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Teens get schooled in public safety

Instead of heading home to do their homework on Thursday, a group of Suffolk students donned fire helmets, grabbed fire extinguishers and learned how to put out fires.

On Tuesday, they’ll join Suffolk’s Critical Incident Response Team in defusing a hostage situation.

Both experiences are part of the city’s Youth Public Safety Academy, a joint project between Suffolk’s fire and police departments that introduces at-risk students to the public-safety fields and creates positive relationships between the students and public safety officials.

“The most important message for these students is the choices they make today will affect them for a lifetime,” said Pam King, a program leader. “Our hope for police and fire is that we can encourage the kids to give back to the community, keep them headed in the right direction and to know that we care.”

A group of 18 handpicked students meet twice a week for 11 weeks to receive lessons from police and fire departments, attend team-building workshops and enjoy hot meals and hands-on activities. They will graduate on May 4.

This year, participants also had to choose a community-service project so they could learn the importance of giving back to their community. Students discussed problems they see in their community, including gangs and graffiti, littering, homelessness, lack of safe teen hangouts and even the current school budget.

“For the first time, the academy is incorporating a service learning curriculum developed by Alternatives in Hampton, Virginia,” Suffolk spokesperson Debbie George stated in a press release this week. “The goal of the service learning program is to teach youth that they can be effective change agents in their community, regardless of their life circumstances.”

The program this year was made possible by a donation from Walmart and Target.

The College Drive Walmart and Target Corporation donated a total of $2,300, approximately half the total cost of the program, according to Police Chief Thomas E. Bennett.

The students in the program devote two afternoons a week to attending the program, and although it requires dedication, students say they enjoy it.

“I love it,” said Jamil White, a participant of the program and a football player. “When I was a kid I watched movies and wanted to go into it. It’s my back up plan.”