By Kalea Hall
When it comes to troubled teenagers and adolescents, the Austintown Police Department’s goal is to be proactive rather than reactive.
That’s why the department developed a partnership with Mahoning County Treatment Alternatives to Street Crimes, or TASC, and continues to work on proactive ideas to prevent students from heading down a criminal path.
“We want to get to youth at a young age before they make any more poor decisions,” said Andrea Paventi, TASC executive director.
It has been more than 10 years since the department had its own operational diversion program. A loss of grant funding closed the effort. Now, the department and TASC are waiting to hear if they will receive a $37,000 grant from the state Office of Criminal Justice Services to help fund the partnership they have.
“We wanted to bring it back, and we have been trying to do that for the last six to seven years,” said Chief Robert Gavalier.
Gavalier, who is on the board for TASC, thought a collaboration would be beneficial to the department. The Austintown school district is the first district to have the partnership with TASC. Seven students already have been referred to the program.
“We can provide exclusive resources where they can reach out,” said Vince Colaluca, superintendent of Austintown Local Schools. “They are experts at it. We are very happy to have this partnership.”
Kathy Dina, a detective at the Austintown Police Department who works in the school district, refers students to TASC, or TASC finds out about them if the teenager gets in trouble with the police.
“It keeps the kids knowing someone cares,” Dina said.
To prevent teenagers from being placed in the juvenile justice center and going to juvenile court, TASC counselors will meet the teen and a parent to discuss the program. The teens will be screened for drug and alcohol use, and then the teens are placed in whatever type of care they may need.
“We want to roll this model out and make it work at every point,” Paventi said. “We are trying to find a way to divert them from the courts.”
Township Trustee Rick Stauffer, pastor of Tabernacle Evangelical Presbyterian Church, also is involved in helping teens with problems get the help they may need. Members of the church who had a troubled past talk with the teens to steer them in the right direction. The church also offers an after-school program and youth groups for younger groups of students.
“I think we want to see an expansion of that mentoring,” the Rev. Mr. Stauffer said.
The goal is to develop a community-involved program with an actual building for teens and adolescents to go to in their time of need.
“I think we found the best impact with the least amount of cost,” Gavalier said.
In September, the department received a $250,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Justice to fund two resource officers for the schools for three years. The resource officers will work hand-in-hand with the Drug Abuse Resistance Education officer, Jeff Toth.
“Our job is to keep kids out of trouble,” Toth said.
Toth is in the classroom every day teaching students how to make good decisions. They talk about ways to avoid peer pressure, communicate without getting angry and avoid conflict. He teaches kindergarten, first-, third-, fifth-, seventh- and 10th-graders.
“I tell them, in court [the police] are the winners,” Toth said.
Toth said the resource officers will be there for discipline help and teaching good citizenship. The officers will be another way for the department to be proactive in the students’ lives.
“There are 5,000 kids on this campus, so it’s like a city,” Toth said. “ We want them to know we care about them, and we want them to stay out of trouble.”