Training for the future: Department of Correction hosts first ‘youth academy’

Department of Correction Youth Academy students, from left, J.R. Thompson, Eletta Manley and John Goldman respond to Cpt. David Benson during a visit to the horse stables at Central of Probation Violation Center near Smyrna. Delaware State News/Marc Clery

SMYRNA — JR Thompson, a soon-to-be senior Appoquinimink High School got something he didn’t initially expect from the Delaware Department of Correction’s first three-day “youth academy”: a boost to his self-esteem.

“The academy helped me in a lot of ways, but the big thing was for my self esteem,” he said. “Sometimes people aren’t all that kind to me at school, and it’s been nice to come here and meet other people that have the same ideas about a future career as me. I’ve made some friends. The training has also helped me improve on some of my strengths and weaknesses. It’s opening a lot of doors.”

After high school, JR wants to either be a K9 officer in the military or on the civilian side. He joined the DOC summer program to get a better understanding of what a future career as a K9 correctional officer might be like.

JR was just one of 15 other high schoolers (from all three counties in the state) to participate in and graduate from the DOC’s inaugural youth academy last Wednesday through Friday.

Department of Correction instructor Joel Howard helps DOC Youth Academy student Makala Bentley, 13, balance herself during the rope crawl exercise at the obstacle course at the Central of Probation Violation Center near Smyrna.

The free three-day academy was designed to give students a crash course on the role the DOC plays in criminal justice, familiarize them with the responsibilities of various roles within the agency.

The brainchild of Jennifer Biddle, chief of administrative services, the youth academy is also part of a wider recruitment plan to strengthen the pipeline of qualified applicants to the DOC’s ranks.

With a shortage of about 360 correctional officers (based on a recently released staffing study) and a bloated overtime budget, the department is often criticized as being “chronically understaffed.”

The DOC is hoping students like Joslyn Lopez, a senior at Smyrna High School, and Joseph Brooks, a senior Caesar Rodney High School, will consider enrolling in their Correctional Employee Initial Training (CEIT) academy shortly after high school and eventually become correctional officers.

“I’ve always been interested in law enforcement and the academy was very motivating,” said Joslyn. “It was a great experience, and I got a lot from the training and knowledge they’re providing.”

Joseph liked the challenge of the youth academy.

“Going through the physical training and learning the marches, postures and turns was a challenge for me, but even though it’s tough, it pays off because it’s helped us show respect and discipline,” he said. “I think this may be a promising career option for me and I was glad I got to learn more about it.”

Although applicants must be at least 19.5 years old to apply for a DOC job, John Goldman, a recent graduate of Dover High School wouldn’t have to wait long before he applied.

“My main goal is to become a state trooper, but I came to this academy to help give me a good understanding of the field because I’m considering a career in law enforcement generally,” he said.

During the academy, students took part in a condensed version of the DOC’s full academy. They engaged in physical training, defensive tactics, attended lectures, completed an obstacle course, learned military drill style marching and standing at attention, team building activities and became CPR certified. Students did not directly interact with inmates.

Sgt. Jamie Courtney, a DOC recruiter who helped train the students, said it surprised her how quickly they took to the curriculum.

“They picked everything up so much faster than I had expected,” she said. “And they were very respectful the whole time even though we killed them with the physical training. They all seemed to actually enjoy the entire experience and are definitely taking something from it. Many of them didn’t realize just how many different opportunities there are with the DOC and the number of directions you could go with a career. It opened their eyes — I think we’ll see some of them come back.”

Sgt. Courtney said the students were particularly animated during team building exercises and the mock contraband searches set up in a classroom.

“The teamwork exercises really jumped out at me,” said Eletta Manley, a senior at First State Military Academy. “It was interesting getting to know each other and interacting in this type of environment.”

Although originally hoping for around 20 enrollees, administrators were still pleased with the “success” of their first academy and already anticipate hosting a second one next year.

At the completion of the program on Friday, families and friends gathered for a graduation ceremony held at the department’s Administration Building. All graduating students received a certificate for their participation in the program. Although the certificate does not yet formally influence a future application with the DOC, administrators are considering changing that policy.

To apply for the youth academy, students are encouraged to request more information from their school counselor or email the DOC at DOCJobs@state.de.us.

Staff writer Ian Gronau can be reached at 741-8272 or igronau@newszap.com

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