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Preparing students for criminal justice careers.

While public schools occasionally provide educational programs in crime prevention, some educators have designed specific curricula aimed at preparing students for careers in criminal justice. Students interested in working in the criminal justice system have many careers from which to choose, including policing, corrections, and the judiciary. Some career options attempt, in part, to anticipate the public demand for increased law enforcement protection and more effective correctional treatment facilities. The administrators at the Criminal Justice Academy at Lake Worth Community High School in Lake Worth, Florida, believe that high school students studying the police, the courts, and corrections will be motivated to improve those systems' current operations and thus increase their effectiveness. By exposing students to the theory and practice of criminal justice and giving them the opportunity to earn college credit, the Criminal Justice Academy prepares students for careers in criminal justice, while encouraging them to continue their formal educations beyond high school.

The Beginning

The Criminal Justice Academy began as the vision of the former Lake Worth chief of police and the Lake Worth Community High School principal. In August 1993, after considerable input from an advisory panel of criminal justice representatives from municipal, county, state, and federal agencies, Lake Worth High School established the Criminal Justice Academy. The academy opened with 145 students and 2 instructors, who taught an introductory course in criminal justice. Today, the criminal justice academy has 216 countywide students representing many of the 38 surrounding cities and offers four separate course levels of criminal justice. Although the school district provides funding for the textbooks and instructors' salaries, the academy receives its financial support primarily from forfeiture funds from local criminal justice agencies, in addition to money from fund-raisers and donations.

The Curriculum

Over the course of 4 years, any county high school student who ranges from 14 to 18 years of age and maintains a C average and appropriate behavior can elect to complete a series of four courses.The courses must be taken in sequence. Each course lasts 1 year and counts as an elective in the students' high school curriculum.

The introductory course in criminal justice provides a background for the other courses by analyzing and describing the different agencies of justice and the procedures used to identify and treat criminal offenses. The instructors provide students with information on critical issues in criminal justice using a comprehensive college-level textbook and by relating the practical experiences of two instructors, both retired law enforcement captains. Supervised field trips to municipal police departments, county jails, stockades, and drug detention and rehabilitation centers also provide experiential learning opportunities. Guest speakers, who include municipal, state, county, and federal law enforcement officers, stimulate learning and promote interest in such contemporary topics as the use of roadblocks, the use of force, and search and seizure laws.

The second course focuses on the changing issues of patrol operations, defensive tactics, first aid, and field investigations. This course discusses the legalities of probable cause and the different levels of offenses, and covers concerns over the use of force and police brutality. Students also have the opportunity to view practical demonstrations on different handcuffing techniques, the use of specialized equipment, such as the PR-24 side handle baton, and other police and corrections equipment. This course emphasizes the everyday practical applications of law enforcement from responding to citizen complaints to filing a criminal case with the prosecutor. Additionally, this course makes students aware of the terminology commonly used by criminal justice personnel.

The third course introduces students to the theory and practice of investigating forensic crime scenes. This includes reviewing crime scene techniques dealing with such issues as how to investigate crash sites and other aspects of crime investigations. Instructors discuss the importance of evidence, the collection of hairs and fibers, and the history of the use of evidence in critical cases.

The fourth course requires that the students complete two independent research projects, one covering juvenile delinquency and one on crime prevention from a community perspective. Each student selects a criminal justice mentor from the police, the courts, or corrections, who supervises each project, which culminates in both an oral presentation and written paper. Some examples of topics include the effectiveness of local ordinances such as curfews, the problems and solutions to graffiti throughout the school and community, and the positive effects of crime prevention education by law enforcement (e.g., Neighborhood Watch programs). In addition to enhancing the students' writing skills, a major objective of this course is to help make the students aware that some law enforcement jurisdictions lack a systematic and effective crime control strategy and to encourage the students to develop solutions to the problems that result.


Preparing students for immediate career expectations remains an important aspect of any introductory course. Those students pursuing careers in law enforcement and corrections must someday face the reality of a recruit training program and undergo a cultural orientation into a paramilitary-oriented agency, although many agencies are moving away from such a rigid organizational structure. The academy students may be better prepared for such an environment because they must wear a uniform to school and grow accustom to the formal rank structure and close-order drills often found in paramilitary agencies. Additionally, the students must stand at attention and show respect for visitors entering the classroom.

Extracurricular Activities

Yet another one of the many changes from typical high school classroom behavior is additional specialized functions, such as a drill team and color guard, available for those students interested in the added responsibilities and who demonstrate the coordination, rhythm, agility, and discipline needed. The color guard often presents the colors and leads the school in the pledge of allegiance during school functions, as well as during community events, such as immigration ceremonies.

Those students interested in extended learning who want to participate in extracurricular activities can join a club completely operated by criminal justice students. The club members, guided by faculty, elect their own officers and coordinate their own searches for extracurricular efforts. For example, the students, on their own, may schedule law enforcement representatives to speak about topics of interest to them. Additionally, the students often volunteer for local charitable organizations and edit and publish a monthly criminal justice newsletter distributed to the academy students and select members of local criminal justice community.


An executive advisory board of criminal justice experts representing law enforcement, the courts, and corrections meets each month to review the progress of the academy and make suggestions regarding programs offered within the academy. The advisory board makes additional important contributions to the Criminal Justice Academy by developing fund-raising activities, providing guest speakers, lending agency resource support, and providing counseling to students.

Opportunities and Challenges

Because workforce diversity presents a major human resource challenge, high schools can help by providing the criminal justice community with recruits from a wide variety of ethnic and cultural backgrounds.(1) For minority students, the changes in the nation's demographics and economy can represent a great opportunity.(2) In order to match the diversity in the community, law enforcement should hire diverse candidates. Schools with an academy similar to that at Lake Worth Community High School can help this effort by recruiting and training a wide variety of students.

College Credit

The ability of the students to obtain tuition-free college-level credit represents a unique facet of the Criminal Justice Academy. After students graduate from high school having successfully passed the four criminal justice elective courses, a local community college grants 3 tuition-free credit hours for each course. The community college applies the 12 college credits to the student's transcript, regardless of their major, only after the student completes five courses at that community college. This incentive motivates students to pursue their education.


Because the Criminal Justice Academy at Lake Worth Community High School has only been in existence for 5 years, administrators cannot yet determine whether its first graduates will pursue employment in criminal justice. Still, with 38 local police jurisdictions in Palm Beach County Florida, the prospect of placing for those academy graduates seems promising.

The academy potentially provides criminal justice agencies with better-educated applicants. It encourages students to further their educations and stresses the importance of having a college education in today's competitive job market. Ultimately, no matter which field the students pursue, the community gains a more-educated applicant pool. This fact alone makes the academy a success.


Many criminal justice agencies are evaluating their approaches to community education and early recruitment from local high schools. This involvement with high school students fits into the philosophy of today's sought-after community-oriented policing by interacting with community youth and solving problems through the network established at the high school level. Though some critics contend that high school students lack the maturity necessary to pursue careers in policing or courts and corrections, the Lake Worth High School Criminal Justice Academy has shown that many high school students make a commitment to learning as much as they can to pursue their desire to join the criminal justice field. Yet, whether they choose to follow a career in criminal justice or not, students in the program gain an opportunity to think in a critical way about the current issues facing the criminal justice system. Students learn the strengths and weakness of the criminal justice system and, therefore, can make intelligent suggestions and realistically have a hand in reforming the system.

Further, the Criminal Justice Academy gives students the opportunity to meet their educational and career goals. Because this program encourages students to attend college, it also helps law enforcement agencies hire college-educated individuals. Realizing that students have a unique opportunity to demonstrate leadership skills that will translate into future jobs, academy administrators continue to form partnerships with the criminal justice community, the school district, and local businesses and remain encouraged about the prospect of providing young adults with an opportunity for developing leadership within the criminal justice system. Investing time and experience in the academy students can lead to personal satisfaction for those involved, as they watch the students mature and develop into the criminal justice leaders of tomorrow.


1 W.B. Johnson and A.H. Packer, Workforce 2000 (Indianapolis, IN: Hudson Institute, Inc., 1987), 10.

2 R.A. Noe, J.R. Hollenbeck, B. Gerhart, and P.M. Wright, Human Resource Management: Gaining a Competitive Advantage (Homewood, IL: Austen Press, 1994), 12.

Dr. Johnson, a retired captain from the Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office, currently serves as the department chair of the Criminal Justice Academy, Lake Worth Community High School, Lake Worth, Florida.
COPYRIGHT 1998 Federal Bureau of Investigation
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1998, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Johnson, Louis (American dancer)
Publication:The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin
Date:Sep 1, 1998
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