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Rochester cops put in the hours with teen drivers

Officers' involvement helps kids fulfill their requirements

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Rochester Police Officer Chantel Powell, left, gives Mayo High School senior Joyous Bellephant some last-minute instruction before their driving lesson Thursday, Dec. 1, 2022, in Rochester, Minnesota. It was Bellephant's first time driving in the snow.
Ken Klotzbach for MPR News
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ROCHESTER, Minn. — It was a couple days after Rochester's first big snow — and Joyous Bellephant's first winter drive, which began with the fine art of scraping ice off a windshield.

"Have any information about driving on snow and slush?” she asked her driving teacher.

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Rochester Police Officer Chantel Powell, left, helps Mayo High School senior Joyous Bellephant clear snow off her car before their driving lesson Thursday, Dec. 1, 2022, in Rochester, Minnesota.
Ken Klotzbach for MPR News

“Yeah. You should drive slower,” said Rochester Police Department Investigator Chantel Powell with a chuckle. She's been volunteering to help 17-year-old Bellephant rack up the 50 hours of driving practice she needs to earn her license.

Powell sat in the front passenger seat, and with the alert young driver behind the wheel, they move off into traffic.

“Take turns and everything slower than what you normally would,” Powell advised, as they prepared to start their lesson.

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Driving without a license

This is a new program offered by Rochester Public Schools that aims to get more teens on the road legally and safely.

A recent district survey found almost a third of students had driven without a license. And that can be for a lot of reasons, said Erin Vasquez, who works at one of the participating high schools.

Their parents can't drive them, they need to get to a job, they want to see friends. The list goes on.

"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."

So last spring, with more than $117,000 in grant funding and a fleet of cars donated by the county, the program offered its first driver's ed classes.

They began charging students based on what they can afford, rather than the $400 flat fee to take the class.

It was a game-changer for 15-year-old Ajulu Othow, who moved here from Kenya just a few years ago. She said where she lived, many people didn't drive because they couldn't afford cars. Her dad can drive, but he works a lot, leaving Othow and her mother and younger siblings without a ride.

Othow sees a license as a path to getting a job to help support her family financially, too.

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"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."

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Rochester Public Schools community school site coordinator Erin Vasquez introduces the class and instructor to district students Wednesday, Nov. 30, 2022, after school at Century High School.
Ken Klotzbach for MPR News

Just getting to driving class can be a barrier, too, so the district brought the classes to high schools.

3 hours a day for 10 days straight

As school is ending for the day at Century High School, driver’s ed is just beginning.

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Enhanced Driving Institute instructor Chris Jones teaches students Wednesday, Nov. 30, 2022, after school at Century High School in Rochester, Minnesota.
Ken Klotzbach for MPR News

“Did everyone get a booklet?” teacher Chris Jones, calls to the students, getting them settled down. He says the class is intense: three hours a day for 10 days straight.

"But this is the easy piece. Coming to class, sitting and listening,” he 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."

And that's where the Rochester Police Department steps in. When kids don't have a car for as practice, or an adult who can drive with them, they're assigned to a police officer who teaches them the ropes.

Checks a lot of boxes

Police Chief Jim Franklin said the new partnership checks a lot of boxes for his department because it helps get in front of host of potential socioeconomic problems that drive people into crime and poverty problems before they begin.

"Driving and access to transportation is one of those things,” Franklin said. “We're attacking the root cause of that problem, and bringing cops alongside of 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."

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Back at her lesson, the rapport between Bellephant and Powell is clear. Bellephant calls Powell her "cop-lady" and sometimes they go through the Starbucks drive-thru during their lesson. She's even interested in a career in law enforcement now.

And Powell knows all about a tragedy in Bellephant's past that hovers in the background of every lesson. Her older brother died in a car accident in 2017. He was the driver. Bellephant’s mom is anxious about doing her driving hours with her as a result.

"He didn't have his license yet,” Bellephant said. “I wouldn't say, ‘Boys and stupid decisions.’ I would just say, ‘Young kids and making decisions that they think will turn out good. And sometimes they just don't.’ "

As Bellephant drove down the snowy road, Powell reminded her to use her turn signal, and told her she's doing great.

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