Nearly two dozen students at the Empowerment Academy on Thomas Road in Lynchburg had the opportunity to gain a new perspective on the role of police in the community after graduating from the Teen and Police Service Academy, or TAPS, program.
TAPS is a 12-week academy where police officers come into the classroom at the academy on Thomas Road and deliver presentations about issues that are of importance to young people, said Owen Cardwell, who is University of Lynchburg’s Rosel Schewel distinguished professor of education and human development and co-director of the center for education and leadership.
“I have been amazed at the growth that I’ve seen in these young people and hopefully we have made a pathway for a better understanding between the police and the young people that have gone through this,” Cardwell said Tuesday.
The academy is an alternative education environment that provides high school students an intimate instructional setting, according to its website. The academy helps students with credit recovery, SOL support or specialized academic assistance. The academy first began in 2016 and the school has had more than 100 graduates to date, according to Kacey Jefferson, principal at the Empowerment Academy.
People are also reading…
Jefferson said students can apply to be in the academy and their guidance counselor or administrator at their base school provides them with an application.
“The Empowerment Academy I feel was a perfect program to start with, because our teens traditionally do not have a positive connotation. They’re typically seen as misfits or unsuccessful, and they believe and buy into that belief,” Jefferson said. “So this program was perfect because it’s about having crucial conversations and building meaningful relationships to make them successful.”
Lynchburg Police Lt. J.T. Campbell coordinated the police portion of the partnership. Campbell said it’s bittersweet seeing students finish the program because “it’s been a fun time.”
“We’ve enjoyed working with this group, very proud of all of them, just giving us their attention for 12 weeks. We consider that in and of itself to be an accomplishment and it’s been just a good opportunity,” Campbell said.
Lynchburg Police Officer Allen Kittrell was an instructor who presented topics to the students. One topic was mental health, including different methods students can use if they have a mental health crisis or a traumatic experience.
Kittrell said the purpose of the TAPS program is to build a “good, fruitful relationship” with the students.
“That can truly make a difference in their lives and our lives in that community,” Kittrell said.
Dasani Jones, a junior at the Empowerment Academy, described the program as “learning fun.”
Jones said she liked how the officers presented topics and showed videos, making the presentations interactive.
“I liked how they [officers] engaged and tried to reach out and give information,” Jones said.
Junior Grace Acevedo said the mental health portion of the program stood out to her.
“The conversations about it and how they [officers] went through the experiences themselves,” Acevedo said.
TAPS began in Texas. Cardwell said the purpose of TAPS is to reduce the social distance between police and the youth.
He said he was introduced to the program several years ago when he met a developer of TAPS, Everette Penn.
Cardwell brought the program to Richmond when he lived there and then to Lynchburg as part of Good Gangs, a program founded in Texas to empower youth to become leaders in their generation through self-discipline, personal development and collective interdependence.
The program is a part of the Lynchburg Tomorrow initiative at the University of Lynchburg, which was launched in 2021 as a collaborative project to bring together nonprofit organizations, agencies, schools, government, businesses and citizens to help with areas of need in the city.
Jefferson, the academy principal, said the partnership came about through conversations with Cardwell and Derrick Brown, director of student services at Lynchburg City Schools. The idea was first introduced to her several months ago and Jefferson said it was a perfect match.
Out of 32 students total in the Empowerment Academy, 21 participated in TAPS. All students were invited to participate, but some couldn’t because of their schedules.