Family members and friends gathered excitedly in front of the John H. Stamler Police Academy on an afternoon filled with warm summer heat.
When the clock struck two, 25 children between the ages of 10 and 12 appeared from the right side of the building, marching and chanting in unison. The pack was led by one of their instructors, Officer Shawn Johnson.
With great poise and precision, the youngsters headed towards the crowd of people before pausing to salute for a perfect photo opportunity.
The routine was just one of many things these children learned over their two weeks of training at the Scotch Plains Police Department Junior Academy, where class #7 graduated Thursday afternoon.
Officer David Lavery, Officer Shawn Johnson, and Sgt. Matthew Fugett have been giving the recruits a taste of what occurs in the real police academy. They were all on hand to give speeches at the ceremony where students were presented awards by Chief of Police Brian Mahoney.
Sgt. Fugett was impressed with how the children reacted to such physically and mentally straining objectives.
“I think at this age, they are enthusiastic being in an environment like this that they aren’t used to,” Sgt. Fugett said. “I enjoyed seeing them improve and flourish from day one until graduation.”
Sgt. Ernesto Hernandez has been with the recruits during their entire time in the program, and acted as emcee for the graduation ceremony. His passion and excitement for the program showed each time he addressed the crowd and spoke of the children.
“They are definitely building their physical skills but it’s also a way for the kids to get a quick peek at seeing what being a police officer is like,” Sgt. Hernandez said.
The recruits, many not yet in middle school, endured meticulous training during their time in the program. Aside from the daily physical training, the recruits trained with members of the Union County SWAT team, Bomb Squad, and Scotch Plains Police K-9s where they learned about the duties, equipment and protocols of those divisions — but, of course, did not handle any dangerous materials!
Josh Venick is an 11-year-old who graduated during the ceremony. Well-spoken and articulate for his young age, he showed great passion for how he felt about the program.
Venick decided to join after hearing about the academy from his older brother who had a great experience and made it sound appealing. He enjoyed the challenges he encountered on a daily basis.
“The most difficult part was the running, jumping, and physical training,” Venick said. “The least difficult was the marching. We had some commands and movements we had to learn.”
Venick’s mother, Abby Wean, was skeptical about how her son would feel about the program upon its start.
“I wasn’t sure whether he would like the physical training, but he loved it,” Wean said. “I think it’s a good combination of discipline and realizing that you can have fun at the same time.”
Sgt. Hernandez noticed throughout the two weeks that even though many of the children might not go on to become police officers, several showed potential and interest that could lead them to choose police work as their profession when they grow up.
“Some of the kids aren’t too thrilled about becoming an officer, they are just interested in police work,” Sgt. Hernandez said.
“But you do get some kids that you know you are going to see come through this academy. They love it, they soak it all in, and they’re the first at any activity. And you know they are going to become police officers.”
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