As witnesses to narcotic sales and the arrest of loved ones, some students at Madison Middle School are all too familiar with the work of law enforcement.
Now, a few of them have been chosen by teachers and federal agents to see the work from the other side.
Through the FBI's Junior Special Agents Program, 20 students are selected each year in the Tampa area to learn about the discipline, information and skills a law enforcement career requires — lessons that can help keep them on the right path in life, too.
Founded in 1990 by the FBI's Washington Field Office, the program has operated 11 years in Tampa. It runs for seven weeks — time enough, the sponsors hope, to help balance what can be a lifetime of bad influences.
Madison Middle student Aleah Sealy was 9 when police raided her house and found guns stashed underneath it, she said. She has seen people close to her do drugs and came to view it as okay, even watching as they sold them out of a back yard, she said.
"They'd do weed, Xanax, pills, stuff like that," said Aleah, now 15. "I always thought it was a normal thing."
Madison Middle is at 4444 W Bay Vista Ave. in largely white South Tampa, but the school's attendance zone stretches into neighborhoods in east and northwest Tampa to bring racial balance to its enrollment of 629. Black students account for 23 percent of the enrollment at the school, Hispanic students 45 percent.
Angel Lopez, 13, is also attending the FBI program and said he's seen students smoke marijuana on school grounds then spend their days planning to smoke more later. It's not as bad now as it used to be, Angel said.
He's been searched for drugs on campus a number of times.
"They didn't find anything. I think the only reason why cops are doing that is because kids have always been doing it and they're just used to it. Once they see someone sleepy or smelling a little awkward, they're gonna suspish something."
Angel said he stays away from trouble once he leaves school, though it's always around him.
"I just do my homework and stay home," he said. "Since I live around a bad neighborhood, I just want to stay home."
So do many other Madison Middle students, he said — a view echoed by Stephanie Hawkins, the guidance counselor at Madison Middle who oversees the school's Junior Special Agents Program.
"If they go out there, there's stuff out there," Hawkins said. "They don't want to go down that path."
Aleah and Angel have a low opinion of the police, saying they seem to target people based on the color of their skin. That's not necessarily surprising to those who work in the field.
"Many of these students are used to seeing law enforcement in a traumatic situation," said Paul Wysopal, special agent in charge of FBI Tampa Division. "This is an opportunity for us to bridge the gap, show these students we care, that law enforcement can be their ally,"
One way is to show them how law enforcement works.
Students in the Junior Special Agents Program took a field trip to the FBI headquarters Feb. 8. A member of the FBI's Evidence Response Team has shown them how to assess a crime scene and they have learned about cyber safety. The students graduate from the program Wednesday.
Hawkins, the guidance counselor, said she hopes the lessons will help teach students how to deal with life in general.
"I want them to learn there is hope for them," Hawkins said. "They can think about a career not just in the FBI, but in any law enforcement where they can help others."
The program is designed to turn out community ambassadors in whatever field they choose to pursue, said Andrea Aprea, public affairs specialist for the FBI Tampa Division.
"We want them to see the inside that most kids don't get to see," Aprea said. "This is our chance to lead these young people down a more positive, productive road."
The main objective is to instill hope, confidence and self-esteem, in part by introducing the students to positive role models along the way.
"It's an opportunity for the students to get to know us," Aprea said, "learn from us, instead of being afraid of us."
Contact Hannah Farrow at [email protected]