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Directors Share Successes From Alternative Programs For Juvenile Offenders

Community service, peer-to-peer counseling, and "restorative justice"—a way for criminals to make up for their crimes—are just a few of the elements that directors of juvenile-offender programs attribute to those that are successful.

The Center for National Policy brought together directors of relatively new and experimental programs for youthful offenders for a one-day working conference here last week to compare notes about their successes.

The goal for the nonprofit public-policy organization, based here, was to discuss what is working in the field and to bring into focus what it would take to replicate those models nationwide.

Mary Louise Cole, the president and chief executive officer of the Bay Point Schools in Miami, was one of several program directors who shared their experiences and provided insight to those considering establishing similar programs. The Bay Point Schools' residential programs for boys are part of the Miami-Dade County school system and have served more than 200 boys ages 14 to 18—many of them nonviolent, multiple offenders—since 1995.

Ms. Cole's program, which has a recidivism rate of only 6 percent, has turned many "truculent, rebellious teens into gentlemen and scholars," she told the approximately 100-person gathering here Oct. 13.

As with any program, successful or not, organizers also have encountered many challenges. Some of the most daunting ones conference participants said they faced were poor public policy, inadequate funding, and staff turnover.

Lesley Poole, the principal of SEED (Schools for Educational Evolution and Development), a charter school in the District of Columbia, said that the recruitment and retention of qualified staff members has been difficult because the job market is "so good."

Programs also need to "dispel the sense of fear toward students," Ms. Poole said.

Conference-goers also looked at programs aimed at prevention and the integration of youthful offenders back into the community and the larger society. While education is a big part of a successful program's foundation, many of the participants here agreed that students also have to be taught how to make a transition into society.

"There has to be a way for students to stay in contact with the school, and resources to keep them from sinking back into the life that brought them to you in the first place," Ms. Cole said.

The conference touched on rising concern over children and violence. Despite statistics showing a decrease in school violence, students feel less safe in their schools, experts at the meeting said. "The fear of violence in schools has increased," said Eric Schnurer, a policy associate for the Center for National Policy.

And while the youth-crime rate has moderated in recent years, it remains much higher than in the early 1980s, Mr. Schnurer added.

According to the center, there is a heightened worry among scholars tracking youth crime that as the country's young population increases, as it is projected to do over the next decade, juvenile crime will rise in staggering proportions.

Carmen Delgado Votaw, the senior vice president for public policy at the Alliance for Children and Families, a Washington association that represents private, nonprofit service providers, sees what she calls a "growing callousness toward juvenile offenders."

"Efforts need to be made to chip away at this callousness," she said.

"Alternative programs in schools could be a prevention strategy for kids before they are sent to residential programs or prison," said Emanuel Pariser, a co-director of the Community School, an alternative school in Camden, Maine, for teenagers who are pregnant or already parents.

—Adrienne D. Coles

Vol. 20, Issue 8, Page 18

Published in Print: October 25, 2000, as Reporter's Notebook
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