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Model program helps those in juvenile hall return to LA Unified

Mike Szymanski | October 27, 2015

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For the first time, LA Unified school officials can track former students as they are released from juvenile halls and detention camps to help reintegrate them into the public schools.

In this first year of the program, the district has identified 1,067 students who are being returned to the school population, some of them as young as 12 years old. This year, 52 of them who were close to graduation, completed their course work and received a high school diploma. Sometimes students too old to return to their former schools go, instead, into adult education programs.

The $1.7 million program brings together counselors from LAUSD with the county youth probation department and the Los Angeles County Office of Education. First-year results were so impressive that the program is being considered as a model for the state, and possibly the nation. Erika Torres, LA Unified’s director of Student Health and Human Services Pupil Services, is planning to present the program to state officials in Sacramento early next month.

“We are leading the way in how to integrate students from juvenile halls and camps back into the school system,” Torres said. “Some schools don’t want these students back.”

Pupil Services and Attendance counselors from the district develop programs and procedures that involve teachers, parents and probation officers to get the students into the right school environment for success. The aim is to prevent high-risk students from returning to juvenile hall and to prevent others from going there in the first place.

The program is now operating at 430 LA Unified school sites, and Torres says she hopes the counselors will eventually be available at every school.

“It’s better for us to be proactive and reach these students at an early age, even Kindergarten, rather than react after they have committed a crime and are sent to juvenile hall,” said Paul Schuster, who has worked with high-risk students for 30 years and is a Camp Returnee program counselor. These counselors serve as a liaison with courts — Los Angeles County has six juvenile camps that can accommodate 1,400, and three juvenile halls.

Liliana Flores, left, with Paul Shuster

Liliana Flores, left, with Paul Shuster

This year, counselors have served over 1,000 students across the district. One of the success stories (see video), is Liliana Flores, who at 14 came to the US from El Salvador, didn’t speak English and suffered physical abuse at home. She got involved in gang activities while living in a group home and was sent to a camp. She credits Schuster with moving her onto a more productive path.

“Liliana received scholarships, just got her driver’s license and bought a car,” Schuster said. She works at Homeboy Industries, just started Pierce College and is working toward getting legal immigration status.

“She is just amazing, and she was motivated and ready to change her life,” Schuster said. “Some kids don’t take advantage of the services we have available.”

Liliana says, “I am thinking of becoming a probation officer and helping some other youth.”


Once homeless, Julio Vasquez got helped by counselor Jose Diaz

Counselor Jose Diaz made a huge impact on Julio Vasquez, 17, who was sentenced to six months in a juvenile center for vandalism, then ran away when assigned to probation, choosing to live homeless for a while. Diaz bought Vasquez a pair of shoes because he was embarrassed about wearing sandals. That created a trust.

“It was kind of like a push,” Diaz explained. “I can’t do that for everyone, but it just seemed like the thing to do. Many of these kids come from broken families where there is not a father figure. The single parents can’t handle them, and they commit crimes.”

A Pupil Services aide, Sandra Naranjo, said, “It is important that they don’t feel like they are not all alone. We can steer them and support them. Some may not get that high school diploma, but they can steer clear of bad influences that might be plaguing them.”

Schuster said addiction to methamphetamine, more than marijuana and alcohol, is the most serious problem facing the youth. Others, he said, are addicted to gang activities.

“Kids have to be ready to make a change, and some of them have to bottom out,” Schuster said.

Meanwhile, Torres and her team are working with schools and teachers to reduce  their fears of the students returning from juvenile hall. The schools can’t legally forbid them from returning, and Torres said she has to train administrators and teachers how to accommodate them.

One way, is an educational summit that is planned for Nov. 5 when LAUSD will showcase some of its successes. The students in the video above and others plan to meet with the school board to explain how the programs changed their lives. The recent school police arrest diversion program also helps with keeping students out of the criminal justice system.

“The whole purpose is to reverse the path the students are heading, and keep them from going to jail,” Torres said.

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