Although Elia Eiroa Lledo, 16, had always wanted to be a district attorney, she really knew it was for her when she visited the Orange County Sheriff's Department this week as part of the 13th annual Summer Youth Education Conference.
Elia is among 24 Orange County high school students, out of about 130 applicants, at the conference. For five days, the students have hands-on training about the criminal justice system and the roles of local law enforcement agencies.
"They really teach you a lot about the justice system," said Elia, a Corona Del Mar High School junior. "Before, you don't really have that much of an idea of what they do. They make it really fun and entertaining."
The students get to visit places like the Santa Ana Police Department, coroner's office and federal courthouse, among other locations.
Jose Morfin, an Orange County district attorney's office community outreach specialist, began the conference in 1999 after learning that younger people interested in those careers wanted prior hands-on training.
"One of our interns had been a criminal justice major, and he wanted to get into law enforcement," he said. "When he came into our office, he learned about all the different things available and jobs. He said he wished in high school he had something like we have here, where they would be able to give him an orientation and information."
Morfin said that the conference takes the students step-by-step through the judicial process.
"We start them with the entire approach," he said. "From when the crime is first reported all the way through when the crime gets adjudicated. So, everyday we break it up into different segments."
Tuesday afternoon the group visited the Orange County Sheriff's Department, the Katella training facilities and bomb squad.
One of the more popular events was recorded mock scenarios in which the students had to decide when it was appropriate to fire their mock guns or take other actions. The simulation was like a video game, with real people instead of animations, and proved nerve-racking to those who tried it.
"[The simulations] were really fun, and taught you it's actually really hard," Elia said. "You really need to concentrate, and it's really stressful with everyone coming at you and shooting at you. It gives you a good feel of what the police go through everyday."
Alvaro Melendez, 17, of Costa Mesa High School also tried the scenarios.
"My experience has been great, entertaining and educational," he said. "I'm still seeing if law enforcement is for me. I might want to be a part of the canine unit, but I'm still not sure."
Sheriff's Deputy Shane Millhollon led the simulation and gave the students information on when it was lawful to shoot at someone and how to handle situations.
"[The program] gives a perspective to the youth if they have an interest in law enforcement," he said. "It gives them a look at what we do and also keeps them out of trouble."
Morfin said students interested in the program have to be at least 15 years old and show interest in pursuing a career in law enforcement or the judicial system.
For more information about the Summer Youth Education Conference, visit orangecountyda.com.