By Kayla Henderson-Wood | OBSERVER Correspondent
Applications for the 2022 Virtual Youth Academy through the District Attorney’s Office are open through September 16. The academy is an opportunity for high school students to gain insight into Sacramento’s legal system and a chance to open up honest conversations with judges, district attorneys, police, probation officers and other community partners.
The free 10-week course for Sacramento County high school students begins with a general overview of the legal system and then delves into individual topics as the weeks go by. Participants can expect to hear from judges, lawyers, probation officers and other key community partners.
Students join for several different reasons: some are looking to learn more about legal careers, some are looking for resumes and college application experiences, and others are simply trying to learn more about the legal system.
The Virtual Youth Academy began in 2015 as an in-person event in South and North Sacramento. It grew out of Citizen’s Academy, a program that already existed to provide similar resources to adult members of the Sacramento community.
After a few years, the two separate youth academies became one and moved to a virtual format to serve more students. Since the start of the program in 2015, more than 1,600 students have taken the program and graduated. Last year’s virtual academy alone had 70 graduates from 17 different local high schools.
Last year’s program hosted judges, defense attorneys and other community organizers to talk about topics such as the use of fentanyl, crime labs, the day in the life of a lawyer and Moreover.
Molly Nealon, an 11th grader at Natomas Charter School and a 2021 Virtual Youth Academy graduate, said the fentanyl presentation was the one that stood out. “It was something that just wasn’t on my radar,” Nealon said. “It kind of made me think about when I go to college – which I really hope to do – I really have to think twice about my behavior.” Nealon took the course amid the pandemic when many students were still learning from home. She wanted to learn more about the Sacramento legal system and hoped one day to be involved with the Sacramento Youth Commission.
During the pandemic, Nealon realized that many of his peers were lonely and isolated. The virtual youth academy was a space for young people to connect with each other. According to Nealon, the students not only chatted in class, but they also messaged each other directly, to connect and offer each other support after class was over.
The Virtual Academy did not shy away from addressing topics such as police accountability, police oversight, the effects of the legal system and sex trafficking. Nealon said many students — especially given the recent murder of George Floyd — were reasonably angry entering the conversations, but she felt many left with a different perspective of law enforcement.
Supervising Assistant District Attorney Rochelle Beardsley said the program is a space for students to get to know judges and police officers first-hand — something many young people don’t have growing up. In addition, it was an opportunity to ask them questions on difficult subjects.
“I always encourage our students and tell them to listen, no question is out of bounds, no question is inappropriate, just be respectful. There’s nothing wrong with having candid conversations about hot topics. Beardsley said.
If students are interested in applying, they can inquire about the program and download the application at https://www.sacda.org/in-the-community/community-programs/youth-academy/.