Volunteers in Miami Schools Work To Prevent Delinquency

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Ray Anthony Mitchell's criminal career began when he was 10. His school career ended when he was 15.

Shortly after he was sentenced to life in prison in May 1980 for the murder of two couples earlier that year, the 17-year-old Miami youth told Georgia Jones Ayers that he wished someone like her had taken the time to steer him in the right direction when he was still young.

Needed Help When Young

Ms. Ayers, a community activist who began counseling the young man and his family during his trial, said he told her that "he didn't have anybody who cared enough to listen to his problems back then."

"He told me that he needed help when he was young and didn't get it, and that he still needed it now," she recalled.

Nine months later, in February 1981, Mr. Mitchell was shot and killed by prison guards
after he and a fellow inmate had taken two secretaries hostage in an attempt to escape. Ms. Ayers was on the phone with Mr. Mitchell, trying to persuade him to give up his siege, when the shooting occurred.

It was the memory of those talks with the young man, who Ms. Ayers said "was kicked out of the schools at 15 and promptly forgotten about," that prompted her to solicit the support of school officials, social-service workers, police officers, and the city's religious community to develop a community-oriented, school-based program aimed specifically at "preventing future Ray Mitchells."

"He was still a juvenile when the schools expelled him for good," Ms. Ayers said. "I felt the schools still had a responsibility to help children like him, to see that they aren't out on the streets robbing and vandalizing. I felt that there was something wrong when society can work miracles like putting men on the moon, but can't deal with a boy who starts getting in trouble with the law when he's 10."

Next month, largely as a result of Ms. Ayers' work, the Dade County Public Schools will begin a program aimed at helping delinquent youths turn their lives around before they fall into the hands of the police, courts, and prisons.

Initially, a pilot program, called the Positive Reinforcement Operation (pro), will be tried at Miami Jackson Senior High School and the 16 junior-high and elementary schools that feed into it. Together, the schools have a combined student enrollment of approximately 16,000.

A recent school-discipline audit conducted for the Miami system indicates that Jackson and its feeder schools are strong candidates for special attention. According to the report, many of the students attending schools in the group feel that their lives are "at a dead end."

'Collision Course'

The students "lack purpose and direction," the report continues. "Their basic needs--food, clothing, shelter, and the nurturing of warm, caring adults--are not being met. Without a program of appropriate intervention, this type of student is on an irreversible high-speed collision course with the laws and customs of this society."

According to Ms. Ayers, poverty is one of the primary sources of the students' malaise.

"Ray, like many of these other children, wanted to be rich," she said. "He wanted money and nice clothes. The only way he thought he could get that was by stealing. He said he tried to find jobs, but couldn't because he didn't have a proper education.

"And I know that there are many other young men and women like him in schools in this city and around the country," she added.

Alvida M. Green, a junior-high-school guidance counselor who worked closely with Ms. Ayers in developing the project, said the program's steering committee expected school guidance counselors to refer approximately 225 students to them for assistance this school year.

"Before we knew it, the counselors had turned in the names of more than 500 students to us," she said. One of the junior-high schools involved in the program alone pro-duced 105 referrals. According to Ms. Green, the students will be assigned to one of 50 adult, volunteer "listeners." The adults--a group of professionals, businessmen, retired teachers, senior citizens, and college students recruited from the community--are being trained by professional counselors to come into the schools and attempt to establish "one-on-one" relationships with the youths who appear headed for trouble.

"The adults are not there to preach or to lead the conversation, but rather to react to whatever the student wants to bring up," she explained. "So many of these kids just need someone to listen to their problems. It's unfortunate, but quite often neither teachers nor parents take the time to sit down and talk with these kids."

The adult listeners will spend at least one half hour a week during the school year counseling each of the several students been assigned to them, Ms. Green said. If the student feels more time is needed, he and the adult volunteer are free to make their own arrangements.

The volunteers are also being trained to refer youths to professional treatment programs for various problems such as drug dependency and child abuse, to serve as liaisons between the youths and their parents, and to provide students with information on career choices and vocational training, Ms. Green said.

Alonzo Gilbert, an assistant principal at Jackson High School and the school's pro coordinator, added that the program also includes a system of incentives to motivate all stu-dents in the schools toward better grades and perfect attendance.

The students, he explained, will receive points based on their scholastic achievement and behavior. At the end of each semester, students can redeem their points for prizes, field trips, movie tickets, or cash awards totaling less than $25.

"One of the nicest aspects of this program is that it costs the school district next to nothing to run once it's implemented," Mr. Gilbert added. "The listeners are all volunteers, and the awards have all been donated. All it takes is a private space for the adults and the students to talk one-on-one with each other."

Mr. Gilbert predicted that the schools will "lose" very few of the 500 students referred to the program. "You only begin losing children after you promise to help them and fail to follow through," he said. "But we plan to follow these kids all the way through their graduation.

"All that they need is a sense of belonging and the knowledge that someone cares," he continued. "In everybody's life there is that one person you can look back to as the person who set you right, the one who gave you a positive image to aspire to. That's what we hope to give to these kids."

Vol. 01, Issue 18

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