Crouching beside a row of dense shrubs, 17-year-old Chad Horvat suddenly realized he could easily fall victim to the "bad guy" he was searching for.
"Where's my backup?" Horvat yelled, keeping his eyes focused on the bushes that border his Leesburg school. Seconds later, two classmates crept up behind him, and the trio worked together to scour the brush for signs of their target.
The "bad guy" eventually turned up on the other side of the school, but Horvat and his friends got what they were really after--a lesson in how police officers safely track fleeing suspects. The exercise was part of a Loudoun County public school law enforcement class offered for the first time this year at C.S. Monroe Technology Center in Leesburg.
The class, designed to give students interested in law enforcement careers a taste of the life of a police officer, has been a hit with 22 students from five high schools who travel each day to Monroe. The group has been studying the history of law enforcement, current laws and the effects of various drugs that police say are at the core of many crimes. They will also get practice handcuffing their peers, completing tedious paperwork and making mock traffic stops.
Leah Ganey, 17, one of six girls in the class, said the program will give her a jump on her dream job as an agent in the FBI's behavioral science unit--which, among other things, profiles criminals' minds.
"I could be issued a badge and a gun and catch bad guys--but from a mental standpoint," said Ganey, a Potomac Falls senior who is active in the school's student crime solvers program.
As for area law enforcement officials struggling to hire officers in today's competitive job market, they say they hope the class will steer some applicants their way.
"It's going to be beneficial to law enforcement because it's difficult to recruit qualified candidates," said Virginia State Police Sgt. Tom Martin. "There's tremendous interest from the students, and this gives them early exposure to what it's like."
Martin, along with Loudoun Sheriff Stephen O. Simpson and Chris Jones, a former Leesburg police officer, worked with Monroe Principal Michael A. Megeath to develop the course. Each of those law enforcement agencies, as well as smaller departments in Middleburg and Purcellville, are supporting the program by loaning equipment or freeing up officers to talk to the students about their areas of expertise, including canine searches and narcotics investigations.
Candyce Shaw, 19, a graduate of Park View High School, is so interested in a law enforcement career that she returned to high school for the course. Shaw, who works at a day-care center, said her interest in police work started when she was a victim of harassment and helped officers make their case by wearing a wire.
"It was really cool," Shaw said. "I went in there and talked to her and recorded the conversation."
Teacher Judi Lukens Torian, who was a Fairfax County police officer for 22 years before a stint as a crime analyst in the Loudoun County Sheriff's Office, captures her students' attention by teaching them about the latest technology and high profile criminal cases. But she doesn't glamorize police work.
When one student complained last week that it was a little chilly during the outdoor practice searches, Lukens Torian--known to her students as L.T. both because of her initials and her former rank of lieutenant--didn't hesitate to mention one of an officer's frequent tasks. "At least you're not out directing traffic," she said.
And as the students fastened on thick leather belts that could--but didn't--hold a gun, nightstick, flashlight mace and handcuffs, Lukens Torian offered a practical reason for making sure everything is in its proper place.
"You want to keep the back as flat as you can, because when you're sitting in a cruiser for hours, it hurts," she said.
Lukens Torian, who counts patrol officer, narcotics investigator, helicopter crew member and hostage negotiator among the positions she has held through the years, said she's slowly introducing her students to much of the same practical instruction they may someday get at a police academy.
After the practice searches last week, she sketched a diagram of the school grounds on the chalkboard and posed a question to the class: "This is Buster Bad-Boy we're looking for. If you were a police officer and you had to search an area as big as the school, what would you do?"
"Use dogs," offered one student.
"I'd put some people on the roof," said another.
Search dogs are a great idea, Lukens Torian said, but in this scenario they weren't available. As for the helicopter, she reminded her students that none of Loudoun's local law enforcement agencies have one. And to throw in a curve, she told her students it would be a nighttime search.
After some debate, the students decided to post officers at two corners of the roof and at opposite corners of the property to keep watch while others were assigned to methodically check hiding places in the parking lots and brush.
"Give them night vision [goggles], and nobody use the flashlights so the bad guys don't see," suggested Jason Kerns, 17.
Another good idea, Lukens Torian said, but not always practical. Plus, a suspect hiding under a car may be easier to spot with a flashlight. Which led her to another lesson.
"Where do you stand when you're looking under a car?" Lukens Torian asked. This time a chorus of responses: "Behind the wheel." Taking cover behind a tire increases an officer's safety if the suspect is underneath.
Then Lukens Torian offered another safety tip. Instead of holding the flashlight while peering under a car, she said, an officer should roll the light along the ground beside the car so a suspect has a harder time figuring out exactly where the officer is standing.
Ganey said she has been most surprised by the consequences that result from each split-second decision an officer makes. "It's the enormity of the liability from the moment you put on your uniform or step out of the car or pull your weapon," she said.
In coming weeks, the class will visit the Loudoun jail, view a court hearing and hear from lawyers.
Most students said learning about the intricacies of policing has only heightened their conviction to become officers. "Ever since I was young I always wanted to be a cop," said 17-year-old Tony Henderson. "It's been fun learning about all the laws and the codes and the risks."