Rochester, Minnesota, police officers are giving local teens driving lessons in a program offered by Rochester public schools.
The program, funded by the county, gives teens a chance to build relationships with police officers and learn how to drive safely and responsibly at the same time.
Recently, Mayo High School senior Joyous Bellephant had her first drive with Officer Chantel Powell.
It had just snowed, and the roads were full of ice.
“Have any information about driving on snow and slush?” Bellephant asked Powell.
“Yeah. You should drive slower,” Investigator Powell responded with a laugh.
Powell is helping 17-year-old Bellephant obtain the 50 hours of driving practice required to earn her license.
“Take turns and everything slower than what you normally would,” Powell advised Bellephant.
The program was created after a recent survey found that nearly a third of students had driven without a license.
Erin Vasquez, who works at one of the participating high schools, said that sometimes the kids’ parents couldn’t drive them, or they need to get to a job, or they want to see friends.
“But you know, if a student gets a ticket, and if they’re unable to pay that ticket, then it kind of snowballs,” Vasquez said. “And then, sometimes, they get buried and find sometimes they don’t have access to employment because they don’t have the ability to drive.”
The program, which consists of driver education classes and driving lessons, was funded by $117,000 in grant money and with cars donated by the county.
Officials say the program charges students based on what they can afford — on a class-by-class basis — rather than by charging a $400 flat fee for the whole program.
For 15-year-old Ajulu Othow, who moved here from Kenya just a few years ago, the program has been incredibly helpful.
Othow, whose mother and siblings can’t drive, needs a license to get a job to support her family.
“My dad is the only one working right now. And he pays almost everything in the house,” she said. “My mom just had a baby, and she can’t work. So this is a really big thing for us.”
The classes take place at high schools in the county and can last for three hours a day for 10 days straight.
“But this is the easy piece. Coming to class, sitting and listening,” teacher Chris Jones said. “The big barrier is getting the driving hours in. They have to do 50 hours of driving before they can take their licensing exam.”
Under the program, police officers are assigned to students who lack a car for practice or an adult to drive with them.
Police Chief Jim Franklin said the new partnership not only helps teens learn to drive, but has other positive impacts as well.
“Driving and access to transportation are one of those things,” Franklin said. “We’re attacking the root cause of that problem and bringing cops alongside kids, making them better drivers. Making an investment in them, giving them the power of transportation, the freedom to go to a job, stay after school, go to sporting activities and be more productive citizens.”
Bellephant, whose older brother died in a car accident in 2017 after he drove without a license, is even considering entering law enforcement now after her lessons with Powell.