Officers in schools fill need for positive influence
Probation officers in all city high schools and one middle school see students on a daily basis.
By BOB JACKSON
VINDICATOR COURTHOUSE REPORTER
YOUNGSTOWN -- Most kids wouldn't see being suspended from school three times a month as a good track record.
But for 15-year-old Rashun, it's an improvement.
"I used to get suspended almost every day," said Rashun, who attends The Rayen School. "They were thinking of kicking me out."
The turnaround for him came when he started seeing his probation officer at school every day, instead of at the juvenile court every couple of weeks.
"Now I got somebody there to straighten me out," he said.
His teachers had tried, but with no luck.
"They ain't got as much power as a probation officer. A probation officer can send you upstairs," Rashun said, pointing upward toward the detention area of the Martin P. Joyce Juvenile Detention Center.
Rashun, whose last name won't be used because he's a juvenile, has been on probation for two years for being unruly. He's one of some 150 youths who are in Mahoning County Juvenile Court's new school-based probation program.
Probation officers are placed in city schools where they can have direct daily contact with their young charges.
All city high schools and one middle school, Hillman, have probation officers assigned because that's where the majority of juveniles who are on probation come from.
Judge Theresa Dellick of juvenile court said it's a new concept in Ohio, and it's been effective in reducing delinquency while improving the pupils' attendance and performance at school.
The program started in January, so officials are gearing up to begin their first full year when school resumes in the fall.
Probation officers still keep in touch with the youths during the summer, encouraging them to get involved in structured activities rather than to hang around at home or with friends.
"When they stay busy, they stay out of trouble," said Brandy Crum, probation officer at Hillman Middle School.
Ben McGee, Youngstown schools superintendent, said he was skeptical at first but has become a believer in the program. He said the probation officers have forged bonds with their youths that go beyond traditional court authority relationships.
And because probation officers are in schools, they know immediately when one of their youths get out of line and into trouble, instead of finding out about it two weeks later in court. That encourages the kids to toe the line.
"I call it a positive conspiracy," McGee said.
The officers are there to enforce probation rules, but also try to provide a positive adult influence in the youths' lives, which Judge Dellick said is something many of the kids on probation have been lacking.
William, a 17-year-old Wilson High School student, said support from his probation officer, Ramon Cuevas, has been a positive boost for him. Cuevas got him interested in boxing as an outlet for his frustrations.
"And he came to watch me fight," William said. "My mom didn't even come to see me fight."
William said he found a niche in the boxing ring, winning the junior-welterweight and welterweight titles in a recent regional boxing tournament for high school students.
He's also found a friend in Cuevas, with whom he lifts weights and talks about sports, as well as learning about life as a young man.
Cuevas said it's important to show up at extracurricular events, like William's boxing matches, so the kids know he's interested in them as more than a probation statistic.
"It shows them that they have someone there who's supporting them," he said.
For William, the program has also improved his school attendance. In the past, he was chronically absent from school and didn't care. But with Cuevas in the school, he knew he had to show up or face consequences for violating his probation.
William is on probation for driving without a license. His probation ends in three weeks, before school starts, but he's sure the positive changes in his life will remain in place after he leaves the program.
His increased attendance brought about improved grades, which made him eligible to play football this year. That and the recognition he gets from boxing have given him self-esteem he never had before.
Rashun, though, said he needs the structure and constant monitoring by his probation officer, Tony Cephas. Otherwise, he'd probably go back to his old "clowning" ways and end up incarcerated. That's what happens when youths mess up, he said.
"This is not just a feel-good program," McGee said. "It's about legitimate outcomes, and the outcomes have been good."