By Kayla Henderson-Wood | OBSERVER Correspondent 

Applications for the 2022 Virtual Youth Academy through the District Attorney’s office are open now until September 16. The academy is an opportunity for high school students to get an inside look at the Sacramento legal system and a chance to open up honest conversations with judges, district attorneys, police officers, probation officers and other community partners. 

The free, 10-week course for Sacramento County high school students starts with a general overview of the legal system and then delves into individual topics as the weeks progress. Participants can expect to hear from judges, attorneys, probation officers and other key community partners. 

Students join for several different reasons: some are looking to learn more about legal careers, some are looking for resumes and college application experiences and others are just trying to figure out more about the legal system. 

The Virtual Youth Academy started in 2015 as an in-person event in both south and north Sacramento. It stemmed from the Citizen’s Academy, a program that already existed to provide similar resources to adult community members in Sacramento. 

After a couple of years, the two separate youth academies became one and transitioned to a virtual format to serve more students. Since 2015 when the program started, over 1600 students have gone through the program and graduated. Last year’s virtual academy alone had 70 graduates from 17 different local high schools.

Last year’s program hosted judges, defense attorneys, and other community organizers to speak about topics such as fentanyl usage, crime labs, day in the life as a lawyer and more. 

Molly Nealon, an 11th grader at Natomas Charter School and a graduate of the 2021 Virtual Youth Academy, said the fentanyl presentation was one that stood out.  “It was something that just wasn’t on my radar,” said Nealon.  “It kind of made me think about when I go to college — which I really hope to do — I really have to think twice about my behavior.” Nealon took the course in the midst of the pandemic when many students were still learning from home. She was keen to learn more about the legal system in Sacramento and was hoping to one day be involved in the Sacramento Youth Commission. 

During the pandemic, Nealon realized many of her peers were alone and isolated. The virtual youth academy was a space for youth to connect with one another. According to Nealon, students would not only chat in class, but would also message each other directly, to connect and offer support to one another after the class was over. 

The Virtual Academy did not shy away from the topics like police accountability, police oversight, the effects of the legal system and sex trafficking. Nealon said many students – especially consdiering the recent murder of George Floyd — were reasonably angry coming into the converastions, but she felt many left with a different perspective of law enforcement. 

Supervising Deputy District Attorney Rochelle Beardsley said the program is a space for students to get to know judges and police officers first hand — something many youth don’t have growing up. In addition, it was an opportunity to ask them questions about tough topics. 

“I always encourage our students and say listen, no questions are out of bounds, no question is not appropriate, just be respectful. It’s okay to have candid conversations about hot topics.” said Beardsley.

If students are interested in applying they can find out about the program and download the application at