About 15 cadets recently graduated from a program where they were trained to use a computerized laser shot simulator and collect evidence from potential crime scenes.

Courtesy of Los Lunas Police Department: Los Lunas Middle School students line up as part of the Los Lunas Police Youth Academy. The program, which started in January, teaches students how to deal with a crime scene, and how to finger print and collect evidence.

These cadets did all this before their first day of high school.

The Los Lunas Police Youth Academy is geared to give students a glimpse into what’s involved with real-life police work in a semester-long course at Los Lunas Middle School.

The program, in its first year, ran from January to May and included instruction from police officers twice a week for 35-minute sessions during an advisory period.

Students ranged in age from 12 to 14.

Los Lunas Police Officer Cassandra Linehan, who is the primary instructor, said the first year went well with students learning how to deal with a crime scene and how to finger print and collect evidence.

Each session was taught by Los Lunas police officers based on their knowledge and experience of a certain subject area.

“The kids need to know about law enforcement,” Linehan said. “They only have negative contact. They need to know that there are positive things (going on). That’s part of the (position) of liaison and part of the youth academy.

“When they grow up, they can decide if they want to be a cop.”

Linehan said the program was similar to that of a scaled-down version of police academies cadets must complete before they join law enforcement departments across the state.

The instructor said students went through mock crime scenarios that took them step-by-step to determine what happened at a particular crime scene.

In one scenario, Linehan said students had to handle a scene where a traffic stop had gone bad and the suspect apparently fled from law enforcement officials.

Students had to take photographs and interview and arrest suspects in certain situations.

The students used the department’s computerized laser shot simulator, a television screen that allows officers to interact with the program where they yell commands and shoot at suspects.

“If they shoot at us, we shoot back,” Linehan said. “It’s supposed to be real-life training.”

Linehan, who has been with the department for about two years, said the local youth academy is similar to others that are taught around the United States.

In Los Lunas, the instructor works as a school liaison officer and works with school resource officers within the district.

She said the academy gives students a more positive feeling about being around police officers.

She said Drug Abuse Resistance Education, or DARE, is another example of a program that gives children positive reinforcement.

Los Lunas Police Lt. Naithan Gurule said students get a better perspective about what police work is all about. He said the hands-on experience is sometimes better than what students can get out of a textbook.

“They get the experience,” Gurule said.

Lawrence Sosa, assistant principal at Los Lunas Middle School, said he thinks the program has been a positive thing for students. He said certain aspects of the program teach students discipline and respect.

School officials want the program to grow, and next year the plan is to teach the class during the advisory period for the 2012-13 school year.

Valencia High School student Audrey Saavedra was one of the students who took this year’s course.

She said the program helped her prepare for the summer program with the United States Naval Academy.

Saavedra, 14, attended the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics program for three weeks. She eventually wants to join the Naval Academy.

“It was really fun,” Saavedra said. “It was very educational. I learned a lot from it.”

Saavedra said the hands-on exercises, such as the physical training, were challenging, but she said she would recommend the program to other students.

“I was always interested in law enforcement, so I tried it,” she said.

The Los Lunas Police Department also has a youth explorer program for high school-aged students. That program is meant for students who are interested in law enforcement careers.

Linehan said she is confident that the Los Lunas Youth Police Academy can grow in the next few years. She wants to expand the program to make it more disciplined and wants to eventually add classes to the middle school’s schedule.

For now, the current program will help give students a strong ethical and moral foundation to help them grow into adults.

“People should know that the program is not only about the kids learning about law enforcement,” Linehan said. “But it should teach them about discipline and ethics. Hopefully, it teaches them to stay out of trouble.”

-- Email the author at bruffner@news-bulletin.com.