAT demonstration, found himself being gently dragged from the driver’s seat of a stopped car and put on the ground to be handcuffed.

On the sidelines of the parking lot, the academy members watched as the SWAT team carefully approached the vehicle, setting of a “flash bang” device as a diversion to distract the suspect while they were extracting him from the car.

THPD’s SWAT team has been on several hundred missions involving threats of violence, an officer said, and none has been deemed unsuccessful.

“We [police] deal with people who make bad decisions,” Officer Pete Horstman said, “and when it gets really bad, they call us out.”

Academy member Emma Chambers, whose father is a SWAT member, said she was glad to learn more about her father’s line of work. But the sixth-grader said she probably won’t go into law enforcement herself.

“I’m having fun,” she said of her first time in the junior academy. “I liked watching the guy get tazed.”

The youngsters graduated from the academy on Thursday after receiving a better knowledge of the hows and whys of police officer training and law enforcement.

Deputy Trevarthan credited the many businesses who supported the academy with sponsorships in sharing that knowledge with the youth in the community.

“The kids really enjoy the academy, and the officers do, too,” he said. “It’s a great community connection.”

Reporter Lisa Trigg can be reached at 812-231-4254 or lisa.trigg@tribstar.com. Follow her on Twitter @TribStarLisa.

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