- Associated Press - Monday, February 27, 2017

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - Lying in bed one night 12 years ago, having just been expelled from school, Brittany Jackamonis had a revelation about where her life was heading.

“I cannot be this person,” Jackamonis, then 18, told herself. “There’s no way I can be this dropout from high school after all these years I’ve been in school, and I know there’s so much more I can do.”

In addition to not finishing school, Jackamonis worried about possible removal from the Richland County Sheriff’s Department Explorer Post, which introduces young people to the law enforcement field while teaching them discipline, accountability and responsibility.

It’s a program that Jackamonis, now 30 and a sergeant with the public information division of the Sheriff’s Department, said changed her life and transformed her from a troubled kid with no respect for authority into a law enforcement officer.

Growing up in central New Jersey, her family occasionally living in shelters, Jackamonis said she was the headstrong leader in her household, even over her parents.

“I had the, ‘Don’t tell me anything because I’m grown’ mindset when I was a teenager,” she said, adding that she was more at odds with authority after moving to South Carolina in 2002. That attitude got her suspended from school repeatedly, and eventually got her expelled after she cussed out a teacher.

At the time, she was about a year into the Explorer Post in Richland County. The partnership between the Sheriff’s Department and Boy Scouts of America is a kind of junior cadet program that puts kids with an interest in police work in contact with deputies to learn basic police functions and prepare them for a possible career in the field.

At regular meetings, deputies teach participants patrol functions like how to conduct traffic stops, respond to certain kinds of calls or clear a building. Trainings include time on the firing range and physical fitness. The post also participates in competitions and community service and outreach opportunities.

During all of this, Jackamonis said, kids are learning discipline and respect while building character and physical fitness. While still in the program, Jackamonis was motivated to finish high school with night classes and get an associate degree in criminal justice. The first in her family to get a college degree, she went on to the University of South Carolina and received a degree in public relations.

“It was a setback for my setup,” she said of getting expelled from school. “That one incident took me to another level in my life.”

While Jackamonis was still in school and nearing completion of the program, Sheriff Leon Lott offered her a job as a deputy. She started as a Class III officer and worked her way up to Class I, working undercover narcotics, road patrol, shootings and homicides.

“You can tell she had something inside of her that you could see from talking to her and being around her,” Lott said of hiring Jackamonis. “She’s one of those stories where you start at the very bottom. She started and worked her way up the career path.”

Jackamonis‘ story isn’t the only successful one to come out of the Explorer Post, and other graduates are currently employed with the department. Still, she has used her experience to connect with kids she’s met on calls who live in broken homes, or kids who participate in the program.

“I’m talking to these young people and I’m like, ‘There is so much more; don’t settle for your environment. Don’t settle for where you’re at,” she said.

Jackamonis said the program is geared toward kids from all backgrounds and levels of academic success who have completed the eighth grade and have an interest in law enforcement.

Antoinette Ardoin, 18, attends Jackamonis‘ church and said “Sgt. Brittany” reached out to her about joining the post. The heightened tensions between communities and law enforcement in recent years propelled her decision to go into law enforcement.

In the few months she’s attended meetings, Ardoin said the leadership discussions have stood out most to her.

“Being a leader, you’re gonna lose a couple of friends because you’re gonna stand out more than others,” she said. “People are gonna be following you, so you can’t do the things you used to do anymore.”

Ardoin is adamant about getting a law enforcement job in Richland County when she finishes the post.

“I grew up in this community, and I don’t want to leave the people I grew up with behind,” she said. “I want to show them you can make a change in your community.”

Lott, who was elected sheriff in 1996, said one of the best rewards of being a leader is watching people like Jackamonis grow over the years. He knows people like her, and Ardoin, are the future of law enforcement.

“That’s what makes the job worthwhile,” he said. “Being able to watch that, you just kind of sit back and nod to yourself, ‘Hey, she made it and she’ll continue to make it.’”

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Information from: The State, http://www.thestate.com

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