Law enforcement empowers special education class

PHOTOS BY SHELBY WOLFE/Newport News Times | Officer Thomas Lekas speaks to students about criminal offenses during the ECEL class at Newport High School on Tuesday, Nov. 27.

NEWPORT — A positive relationship is growing at Newport High School, between the students in the Education for Community Employment for Life class and a police officer.

ECEL teaches what the program calls “functional academics” to children with disabilities. Such academics include independent living, vocational and self-advocacy skills. The class also helps students and families to plan for what life will look like after high school.

Part of that education now includes understanding the laws and consequences that apply as an adult, thanks to a collaboration between SLC Learning Specialist Violet “Babe” Brown and Newport High School’s School Resource Officer, Thomas Lekas.

“We have situations come up with the kids all the time here,” said Brown. “And instead of them being in trouble we want to be proactive and teach them about what would happen to them once they’re 18, if they choose to behave that way in public … even general education kids don’t know a lot of the laws and what’s expected of them when they hit 18. And so, the more we can do with them, the better off they’re going to be.”

Once a week, Lekas, comes to the class to teach the kids about various offenses and their consequences, as well as answering any questions they have.

“This is exactly what I love doing,” said Lekas.

Lekas has been with the Newport Police Department for 10 years and, having worked as a field training officer, teaching isn’t out of his comfort zone. But there are some differences in how the class needs to be taught for these students, which Brown helps facilitate during lessons.

Lekas explained to the students that, as a police officer, learning more about how to better interact with all individuals in his community is his responsibility. In the safety of the classroom environment, there’s a learning opportunity for both parties.

“Being here, I’m learning you, you’re learning me,” Lekas told students.

The most rewarding part of the process for Lekas, however, has been seeing the kids more comfortable around him.

“They recognize me in the hallway now,” Lekas said, smiling. “I love it. I love that they’ll say hello, I’ll get a high-five from some of them — that, to me, is phenomenal.”

“I’ve always had police officers come in and build relationships with students,” said Brown. “Because it’s the best way for a student to understand (their job) and not be afraid of them.”

Currently, the class is played by ear — Brown doesn’t know what Lekas is teaching ahead of time, and the length of the session is determined by how long the students stay engaged. However, Brown and Lekas are working on a full class curriculum and proposal to submit to the district, to make this class a more permanent fixture in the ECEL program.

“Our kids, they can’t predetermine what a consequence is going to be,” said Brown. “So just being able to give them a possible consequence is good for them. I know that it’s already changed two of our kids.”

To learn more about ECEL, visit sites.google.com/site/ecelworks.

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