At Portsmouth High: Exploring a pathway in criminal justice

PHS students meet the experts and get hands-on experience in police work

By Jim McGaw
Posted 11/21/23

PORTSMOUTH — Officer William Silvia of the Portsmouth Police Department had just received word of a bank robbery in progress, and hopped into his cruiser to head to the scene.

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At Portsmouth High: Exploring a pathway in criminal justice

PHS students meet the experts and get hands-on experience in police work


PORTSMOUTH — Officer William Silvia of the Portsmouth Police Department had just received word of a bank robbery in progress, and hopped into his cruiser to head to the scene. 

But first, he asked students at Portsmouth High School: Should officers activate their flashing lights and siren — or not?

Silvia, the school resource officer, was actually running a mock robbery scenario with students as part of a special criminal justice event held Wednesday, Nov. 15, at the school. 

Most students respond in the affirmative; after all, police officers need to get to the scene as quickly as possible, right?

Not so fast, Officer Silvia said. 

“You think the robbers aren’t going to be listening? The answer is no. The lights are going to be on, but the siren is going to be off. We’re going to limit the amount of noise so we can catch the suspects,” he told the group of students gathered around his cruiser outside the PHS field house.

Officer Silvia was among the professionals who visited the school for an Industry Professionals Day for about 55 students enrolled in the school’s criminal justice pathway.

“A pathway is based on experiential learning, like hands-on, experimental simulation, mock scenarios. This is for kids who think they might be interested in pursuing further study in law, policing, law enforcement, criminal justice or corrections and security,” said Katelin Kingman, an instructor in criminal justice as well as advanced-placement (AP) psychology.

“It could involve social work as well,” she added. “We’ve also talked about how police are using more diversion tactics with so many mentally ill patients. Some places in the country are experimenting with sending non-uniform, plainclothes police officers in sort of a crisis response team rather than somebody with a gun who might scare someone with a mental health crisis.”

Besides Officer Silvia’s arrest scenario, Portsmouth Police Detectives JeanMarie Stewart and James Francis led classes on how crime scenes are investigated. Students also tried their hand in climbing a rock wall brought in by the National Guard to test their strength and agility. They witnessed a search-and-seizure demonstration led by Officer David Guerriero and “Tex” of the Middletown Police Department’s K-9 unit, who demonstrated how the dog could sniff out contraband.

Officer Conor Debold, a member of the East Providence Police Special Response Team, allowed students to hold a battering ram and shield he uses during a crisis response. “He talked about high-risk warrants and needing to know about the layout of the location so they don’t get hurt,” Kingman said.

Lifting prints

Finally, Virginia Evans, a criminal justice pathway teacher at PHS, led a class on lifting fingerprints. This unit was a late replacement for a different activity that had to be scratched because an outside group couldn’t come that day, Evans said.

“We were trying to figure out ways to fill it, and a lot of the things today have been focused on various aspects of policing. Since we’re moving into a policing unit now in our classes, we wanted something hands on that they could play around with,” said Evans, adding the school already had fingerprinting kits that had been funded through a grant last year. 

“I came up with this idea to fingerprint some teachers, if they were willing to play along with me. I sent out an e-mail last week that said, ‘It just so happens that somebody is stealing coffee from the social studies office. Could it be you?’ I got a bunch of volunteers who were willing to be fingerprinted. So then they’re going to compare the fingerprints on the mug with the teachers’ prints,” she said.

One of the students dusting for prints on the mugs was Mae Pacheco, a sophomore who’s enrolled in the criminal justice pathway.

“This is definitely something I want to go into as a profession one day, whether it’s as a forensic psychologist or an investigator —something like that. My dream job is a forensic psychologist, but it’s very limited and there aren’t a lot of positions available,” said Pacheco, adding she learned a lot during the event.

Evans said the students enrolled in the pathway have a wide variety of interests. 

“They’re all over the place,” she said. “A lot of them are interested in the law as a career, so a lot of kids want to be lawyers. Some want to go into policing. Some have expressed interest in aspects of social work, which I think criminal justice ties in really well also.

“Some kids don’t even realize all the options within the criminal justice field. For example, I love the corrections unit because we bring in corrections officers and show them all the other ways you can get involved in corrections. Kids don’t even realize what a corrections officer does.”

Kingman agreed with the lack of knowledge about the corrections field. “We’ve talked about nursing and health care in the corrections system,” she said.

CTE program one day?

Portsmouth High School has four state-approved career and technical education (CTE) academies: The Academy for Education, Child Development, and Human Services; The Academy for Visual Arts and Design; The Academy for Media Communications and Digital Video Production; and The Academy for Engineering Design. Students from outside the district can pay tuition and enroll in any of these programs.

Evans and Kingman both said they would like PHS’s criminal justice program to be added to the list.

“We’re in the process of working in that direction. There are a lot of hoops to jump through to become designated as a CTE,” said Evans.

Added Kingman, “We’re still doing all of the same program requirements that a CTE is, like logging the 80 hours kids are working with professionals, and kids are writing reflections about their learning experiences and doing hands-on stuff like the fingerprinting lab. We’re trying to offer different experiences so they can gather information and demonstrate their learning so that they’re not just writing a paper.”

She expressed gratitude to the Portsmouth Police Department and the outside agencies in helping her students learn by doing, through experiential learning and discovery education.

“This is truly a show of the commitment to the close bond between community and our educational team in creating authentic experiences for kids. We could not bring criminal justice to life like this without our ‘industry partners’ in education.”

Portsmouth High School, Portsmouth Police Department

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Meet our staff
Jim McGaw

A lifelong Portsmouth resident, Jim graduated from Portsmouth High School in 1982 and earned a journalism degree from the University of Rhode Island in 1986. He's worked two different stints at East Bay Newspapers, for a total of 18 years with the company so far. When not running all over town bringing you the news from Portsmouth, Jim listens to lots and lots and lots of music, watches obscure silent films from the '20s and usually has three books going at once. He also loves to cook crazy New Orleans dishes for his wife of 25 years, Michelle, and their two sons, Jake and Max.