Faced with the elimination of “zero-tolerance” policies in school, Madison County is launching a mentoring program to try to help troubled teens.
With the approval of Senate Bill 100, schools can no longer use zero-tolerance policies for student discipline, which means they need to find alternatives to suspending or expelling students for disciplinary problems, according to Madison County Regional Superintendent Robert Daiber. That’s given priority to a program Daiber has been developing: a mentoring program designed to provide at-risk youth with positive support from people in the community.
“It’s a discipline intervention to help schools keep individuals from going in the wrong direction,” Daiber said. “Daily you hear stories about our young population drawn into crime.”
Daiber stressed the new program, called “Give 30,” is not intended to compete with after-school programs and mentoring programs like Big Brothers Big Sisters. Instead, this is an in-school program that would be offered as an alternative to traditional discipline when a student is getting into trouble and there are concerns the student might drop out.
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“When we look at the overall picture of crime and what we can do to keep them (out of jail), we will do whatever we can to resolve these issues with the at-risk youth,” said Madison County Sheriff John Lakin. He said some young people reach a crossroads while they are in school. “And it’s not just in high school. Even kids in junior high can be faced with a decision of doing what is right or what is wrong. If for whatever reason they make the wrong decision, and follow that up with another bad decision, it can negatively impact the rest of their lives.”
Lakin said as of Thursday morning, the Madison County Jail stood at 304 occupants; the jail’s capacity is 306. He said any program that could draw young people away from criminal activity is worth trying. “There could be just one thing that completely turns a young person’s life around,” he said.
There could be just one thing that completely turns a young person’s life around.
Madison County Sheriff John Lakin
The program will train mentor volunteers from the community who would spend 30 minutes a week with a student in the school, helping with homework or listening and giving advice on problems. A mentor could advise a student on a career or educational path after high school, or simply listen to them, something that may not be happening elsewhere in their lives.
“When students feel they can disclose things to you, they’ll feel confident that they have an outlet,” Daiber said.
Mentors must be 21 years old or older and will be matched by gender. They must undergo a background check, which Daiber said will be funded by fingerprint fees and will be the only cost of the program. His office will absorb the rest of the work as part of its mandate to assist schools, he said. All contact with the student will be in school during the school day; contact outside of the school environment will not be permitted.
Madison County Chief Judge David Hylla said it is important that community members do what they can to help troubled youth mature and become contributing members of society.
“Unfortunately, many of the youth that are forced to appear in our courtrooms share a common denominator: they have received little, if any, adult guidance in their lives,” Hylla said. “The challenge of the Give 30 program and participating mentors is to encourage these students to re-engage in school. Expulsions and suspensions should only be a last resort to address these students.”
Unfortunately, many of the youth that are forced to appear in our courtrooms share a common denominator: they have received little, if any, adult guidance in their lives.
Madison County Chief Judge David Hylla
But what can 30 minutes a week with a mentor do? Daiber said it can have a bigger impact than it seems. “I don’t believe we can out-police the issues we are facing,” Daiber said. “If a student is repeatedly suspended, leading to expulsion... someone is not communicating with him.”
Talking and interacting with the student one-on-one on a personal level can have a significant impact, according to Daiber. And if the mentor recognizes a need, he or she could assist in getting the student help. Acting out in math class might identify frustration with the difficulty of the class and call for a tutor, for example.
Mentors also might identify other problems. If there are issues of abuse or physical danger, the mentor can alert school officials who are mandated reporters and can get immediate help for the student, Daiber said.
While the pending elimination of zero tolerance is a factor in the program’s development, Daiber said they would have attempted the program even without Senate Bill 100’s new restrictions. “There is no true measure of the (success of this); you measure success one student at a time,” Daiber said. “You prevent them from making one bad choice.”
Give 30 will be tested this spring at the county alternative school in Troy, with a full launch next fall as Senate Bill 100 takes effect on Sept. 15.