CLASS OF 2023: Keizer police cadet seeks out career helping children

This article is part of a series of profiles of graduating seniors in Salem high schools. Read the full series here.

Yanice Barajas Vera volunteered to get pepper sprayed twice.

The senior at Roberts at Chemeketa has been a Keizer police cadet since her junior year, and went through training to carry pepper spray on her belt – a face full of the chemical irritant.

Most police officers stop there. But Barajas volunteered to undergo the painful process a second time earlier this spring to help newer cadets.

“Most officers never want to get sprayed with that again,” said Scott Keniston, the Keizer officer who supervises the cadet unit. “For her to step up…I think it kind of swayed some other people that were on the fence.”

It’s the type of leadership by example the 18-year-old has become known for in her small high school, though she deflects praise, saying anyone is capable of being a leader.

“I don’t tell someone what to do, exactly. I kind of work with them. I work by them,” Barajas said.

Barajas is one of the first students to graduate Roberts at Chemeketa, a new alternative high school program created in the fall of 2021 to give students in the Salem-Keizer School District an option to attend classes on a smaller campus without having to be expelled or fall behind academically first.

She spent two years at West Salem High School before coming to Roberts, and has looked for ways to serve her community and become more involved since. Barajas learned about the Keizer Police Department’s cadet program through a school email and signed up because she was seeking more opportunities for volunteering. She said it’s led to a better understanding of what’s happening in the community.

“I knew that there was criminals or people that experienced things like domestic violence … I knew that was real. But hearing the stories, I think that it kind of brings you insight of your environment. You become more aware of people,” she said.

She’s long been interested in a career adjacent to law enforcement or criminal justice, and said she specifically wants to work with children who are victims of abuse.

“(I) want to help them break through with whatever traumatic event they have. I don’t want them to think that the abuse that they’ve gone through is them as a person,” Barajas said.

Her interest stems from knowing people who have experienced abuse, though she’s aware it’s a path few would choose.

“Normally no one wants to go with the hard cases,” she said. “I kind of want to help them through, to grow as a person, be that person to guide them.”

“She’s got a tremendous capacity for empathy,” said Marianne Silvestre, who taught Barajas’ leadership class at Roberts. 

As a cadet, Barajas has been able to go on ride-alongs with Keizer officers, attend an academy to learn about various law enforcement jobs and represent Keizer police at community events.

“She’s gonna do great things no matter what she chooses, whether she chooses a career here in law enforcement or, or does something different,” Keniston said.

Keizer cadets work with cadets from other local police agencies, and Barajas has become the default leader of the group.

“She’s always taking the initiative to be the one who signs up for events and gets everything organized, just kind of a role that she’s done on her own,” he said.

Barajas is also the student body president for Roberts at Chemeketa and works with the president of Early College High School to bring student suggestions and feedback to school administrators. The two high schools share a campus.

“She’s extremely kind, very well respected by the peers and teachers,” Silvestre said.

Barajas is now taking psychology, math and composition classes at Chemeketa Community College after finishing her high school coursework, and intends to continue studying psychology.

She said she’s excited about graduating, but also sad to leave Roberts behind.

“I’m leaving a second home,” she said.

Contact reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.

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Rachel Alexander is Salem Reporter’s managing editor. She joined Salem Reporter when it was founded in 2018 and covers city news, education, nonprofits and a little bit of everything else. She’s been a journalist in Oregon and Washington for a decade. Outside of work, she’s a skater and board member with Salem’s Cherry City Roller Derby and can often be found with her nose buried in a book.