Students from the Sheriff Office’s SLA smile with Deputy State Fire Marshall K-9 Jimpy. Pictured, standing, from left: Jadon O’Bryant, Isaiah Roberson, Levi Long, Blade Devin, Broady Johnson, Hunter Millirons and Elijah Nance. Middle row, from left: Baylee Grayson, Hannah Rogers and Ellington Jones. Crouching, from left: Lauren Weaver, Kacey Watts, Charly Robinson, Meisi Diggs, Haylie Jones and Erin Snow.
By Katie Bohannon, News Editor
Since its inception in 2011, the Etowah County Sheriff’s Office Student Leadership Academy (SLA) has accomplished its mission of providing local rising high school seniors with educational and exceptional experiences designed to forge productive future leaders.
Following a brief hiatus last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the academy celebrates its 10th class in 2021, granting a new group of students a world of perspective, unique opportunities and unforgettable life lessons.
Sixteen students from schools throughout Etowah County participated in the 2021 Student Leadership Academy, which began Monday, June 14 and concluded with a special graduation ceremony Thursday, June 17. As a partnership with Jacksonville State University, upon the program’s completion, the SLA provides students with three hours of college credit, possible scholarship opportunities, a future college or job reference letter from the sheriff, program completion diploma and an honorary deputation.
College-level courses, hands-on activities and lectures culminate to introduce SLA students to the entire criminal justice process through the extensive program. This year, the program partnered with Gadsden State Community College, where students were housed in Browder Hall dorms.
“It gives them not only a feel for what it’s like to be in the office of sheriff and carry out the duties of being a deputy, but it gives them that ability where they are in life to see how the real world operates,” said Etowah County Sheriff Jonathon Horton. “They’re given accountability and responsibilities. These are seniors just embarking on adult life – it’s a great opportunity to instill some good leadership, discipline, drive and initiative and give them a focus…maybe not in law enforcement, but in preparing them to see what it takes to apply themselves to whatever job market they may approach.”
Students awoke at 5:15 a.m. each morning to begin their day with physical training, which consisted of a variety of exercises and challenging courses. In addition to running the trails at Noccalula Falls and simulating a water rescue or suspect chase, SLA students visited the Gadsden Police Range, where they participated in the PT course all deputies undergo – completing tasks like scaling a fence, knocking in a door and running over a mile.
The students traveled to various locations across Etowah County over the course of four days to fulfill a concentrated itinerary covering a wide range of professions, educating the class on how each role coincides with law enforcement to ensure the county operates safely and successfully.
Students listened to a keynote speech from Circuit Judge William Ogletree, attended an Etowah County Commission meeting and learned from Probate Judge Scott Hassell and District Attorney Jody Willoughby about county government, constitutional law and the court system. In addition, the class discovered career opportunities in both government and public service, asking elected officials questions and gathering insight into the realities of their positions.
JSU Senior Forensic Scientist at the university’s Center for Applied Forensics, Dr. Mark Hopwood, instructed students in components such as basic crime scene documentation, developing and comparing fingerprints, biological fluids, blood spatter, detecting firearms trajectory and tire and footwear evidence. Captain Paul Williams joined school resource officers to prepare the class for patrol operations, where students rode along with officers countywide.
“They gain the experience of really growing in respect for what these valiant deputy sheriffs get up and do every day to keep them safe,” said Horton. “At the same time, it gives them the ability to participate and do something they’ve never done before [while] getting some college credits. The experience and camaraderie they gain is what I hope they carry from here – to be fruitful in whatever career choice they take and make of themselves.”
The 2021 SLA class consisted of outstanding students selected from each school involved. Kacey Watts and Elijah Nance represented Gaston High School; Erin Snow and Hunter Millirons represented Coosa Christian School; Ellington Jones represented Etowah High School; Jadon O’Bryant represented Gadsden City High School; Meisi Diggs and Levi Long represented Glencoe High School; Charly Robinson represented Hokes Bluff High School; Blade Devin and Haylie Jones represented Sardis High School; Hannah Rogers and Broady Johnson represented Southside High School; Isaiah Roberson and Baylee Grayson represented West End High School; and Lauren Weaver represented Westbrook Christian School.
Diggs and O’Bryant discussed their favorite moments throughout the week, commenting on the forensics course and riding along with officers on patrol as they waited their turn to fly in a helicopter with the aviation unit. They noted that this once-in-a-lifetime experience transformed their perception of law enforcement, highlighting the difference between their previous knowledge (often derived from the media and film) and what they learned during the academy.
“You learn a lot that happens in Etowah County that you don’t ever see,” said O’Bryant. “In movies, you just see one police chase. In real life, you learn different patrol units and see arrests, traffic checks and warrants. You get to see how big the county really is when you’re on patrol…places and roads that you didn’t even know were there. [The academy] shows you a better perspective of police.”
“I didn’t know a bunch of this happened here,” said Diggs. “I have always seen it on TV or movies, then in forensics class they were showing us what happened in Etowah County and that was just crazy to me. I have a lot more respect for our police and sheriffs. I already did, because I’ve seen everything on social media, but this has given me a sense of how it [truly] is. [The law enforcement officers in Etowah County] are actually goofy and funny, and I love to be around all of them.”
Although the courses and activities featured on the SLA schedule expose students to an authentic “day in the life” of law enforcement officers and elected officials, the opportunities that arise through the program educate them on more than job responsibilities. The SLA nurtures students’ personal growth as individuals through character-building, while emphasizing the importance and value of teamwork – developing prominent qualities found in effective leaders.
“Leadership gives them [a sense of] service and duty,” said Etowah County Administrative Coordinator Kelley McGinnis, who has assisted in organizing the academy each year. “They get to see what they can do in their community, in their schools and with their families to help better themselves along with the community. As strong leaders, you’re only as strong as the people you’re around. This training helps them take everything they’ve learned back to help the community.”
Diggs and O’Bryant echoed the notion that leadership is greater than a single individual alone, noting that while the pair knew each other prior to the program, they only became closer friends throughout the process. They shared that they both made new friends over the past few days, learning that the best leaders support those around them – uplifting their teammates, encouraging others and becoming trustworthy and reliable citizens.
“I feel like leading isn’t always one person,” said Diggs. “You have to be a team together; work together. Our first morning PT, we did something where one person had to run up a hill while the other person is holding a plank. If they didn’t get back down, you’re holding that plant and just keep on going. So, there’s teamwork [involved] and [you learn] how to work together and get it done.”
“I love seeing these kids who have only been together since Monday [bond],” said McGinnis. “[During physical training] a kid was struggling going over a wall and three of them came back and helped [that student]. The last one running by themselves, three of them went back and picked that kid up. The bond they form after this short week will last forever.”
The SLA’s impact branches far and wide, with students from previous graduating classes returning year after year to assist with new groups. McGinnis stated that numerous SLA participants were inspired to enter law enforcement after the program, with students serving as officers in Hokes Bluff and Rainbow City and working in both the jail and on patrol. This year, O’Bryant emerged as one of those students.
“I’ve always wanted to be an officer, ever since I was little,” said O’Bryant. “Most of my family is blue collar. [During SLA] I’ve learned how to be a better leader and [being in law enforcement] would be something fun. I’ve always had an interest in doing it.”
Whether or not these students choose to pursue careers in law enforcement, the lessons they learn through the SLA prove beneficial and invaluable in their development as productive members of their communities. Horton and McGinnis left the SLA graduating class of 2021 with a few words of advice as they embark on their next adventures in life.
“Always do the right thing,” said Horton. “It may not always look like the easiest route, but in the end it always pays the best dividends. You get out of something what you put in it. Just know there’s nothing for free, and you’ve got to get out there and work for whatever it is [you are doing] and invest in it. The more you do that, the bigger the return will be. Keep a bright outlook and don’t always take the short cut…long [routes] pay better.”
“Remember the talks you learned this week,” said McGinnis. “We’ve heard from different people and they all have a similar message: love what you do, do what you love and always strive to do the right thing. At the end of the day, we all want to go home safe. We want to have the best family and best life we can have.”