'Back to basics': Police camp lays foundation for better attitude in teens

News-DemocratJuly 16, 2014 

They're sore. They're tired. Their backs are straight and they stand tall, but their eyes droop into sleepy half-circles.

Some of the cadets are rethinking the school fight that led them here; others are growing stronger in their convictions to go into law enforcement.

Every one of the 71 teens at Team Illinois Youth Police Camp was up at 5:45 a.m. and being put through the paces of physical training at 6 a.m. this week. A couple dozen law enforcement officers from around the state -- many from the Illinois State Police, but also from East St. Louis, Alton, Granite City and St. Clair County Sheriff's Department -- were on hand to keep them literally on the straight and narrow.

Team Illinois Youth Camp started its second year at Principia College in Elsah with 66 campers and seven cadet mentors for the weeklong camp.

By Wednesday morning, two cadets had dropped the program, whose main sponsors are Ameren Illinois and BNSF Railroad. Several area restaurants are donating meals to the cadets and officers. Cadets attend for $20, half of which is refunded upon completion, and many of the law enforcement officers are volunteering at least part of their time at the camp.

"We can't change their lives in a week," said Daron Barge, a special agent with the Illinois State Police. "All we can do is lay down a foundation, then they can apply it."

Belleville East student Serwa Chism, 14, is among those signed up for a first year as a cadet.

"My mom signed me up for attitude," she said quietly at lunch. "Mom's right about the attitude," she said, also admitting some trouble with getting to classes on time at school.

The camp's six-and-a-half days are tightly regimented, with cadets in single file from one activity to the next. After 45 minutes of morning PT, the teens are moved from one class to the next, with "squad time" at the end of the day. Classes Wednesday included gang and drug information from Capt. Thomas Trice, of the St. Clair County Sheriff's Department. Trice explained that although marijuana is becoming legal in some circles, it's still not a good choice.

"There's not a cop in this room going to use that drug," he said. "Not a cop, lawyer, not a construction worker. Where are you going to work, using?"

Statistically, Trice said 5 percent of the cadets in the room "won't make it. You won't make it if you aren't going to believe," he said.

Speakers Wednesday included a St. Clair County inmate being held more than a year on felony charges. Other classes and speakers during the week included railroad safety, a canine demonstration and drills.

"We're going back to basics," Barge said, "back to kindergarten, where you take turns, wait in line, basic fundamentals."

Those basics are based on respect not only for authority figures now, but also their future selves.

"You can't react with bad body language with your supervisor ... you can be replaced at a real job," said Calvin Dye Jr., of the Illinois State Police in Collinsville.

Body language and attention to detail are lessons constantly being reinforced, and are habits the cadets take home.

"The things they teach us, (they) give us a more mannered way to live," said Cadet Mentor Izice Barnes, 15, of Murpheysboro. Izice's first year was court-ordered, but he wanted to return this year and is a mentor keeping a close eye on his squad sitting shoulder-to-shoulder for the lunch provided by Principia.

After putting their plates away, the boys returned to the table, backs straight. Izice slowly reached forward to adjust his nameplate and water bottle to line up with the rest of his squad.

"I personally liked the improvement in their attitudes from Monday morning to this morning," Dye said. "Monday when I sounded the bullhorn at 5:45 a.m. in the male dorms, they had a confused look, like 'Where am I this morning?' (Today) they made beds much faster, moved with a purpose and stood with much more self-confidence."

Cadet Christopher Duke, 13, is in his first year at the camp. He's eager to contribute to conversation, a tough thing when the officers won't allow noise at lunch. He's there at the behest of the Alton Police Department, after Christopher got in a fight at school. He knows it's not the best example for his four brothers and two sisters, who live at home just 10 minutes from the camp.

"I could (run away), but I don't want to," he said.

Contact Mary Cooley at mcooley@bnd.com or 618-239-2535; follow her on Twitter at @MaryCooleyBND.

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