College & Workforce Readiness

Safe and Secure

By Sean Cavanagh — March 03, 2004 11 min read
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Since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, student interest in school programs dealing with careers in law, public safety, and national security is on the rise.

By almost any standard, John Palumbo’s outlook on life should be bullish and free of angst. The high school junior with a talent for languages and history expects to be attending college a few years from now, preparing for a career in teaching, or even the Foreign Service. Someday, the affable 18-year-old envisions working abroad, possibly in Mediterranean Europe, or Latin America.

But on this otherwise ordinary Friday afternoon in November, entirely different visions consume him. Gas masks and stockpiled vaccines. Government quarantines and port security. Banned materials, biological detection systems, and fast-moving “response scenarios.”

“Prevention is the most important method we can use to combat terrorism,” Palumbo tells his small audience, looking up from hand-held notes. “It’s a lot easier to prevent an act than mitigate it after it’s occurred.”

It’s an unsettling script, but one of many that Palumbo and his classmates at the Academy for Law and Public Safety, at Butler High School here, have committed to contemplating. This New Jersey vocational academy is one of a number of career and technical schools and other specialized programs around the country focusing on law, public safety, emergency response, and national security. Such schools have seen their enrollments rise since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Some of Palumbo’s classmates in Butler, a 40-minute drive from the site of the World Trade Center in Manhattan, hope to pursue careers as federal agents, police officers, or firefighters. Others are far from settling on a path.

For now, they spend about half their school days in sessions like this one, a junior- level law class sandwiched between core academic courses. Their studies have taken them on field trips to the U.S. mission to the United Nations and a tour of the Morris County, N.J., jail. They have drawn guest speakers from an Arab- American anti-discrimination organization, the sex-crimes unit of a local prosecutor’s office, and a human-rights group working to control trafficking in humans.

The students also write papers, take tests, grapple with homework, and deliver presentations, like Palumbo’s on this day. His assignment: Describe the steps that a state government should take to prevent or respond to a terrorist attack-from being prepared to distribute medicines quickly to considering stricter penalties for the possession of hazardous materials.

With guidance from his teacher, Palumbo makes a gradual turn in his talk from emergency response to constitutional review.

“Why is fighting terrorism difficult in a democracy?” academy law instructor John Schembari asks Palumbo’s class.

At that point, the teacher quizzes students about the rights of due process. A minute later, he asks them to think back to a previous lesson on international law. One student’s exploration of a terrorist threat opens the door to broader questions-as well it should, the instructor says later.

“Law enforcement has always been a balance between protecting rights and protecting the public at large,” explains Schembari, who helps coordinate many academy activities. “After 9-11, the scale tipped toward protecting the public at large. It brought a lot of issues right to the forefront.”

The Academy for Law and Public Safety was launched in 2000, a full year before the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Today, the study of terrorism reflects only one piece of the academy’s overall mission-albeit an influential one, given the impact of national-security concerns on law enforcement and the justice system over the past few years.

The academy is one of three separate career and technical programs run by the Morris County Vocational School District. Those programs are housed within different high schools in northern New Jersey. The law academy, like the others, accepts students from several districts.

Space was available for the law academy within the Butler school district’s high school, and Morris’ vocational leaders believed the program would be successful in drawing students from across the county. Enrollment, however, grew slowly at first, says William A. Hanisch, the principal of Butler High, which has 496 total students and is part of a 1,100- student district.

‘Kids are realizing it's not just a choice between being a cop or a lawyer. There are a lot of other things that could be done in this area.’

There were other challenges, too. Scheduling academy events and field trips around students’ other school classes sometimes proved difficult, as it can be today. To gain admission to the program, 8th grade students must interview with a committee of school and vocational district officials, including Schembari, who has been with the academy since its inception. The committee quizzes applicants about their interest in the program, talks to their teachers, and reviews their academic records.

While the academy accepts many stellar students, it has also taken struggling middle schoolers who show potential. As its popularity has grown, getting into the 36- student academy has become more competitive. This school year, the program accepted 20 freshmen-its largest class ever-but turned down at least 10. Next year, it is expected to take its maximum of 30 students, out of a field of roughly 65 applicants.

Yasin Abbak, a 16-year-old junior who chose the academy over a private high school, says its specialization appealed to him, as did its small size. During his interview, he remembers Schembari asking him to describe the historical event that most interested him. Abbak discussed the origins of the First World War. He also was asked how well he worked with others-a crucial skill, given that the academy’s enrollees spend hours of class time with the same group of students.

“After a while, we become like a family,” says Abbak, whose younger brother was recently accepted to the academy. “It becomes very close-knit.”

Academy students spend four out of nine school periods taking its vocational curriculum, and the rest of the day in other core academic courses and electives of their choosing. Academy classes include law, social studies, and English, where lessons are sometimes tailored to touch on legal themes, through readings of such works as The Scarlet Letter and “The Crucible.”

During their freshman and sophomore years, the academy’s students tackle core legal concepts: criminal and civil law, human rights, the U.S. Constitution, and the legal structures of ancient Greece and Rome. By junior year, they begin to study basic police and investigative work, such as crime-scene analysis and forensics.

Terrorism is just one unit of study folded into the junior-year curriculum. It is a subject, of course, that thundered into the lives of students at Butler High and schools across the New York region on Sept. 11, 2001. Schembari had students who lost relatives in the World Trade Center; he remembers others who had parents working downtown that day, whom they couldn’t get in touch with until that night.

Schembari already had been planning for the academy’s first junior class to study terrorism, prior to the attacks. Over the days and months that followed Sept. 11, he tried to refine lesson plans on the topic so that his review was thorough and honest, but not unnecessarily alarmist. This year’s juniors have been working from a textbook, Terrorism: An Introduction, which discusses not only the methodology of terrorist movements, but also their historical roots, ideologies, and government responses to them, offering case studies from around the world.

Classroom demands aside, attending the academy is a commitment that often begins well before the start of the school day. John Palumbo, like several others in his class, is bused across the county to Butler High. His 40-minute ride from Jefferson Township begins at 7 a.m. Last year it was 6:20 a.m.

Still, his mother, Maria Palumbo, counts herself as a supporter. She knows something about cops, courts, and the legal process, as a former officer for the nearby Essex County Police Department who now works as a private investigator. Her husband is a former U.S. marshal, now employed by a nearby sheriff’s office. Her son’s long days are paying off, she says.

“I see a higher level of maturity in them,” Maria Palumbo says of academy students. “A lot of kids say things like, ‘I want to be a lawyer.’ But these kids have a higher level of respect for what it takes.”

That maturity is tested when students begin their final year at Butler High-and leave its campus altogether. Academy students spend their senior years taking four classes each semester at County College of Morris, in the nearby town of Randolph. Those courses meet high school requirements and provide students with college credit.

The academy’s schedule can make it hard to fit in elective courses at the high school around academy classes, students say. Palumbo, for instance, wasn’t able to find room for an Advanced Placement science course he wanted this year. Moving to the college program can pose similar scheduling conflicts.

Eventually, Palumbo plans to transfer his credits to a four-year college, an option Butler High officials expect many academy students to pursue. While his senior-year schedule will give him a head start in college, he knows that leaving high school will also pose challenges. “I [won’t] miss my senior year so much,” he says, “but I will miss seeing my friends.”

Across the country, administrators in schools with similar concentrations in criminal justice and public safety have seen more students seek them out. While many such programs-sometimes housed within vocational or magnet schools-were set up before September 2001, school officials say their popularity increased after the terrorist attacks as public admiration for the work of police officers, firefighters, and other public-safety professionals grew.

In Fairfax County, Va., enrollment in a criminal-justice program has risen by about 20 percent since 2001, says Jeff McFarland, the coordinator of trade and industrial education for the 166,000-student system. One of the district’s four criminal-justice sites is Chantilly High School, where students interested in police work hone their detention techniques.

Another factor at work in the programs' growth: the popularity of TV shows like ‘CSI: Crime Scene Investigation’ and ‘CSI: Miami,’ which dramatize the nitty-gritty of forensic police work.

Next fall, the district near Washington is launching a Fire and Emergency Medical Sciences course at another high school. Students will work with a local community college and fire department, receiving instruction in firefighting, paramedic training, and other skills.

“It wasn’t like 9-11 came and we sat down and said, ‘We need to do this,’ ” McFarland says of the new course. “We saw criminal justice skyrocketing in enrollment, and we looked at this [new] program as parallel in nature.”

McFarland sees another factor at work in the programs’ growth: the popularity of TV shows like “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation” and “CSI: Miami,” which dramatize the nitty-gritty of forensic police work. Whatever the inspiration, he believes that his region’s continuing need for law-enforcement and emergency-response workers will sustain student and community interest in the program.

In Houston, administrators at the High School for Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice, a magnet program, are developing a new class focused on airport security, says Andrew J. Monzon, a coordinator at the school-partly because of student interest, but also because of the needs of the job market. In recent years, the school’s students have shown more interest in working for the Federal Bureau of Investigation and other law-enforcement agencies, Monzon says.

Some branches of the federal government, at least, seem ready to accept applicants with solid training. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security, created in January 2003, estimates that the number of full-time jobs in the offices and agencies now under its authority grew from 113,000 in 2002 to 172,000 today, with a majority of the new positions coming in airport security.

Alisha Dixon Hyslop of the Association for Career and Technical Education, in Alexandria, Va., says she has seen a large increase in interest in public-safety programs since the 2001 attacks. She compared their growth to earlier surges in technology and health- care programs, when those industries were roaring.

Hanisch, the principal of Butler High, says: “Kids are realizing it’s not just a choice between being a cop or a lawyer. There are a lot of other things that could be done in this area.”

That far-reaching mission is reflected in the classroom, where John Schembari presses his students to put the day’s events in a larger context. As Palumbo outlines his state’s potential response to a biological-weapons attack, he raises the possibility of the government quarantining a portion of the population.

“Does the government have the exclusive right to quarantine someone?” Palumbo asks the other students.

Schembari redirects the question to the class: “Is it false imprisonment, yes or no?”

That’s why we need state legislation, Palumbo responds: to set parameters on the government’s authority. In the meantime, he says, states need to have law-enforcement agencies prepare for future emergencies and evaluate the security of statehouses, reservoirs, and nuclear-power plants. Don’t forget other potential targets, Schembari reminds him, mentioning the nearby Port Newark-Elizabeth marine terminal, on Newark Bay.

Soon it’s another student’s turn to speak. A few minutes later, a buzzer sounds, and the academy’s recruits head to the next class. For Palumbo, it’s on to English, then AP Spanish, with history to follow. And the next school day will lead him back to the academy, where the school system and the legal system intersect.


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