When a police officer visited Karen Slack's eighth-grade clas to discuss a new law enforcement program for young people, he piqued her interest immediately. But as she approached him to learn more about the Police Explorer program, a boy interrupted her and yelled: "It's just for boys, you can't join."
But Ms. Slack, now 18, didn't let the doubts of others stop her. "A lot of people laugh in my face, and say, 'you can't do that, you're a girl,'" she said. "But that only makes me want to be a cop even more."
Ms. Slack, a senior at Mount Hebron High School, is on her way to becoming a police officer.
A few days after the officer visited her class, she joined the county's Police Explorer Post 1952, a program that exposes 14- to 21-year-olds to careers in law enforcement. The program is 17 years old here, and operates in conjunction with Boy Scouts of America. Nationwide, the program has 42,000 members.
Ms. Slack is a first lieutenant, the post's second-highest ranking member, and plans to become a Howard County police cadet.
"I hate being stuck at a desk. I like the idea of going out and helping people," she said, explaining her interest in law enforcement.
The 35 county Explorers -- 12 girls and 23 boys -- wear navy blue uniforms with patches and silver badges. They don't carry weapons.
They meet on some Mondays to plan activities, and are often given traffic details and assignments at the Howard County fair and other events.
"We're like little cops," said Explorer Sgt. Karen Garrity, 14, a ninth-grader at Centennial High School.
The Explorers attend national conferences and receive CPR, self-defense and other police training. This summer, Ms. Slack is set to become the first county Explorer to attend the National Law Enforcement Explorer Leadership Academy in Washington, a program for 30 Explorers from across the nation.
Howard police PFC Charles M. Gable, the Explorers' adviser, said the program is an excellent tool for aspiring law enforcement professionals to develop self-esteem and leadership skills and meet friends.
Another bonus: "It makes them attractive to [police] recruiters," he said. "Any kid who's interested in law enforcement and not taking advantage of this is missing an opportunity to be leaps and bounds ahead of people who don't apply," he said.
Officer Donna Chaney, 26, a former Explorer, said the program "gave me a good perspective on what police work was like."
When Explorers turn 15 and receive required training such as CPR, they can begin a ride-along program with county patrol officers. But they don't wear their badges and collar ornaments so they are not mistaken for actual officers.
Explorer Capt. Richard Stevens, 17, has gone on several ride-alongs. "It gives you an idea of what police work is and what you're getting into," he said.
Though most ride-alongs are fairly routine, some Explorers have responded to scenes of major crimes.
Last month, Kelly Garrity, 16, went to Rocky Gorge in Scaggsville where a woman's body was found in the reservoir. "We weren't allowed in the taped area," said the post's Explorer of the Year. "We just stood there and watched [investigators] look for evidence."
The experience taught her how meticulous police must be to search for clues, she said.
Karen and Kelly Garrity's father, FBI agent Bob Garrity, encouraged them to apply for the Explorer program. At first, she wasn't enthusiastic, she said, but the program "has grown on her."
But other parents are concerned initially about their teen-agers joining, some Explorers said. But once they realize their children are serious, most accept the idea, the Explorers said.
"The possibility of me getting shot is probably slim," Karen Garrity said.