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Communities in Schools serves 1,000th student

By Phyllis Moore
Published in News on December 7, 2009 1:46 PM

Nearly 10 years after being introduced in Wayne County, Teen Court has reached a significant milestone -- serving its 1,000 client.

The program came to Wayne County after Sudie Davis, director of Communities in Schools, learned of a prototype in Brunswick County and acquired grant funding in January 2000.

"Once we got the funding, we hired Tasha Logan, who is now assistant city manager, as the first Teen Court coordinator," she said. "A lot of the groundwork that was laid for the program, and is still being used, was formulated by Tasha."

The first session was held in April 2000.

"We started out serving maybe 75 to 80 a year, but we knew that there was a demand for more space in Teen Court," Mrs. Davis said. "Probably about four years ago, maybe 2006 or 2007, United Way, through some attorneys who served on their board, knew that we had a backlog, so they encouraged us to apply for expansion funds."

The move took the number of cases handled to between 125 and 130 a year, she said.

"With that increase, we really have sped up the process to reach 1,000 clients," she said.

Initially, most of the cases heard in Teen Court were shoplifting and larceny. But as time went on, the caseload shifted to other infractions, such as simple assault.

"With the economy, we're seeing some swing back to shoplifting and larceny," Mrs. Davis pointed out.

The process for participation in Teen Court varies.

"For young people referred by a juvenile court counselor, it's used as a diversion program," she said. "The kids are still paying some penalty, but it totally goes away when they become adults.

"For young people referred by school resource officers, the referral is made with an incident report. Charges are not filed initially but if they do not complete Teen Court successfully, the school resource officer will file charges, and they'll go to juvenile court."

Likewise, the consequences range from community service and participating on jury duty and in the "Think About It" program -- once a month someone from a correctional institution speaks to Teen Court clients -- as well as the optional sanctions of writing an essay, letter of apology and following school rules and maintaining good grades.

The aim is to deter repeat offenders and ultimately dismiss charges that would affect the youth's future. The information remains on the court's computer, but it will show that the charges are dismissed, Mrs. Davis said.

It's been interesting to see the range of young people served, she noted.

"Not at all like people perceive," she said. "It's been doctors' kids, school counselors' kids, teachers' kids, businessmen's kids, across the board from every environment that you could come up with."

And their attitudes, as well as those of the parents, has also been interesting, to say the least.

"We have willing young people and very reluctant young people (and parents) from very angry to so in denial that they were very difficult to serve, too," she said. "But we take a lot of pride in the work that we have done."

She estimated that between 85 and 90 percent of students successfully complete the program.

And while it is difficult to track long-term, her office regularly visits the courthouse to see whether or not charges have been filed for youths who completed the program the previous year.

"Usually about 85 percent of our kids have not been in trouble again," she said.

It's been a rewarding venture, said Mrs. Davis, who has long-held "concern with our young people at age 16 going into adult court."

"I think it sets them up for having an adult criminal record when they're still children," she said.

She is especially proud of several things, including the number of youths who have returned to school.

"With the change of environment, most of them go to Wayne Community College," she said. "They're happy, and they do stay in school and get their diploma.

"Another thing that I'm so pleased with and we see it routinely, is improved communication with the family. One father came in here so angry and we really had to work with him. I talked to him about brain development, that (the son) is a child and he made a poor decision -- like oops, his brain misfired.

"I think being able to help families be able to work through some of those issues has really been a highlight for me, too."

The family of the 1,000th client is just one of the success stories. Two siblings and their mother spoke with the News-Argus under condition that their real names would not be used.

Nicole, 16, was referred to Teen Court after an altercation involving her sister, Mariah, 18, and several other youths. They were charged with simple affray and are nearing completion of working out their sanctions, which included jury duty and working at the Community Soup Kitchen, Mrs. Davis said.

"It's a good program because my girls have seen a lot of things that they hadn't seen before, like the soup kitchen and how (things) can affect consequences," said their mother, Diana. "A lot of young kids don't realize that these arguments can escalate."

The soup kitchen was a real eye-opener, she said.

"That's when they saw how many people are going without food. Kids don't realize how good they have it until they see something like that," she said. "My girls, when they saw the children come through with their mothers, it really touched them. They saw things that they hadn't really seen before."

The experience served a purpose, Diana said, and proved to be a good deterrent. Thanks to the Teen Court program, she said, her children were helped "before it was too late" and things like looking for a job will not be blemished by a criminal record.

"I know one thing, they said they don't want to have to go through it again," she said. "They don't want to get in trouble.

"My girls have always loved school, but it's easy to make a mistake, especially when someone says something that you don't like. ... It can escalate into something really bad."

Nicole said she benefited from going through Teen Court.

"I have been put on the spot, telling the judge and the jury my side of the story," she said. "I've changed my own ways, trying to be a better person. I'm doing better in school, and I will never get in any more trouble again."

The opportunity to be part of the jury pool actually proved to be fun, she said.

"It gave me experience to see other people's cases," she said, adding that she is considering becoming a Teen Court volunteer in the future.

It was a good experience, agreed older sister Mariah, 18.

"It opened my eyes, giving me a second chance and made me think about what I did and that it was wrong," she said. "I definitely won't do it again. I'm thankful for (Teen Court), that it helps teens go in the right direction."

Mrs. Davis said she is pleased with the Teen Court program's record for changing and improving lives.

"We have a lot of pride in having helped a thousand kids and even those who did not finish successfully, maybe 9 to 10 percent of our kids," she said. "We really hope that we touched their lives in a positive manner and that on down the road they will remember Teen Court and the lessons learned there."