The coronavirus hasn’t stopped the commencement of the Junior Police Academy, an annual youth program organized through the Gainesville Police Department. Although, the virus is altering the way it will operate this year.
Dontonya Smith, the 7-year organizer of the academy, is a full-time school resource officer at Loften High School who is revered for her work with community youth and law enforcement. She is a recipient of both local and national recognition for her service, including being honored as the William Spurgeon Award recipient by the Boy Scouts of America’s Exploring Program and the Always There Award recipient by the Pace Center for Girls branch in Alachua County.
The Junior Police Academy camp as well as the Explorer Post 917 Program are advised by Smith. Her love for fostering relationships between law enforcement and Gainesville children stems from firsthand experiences she’s had growing up.
“I am a product of GPD’s community outreach,” Smith said. “I was an explorer for Gainesville Police Department and Chief (Tony) Jones was my advisor back then. He’s literally molded me since I was about 13.”
Smith’s hopes are for the Junior Police Academy to continue building relationships between cops and the community, in spite of recent national events.
The summer academy hosts two weeklong sessions for students in sixth through eighth grade, where campers learn about law enforcement through hands-on training and demonstrations. Due to coronavirus, however, many activities have been modified to comply with CDC recommendations. Some changes include recording campers’ temperatures, maintaining social distancing and wearing face masks.
GPD is also capping the number of campers allowed to attend the academy this year, which runs July 13 through July 27.
Graham Glover, GPD’s public information officer, said the camp is organized with the goal of making sure kids feel safe – in more ways than one.
“Following medical guidelines while also giving the children the opportunity to experience this important camp is the goal,” Glover said.
Besides coronavirus accommodations, Smith said she has prepared to handle topics arising from the nationwide protests and calls to defund the police that have erupted over the last six weeks.
“If the questions come up, I’m ready for them,” Smith said. “I feel like everything we do is so transparent already, that there wasn’t a whole lot I could change.”
The academy curriculum was finalized back in January, however, Smith plans to incorporate a review of the necessity of law enforcement and the foundations of the law in America.
Traditionally, Smith tweaks her program annually. One component that has endured through the years has been the topic of ethics and complicit bias.
Among the attendees, a handful of high school students serve as camp counselors, or “explorers,” for the Explorer Program. The focus of Post 917 is to develop and train youth in leadership, discipline, life management, community service and education.
“(The summer camp) has actually been a feeder program for my Explorer Post Program,” Smith said.
Students like Nicholas Giffuni are an example of campers turning into “explorers.” Giffuni participated in the academy for two years and applied to the Explorer Program as an incoming freshman at Buchholz High School. Giffuni wants to instill a sense of responsibility, accountability and self-discipline in the campers.
“I’ve seen what goes into a life of every police officer and different fields of law enforcement,” Giffuni said, “and that’s just really opened all the possibilities I could have when it comes to being in law enforcement.”
The past 7 years, Smith has facilitated the Junior Police Academy camp as well as the Explorer Post 917 Program. She knows this year will be a first, navigating camp during a global pandemic and national criticism of police. Still, she is confident in the good her relationships with the community bring.
“Once my kid, always my kid.” Smith said. “Whether I’m their SRO [student resource officer], whether I’m their explorer advisor, I tell my kids they can always come back to me.”