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Justice drops in on the classroom

At two Hillsborough County high schools, students interested in criminal justice careers are learning that there's more to being a street cop than what they see on TV.

"Television only shows the action, but it's not really like that _ there's a lot of paperwork," said Marco Durado, 17, who said he has wanted to be a police officer since he was a child.

A special vocational program at Hillsborough and Leto high schools offers a three-level program in criminal justice, drawing students from throughout the county. There are plans to bring the program to the new high schools in Turkey Creek and northeast Hillsborough when they open.

Taught by former law enforcement professionals, students explore careers in criminal justice, including opportunities in schools, jails, prisons, federal and state courts, police departments and federal and state-operated crime labs.

Students have the option of taking the course during one or two years; most students choose the two-year plan. Level I is strictly academic, with a focus on constitutional and criminal law. In Levels II and III, students try a wide variety of hands-on activities.

Students are exposed to many aspects of law enforcement, including self-defense, physical fitness, police ethics (such as when police are and are not allowed to use force), how to handle oneself in tense situations and investigation techniques.

Perhaps most important, students learn about gun safety in 10 weeks of experience at the firing range, after which they receive certification in gun safety by the National Rifle Association.

Lezli Moore, 17, a senior at Hillsborough, says she has learned how to handle a gun safely, when to shoot and when not to and what to look for while conducting an investigation.

The program has also made her think.

Teacher Karen Hammer, who "tells us stories from when she was a cop, stories that have a point," talked about investigating abusive relationships.

"If a woman doesn't work, has no money and small children to care for, where is she going to go?" Moore said. "I never really thought about it. She makes us look at things from all sides with some understanding for why people behave the way they do."

Teachers Hammer, Ron Calkin and John Doyle _ all retired police officers _ say teaching provides the perfect opportunity to pass on their real-life field experiences.

Calkin, who has taught at Leto for six years, is a retired New York City Transit Authority officer; he also spent 10 years as a drug and alcohol rehabilitation counselor. His heavily tattooed arms and deep New York accent give the impression that he's not an easy one to fool, but when he talks about his students, his tough demeanor immediately softens.

"I missed out on a lot of things when I was a kid because my mother was an alcoholic," Calkin said. "Teaching has given me an opportunity to relive my childhood in a sense, because I've experienced it again through my students.

"If I have your child in my class for two hours each day, then I feel like I am his or her surrogate parent. They are my kids for that time, and I try to treat them as such. My office is always open to them."

On the shelf behind Calkin's desk are several large trophies. He picked one up and boasted of his students' investigation work, which won first place in state competition last year.

Calkin compares the small number of graduates who end up getting jobs as police officers to college football players who wind up in the NFL. Most of the students will find jobs in one of the many other areas of criminal justice, and the program lets them know they are needed.

Curtis Smith is one former Hillsborough High student who did wind up going to work for the Tampa Police Department. Smith, a rookie officer in District 2, said his goal took a while but was worth it.

"Without the two-year program, I wouldn't have been so clear on what path to follow," Smith said.

After high school he joined the Army Reserve and trained as a military police officer. Later he went to work for the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office as a detention deputy. He has been with the Tampa department for four months.

Seniors are offered externships with local law enforcement agencies.

Of the program's graduates, 72 percent go on to further study or employment in criminal justice, according to Rosemarie Rafferty, placement follow-up specialist.

Last year, out of 32 students who fulfilled graduation requirements for the course, 18 went on to further their criminal justice training; three into the military; 10 to higher education; and five into entry positions.

Students and teachers agree that the program serves as an alternative for students who have no plans for college and as preparation for those who do.

Before entering the program, students are screened, but on occasion someone gets through who has had trouble in the past.

"Sometimes we'll make allowances for them, but they must prove themselves every minute," Calkin said. "I'm not going to let anything ruin a good program."