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Son-of-a-bitches, stool pigeons, negative human beings. There are the words used by Malassa Ambao, 16, from Ashdod, to say what he once thought of the police. He sneaks sidelong glances: "Let's just say that, in the neighborhood where I grew up, people don't like cops." He arrived in Israel at age 6 from Ethiopia; in junior high, he almost dropped out of school. Now, after spending a year in the police studies program at Na'mat's Kanot Youth Village, he is an outstanding student.

"I have friends who were sent to institutions because they had police files," he explains. "I didn't want to turn out like the other kids in the neighborhood, who, at age 15, drop out of school and start working. I wanted to make my mother happy and proud of me; so I decided I wouldn't be like the others, that I'd get my matriculation certificate."

Ambao takes a horse out of the barn in preparation for a riding lesson. He strokes the horse, checking the saddle. "This is a regular lesson in English-style riding," he says with an expert's tone. "Later on, a high-ranking police officer will come to teach us how to disperse demonstrations and search a subject while galloping."

Despite this, Ambao claims he is not planning a police career: "I'm here because I want to learn how to be a good citizen. I don't want to be a criminal."

The high school police studies track was established four years ago by a steering committee headed by the Public Security Ministry. It included representatives from the Israel Police, the Education Ministry, Ashalim (an organization founded by the Israel office of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee) and the Immigrant Absorption Ministry. The program was launched at the Kanot Youth Village. As of this school year, it is being offered at two additional boarding schools: the WIZO Nir Ha'emek Youth Village and the Hodayot Youth Village, a religious boarding school for boys in the Tiberias area. These three boarding schools have 120 students, 52 of them girls. Of these 120 students, 70 are new immigrants - 52 from the former Soviet Union and 18 from Ethiopia. The others are Israeli-born. The three-year high school program - grades 10 to 12 - provides a full matriculation certificate, with five units in criminology, sociology and police studies, a unique subject developed with the Education Ministry's authorization. The students learn about law and the courts, the structure of the Israel Police, and community policing theories. Guest lecturers teach them about family violence, drug addiction, undercover agents and cracking murder cases.

The school day begins with a morning parade during which the Israeli flag is raised. Self-discipline is important and the students wear uniforms similar to those of Israeli police officers - with a tag and a pin bearing their name.

"They don't march left-right-left-right all day," assures Avi Castro, the Kanot Youth Village director. "The police studies are taught in an interesting, challenging manner, and our young students love the uniform. Belonging to a group gives them a sense of pride."

The students participate in advanced courses in first aid and martial arts (krav maga), and enjoy enrichment courses in yoga, Shiatsu and mediation. The 10th-graders join the Village Watch: With a reflective vest and flashlight, they take turns guarding the boarding school. The 11th-graders participate in activities with the Civil Guard, and regularly practice at firing ranges. They visit police stations, courtrooms, prisons and drug addiction treatment centers.

All about Dad

The father of 16-year-old Assaf (not his real name) is a drug addict who was recently released from prison after serving a 14-year sentence. Assaf has begun the police studies program at the WIZO Nir Ha'emek Youth Village.

"I didn't want to turn out like my father," he says. "I have seen him only twice since I was born: Once on a visit to his prison and once when he was on furlough. I didn't want to find myself in his situation. I live with my grandmother and have a special relationship with her. However, I knew I needed a strong framework that would protect me. At first, it was hard for me to wear a police uniform and get adjusted. But I learned how to manage a busy schedule, complete tasks and develop self-discipline."

Because of his scholastic achievements, the boarding school director let him play on a professional soccer team. "I love soccer and have dreamed of this," he says. "But I didn't have the money to be on a professional team. Out of respect for my soccer team and my police uniform, I even stopped smoking."

The police studies program "helps me understand many things about my father. When we had a class on drug addiction, I got a better understanding of what he has been through. When we learned about the law and the court system, I could understand how he was arrested and why he was sent to prison. I feel the program makes me believe in myself, reinforces my self-image and develops qualities I never knew I had.

"Sometimes, I think about my father seeing me in uniform," he says, smiling. "He still doesn't know I'm in the police studies track."

Superintendent Iris Rice, the Kanot project commander, teaches the Dangerous Drug Ordinance and the penalties for use and possession of illegal drugs. "Terminally ill patients are permitted to use drugs," she tells her students, who become very agitated, immediately asking her, "Hey, why should they be allowed to use drugs?"

"This is a social project par excellence," remarks Rice. "This is the first time the Israel Police is loaning out high-ranking officers and involving them in something that isn't classic police work. Everyone profits. These young people come here with a poor self-image and no personal ambitions. We put them in a program that provides them with a full matriculation certificate and they accomplish goals. These things shouldn't be taken for granted. When most of them arrive here, police have a negative association for them. We change their impression of the Israel Police, make them good citizens and excellent students."

Jenny Hadrachev confirms that the "attitude of my friends in the neighborhood toward the police has changed since I began participating in this program." Hadrachev, 15, from Ariel, arrived in Israel at age 4 from the former Soviet Union. She was raised by her mother. She says she always regarded police officers as positive individuals who "protect us, making us feel secure, but, in my neighborhood, people didn't look at them that way.

"At first, when I came home from boarding school wearing my uniform, my friends would be embarrassed to be seen with me. They would tell me, 'First, change your clothes; then we'll meet.' I heard curses and foul language from my friends because of my uniform, and that bothered me. But now I've made my friends see the good side of the police and they've learned to respect the police uniform I wear and the decisions I make," she says.

Theory and hand-to-hand combat

Lee-Anne Yoshvayev, 16, immigrated to Israel from Azerbaijan at age 3. Her mother raised her and her three brothers alone. "I don't like 'action' so much. I enjoy the theoretical studies more and want to become a criminologist," she says. "But, the martial arts classes have given me the self-confidence to walk at night by myself."

Her police uniform arouses mixed feelings in her neighborhood, she says: "Sometimes, people curse me, sometimes they compliment me. The criminal in the building where I live smiled when he saw me in a police uniform, and there are drugs in my neighborhood."

"But nobody should consider me a threat; everyone knows I'm not an undercover agent," she laughs, adding: "What I learned in class about drugs was eye-opening. I know I'll never try drugs."

"Once, when I was in uniform, a woman thought I was a real policewoman; she asked me to deal with a suspected bomb," relates Toby Azulay, 17, from Bat Yam, who is in the program's final year. "I asked passers-by to whom the bag belonged. When the owner was found, she said to me, 'Thank you, great work.'"

Azulay admits she was only an average or below-average student: "I would watch television or wander the neighborhood. I never believed I could get a full matriculation certificate. Now I'm one of the top students.

"I'm addicted to 'action,' especially in the Civil Guard, like when we stop vehicles, asking the drivers for their papers," she observes with a laugh.

Eighteen of the 20 students in Kanot's first graduating class received a full matriculation certificate. Five graduates chose military service in the Border Police or SHAHAM (Hebrew acronym for compulsory police service). One of them is Eran Chen, 19, who has been serving for the past five months in SHAHAM, attending the Police Academy in Shfaram. He plans to join the police after completing his compulsory military service.

His view of the police changed once he joined the program, he says: In the past, "when I saw a police officer, I was afraid. I was living with the neighborhood stereotype that police officers always try to catch you on minor technicalities."

"The police studies track attracted me because of the 'action' and the adventures. My whole idea of the police force changed. Today, I see a real mission in police work."

Avi Castro says the boarding school's students include children of police officers who want them to join the police force. Amin Azama, an 18-year-old Druze, was encouraged by his father, a high-ranking police officer involved in investigations for the past 20 years, to enter the program. "For me, it's a real challenge to follow in my father's footsteps and to even surpass him," says Azama. Nevertheless, he says he will not settle for SHAHAM or the Border Police; he dreams of joining the Israel Defense Forces' elite unit, Sayeret Matkal. "I've learned you can do everything you dream of," he says, revealing that despite the energy he devotes to his studies, he still finds time to write "a book that is part fantasy, part stormy love story." His book has no police officers or detectives. "Who knows, perhaps in my next book," he says.