It’s after midnight, and a blue van with tinted windows is parked on the street. The guitar solo of the Guns ‘N’ Roses song “November Rain” is pouring at high decibels from its windows and there’s a distinctive odor in the air, a haze of smoke. Two patrol officers, or “road dawgs” as they call one another, notice the van’s license tags are expired. They approach.
“Please step out of the car,” says Alex Schmidt, 13, a seventh-grader at Key Middle School, struggling to keep his voice steady.
“I’m pretty comfortable here,” says the large man behind the wheel, Officer Dale Clark of Franconia Station. Schmidt repeats himself.
“Watch his hands,” advises Officer Fred Kessel, from Mount Vernon Station, who is supervising the young road dawgs. Alex finally opens the door himself and drags out the much larger man by the elbow. But there is a suspicious movement behind the tinted windows. Does the other man have a gun, a knife or a bong? Forced to assume the worst, Schmidt’s partner, Horace Clark, 13, a seventh-grader at South County Secondary School, is advised to move to the opposite side of the van and back up his partner. This time it’s a false alarm, Officer Shannon Corbeau is behaving erratically but non-violently. Despite vociferous protest from the two men, the road dawgs handcuff them and lead them to the curb.
“Now they have an idea of what we’re doing, anyway,” observed Kessel after the scenario ended. The police officers and middle school students were actually standing in bright morning sunlight in the parking lot of Mount Vernon High School. It was the final day of “Road Dawg Camp,” and the 25 middle school students who participated were taking turns practicing various real-life scenarios.
“We’re trying to show you what we go through,” Clark explained to the students. “People aren’t aware that they do things that raise our anxiety level.”
LT. JOHN BRENNAN, from Mount Vernon Station, organized the five-day Road Dawg camp, sponsored by the Mount Vernon and Franconia police stations. Twenty officers, most of whom work out of schools, have spent hours with 25 young teenagers selected from area middle schools by their counselors. They went through daily team-building activities, watched demonstrations of a helicopter landing and the bomb squad, looked at the tattoos and bullet scars of an MS-13 gang member and listened to him describe how he wound up in prison, rode a zip-line at a ropes course and toured the Fairfax County Adult Detention Center. “It’s basically just a chance for them to interact with police officers in a situation that’s different,” Brennan explained.
He said the campers’ visit to the prison may have made the most indelible impression. Each time the students passed a prisoner in the hallway, no matter how tough he looked, he meekly obeyed the prison guard’s orders. “Stop. Get up against the wall. Sit down.” Brennan said the experience showed them that “the glamorized life is really not what it was.”
“It smells like a toilet in the jail,” said Denise Hubbard, 14, an eighth-grader at Key.
“It also kind of shows you where you don’t want to be,” added Matt Martin, 13, also in eighth-grade at Key.
Alex Schmidt said he’d imagined prison as being more like “a cafeteria. I thought it would be like a little home with cops around.” He had to think for a moment before coming up with a comparison to explain the reality of prison life. “It was like hell, man. It’s like you got eight people in a room about [20 feet by 10 feet]. They’ve got to share a shower, share a toilet.”
But participants added that the camp was about more than scare tactics. “We learned how to cooperate and how to trust others,” said Denise.
“The most important thing is the connection the kids make with the police officers,” said Earl Edwards, an after-school specialist at Mark Twain Middle School who has helped with the Road Dawg camp for the last three years. “They see the police officers as human beings just like them.”
“It’s been fun,” said Officer Harvey Lyles, of Mount Vernon Station, “just meeting these kids and giving them some of the ideals of what we do, giving them the opportunity to make decisions. I think it helps them in the long run.”
Tyesha Brooks, 14, an eighth-grader at Carl Sandburg, wanted to talk about prison. She said the experience was every bit the powerful deterrent the camp’s organizers hoped it would be. “[We] won’t have to go through it because we already learned what will happen if [we] do.”
“Especially in Fairfax jail,” added Denise, “because we learned they don’t play.”
Tyesha was asked whether her friends who had not participated in the camp understood what prison was like. “They don’t have no idea,” she replied.