New program aims to help at-risk teens stay out of jail

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Two police officers with a heart for young people have started a new program to help at-risk youth avoid ending up in jail.

This week, officer Donnie Scott from the Bartow County Schools Police Department and Maj. T.E. Ellis from the Cartersville Police Department launched Youth Against Violence and Drugs, a program for Bartow County’s young men and women ages 13-19 that’s designed to keep them from falling into the trap of drugs and gangs, to teach them to think about the consequences of their actions and to foster positive relationships with law enforcement.

“Over the last five years, the Bartow County community has seen an increase in criminal activity,” Scott, a school resource officer at Cass High, said. “The intent of this program is to change the mindset of youth from criminal thinking to positive thinking and becoming responsible, successful individuals.”

Ellis said Scott came up with the idea “after discovering a similar program in Douglasville, Georgia.”

“[He] saw this program as a way to develop a better relationship between at-risk youth and law enforcement,” he said. “The goal of the program is to change the mindset of young people who have fallen into the trap of criminal addictive thinking and, hopefully, gain more trust and faith in law enforcement and the judicial system.”

Scott, an SRO for Bartow County since 2006, said he and Ellis have worked on getting the program started for “well over a year” but didn’t actually start putting it together until last fall. 

“We adopted the program itself from Douglasville City Police, but we revamped it to fit the needs of Bartow County,” he said.

There are a number of scenarios that make a teenager a candidate for the free program. 

“Someone charged for a first criminal offense may be referred by the courts,” Scott said. “Upon successful completion of the program, it could be a positive step in the completion of their sentence. Also, kids who are showing signs of behavioral problems can be enrolled by the parents. Or a parent can enroll a child just to learn from the experience.” 

Ellis, who has been a police officer with CPD since 1993, said the target group is young people who may have already had encounters with law enforcement or the judicial system and have been “deemed ‘at-risk’ youth” by society.

“This class works with the local court systems and may help [the students] change their thoughts about police and the court systems and help them to avoid these encounters in the future,” he said.

The participants in the 10-week program, which began Thursday night and will end June 13, will meet every Thursday from 6 to 8 p.m. at the Cartersville Public Safety Center training room.

Topics that will be covered in the classes include Dealing With and Overcoming Traumatic Experiences, Ethics and Values, Improving Self-Esteem, Decision-Making, Sex Crime, Criminal Addictive Thinking, Going Beyond Limitations, Conflict Resolution/Anger, Violent Crime and Bullying, Drug and Gang Trap, Police and You and How to Stay Out of Prison — JOB.

The teens will learn about Georgia law to help them understand why certain behaviors can lead to criminal charges as well as how to respond when confronted by law enforcement, how to avoid being drawn into a lifestyle of drugs and gangs and how their future could turn out if they stay on the straight and narrow.

The last class will be a graduation banquet, and those who meet all the required goals will receive a certificate of completion. 

“Our speakers are volunteers and vary from week to week,” Scott said. “All our speakers have a heart for helping kids succeed, and many work in the community.”

Scott said he and Ellis expect 12 to 15 students to attend the first course, but they are “set up to accept up to 30.” They hope to offer it at least four times a year, with the next one starting in late June.

While this is not being done through Bartow County Schools, it is being supported by Superintendent Dr. Phillip Page and other system officials.

“The Bartow County School System supports any initiative that works to make our students better people, whether that be inside or outside the classroom,” Page said. “Youth Against Violence and Drugs is another example of how our community has come together to support each other.”

Scott said the school district is “supporting and assisting us as much as possible, but the program’s initial budget is coming from a small grant.

“We are hopeful we can announce in the near future a means where anyone who wishes to donate to the program can do so,” he said. “That is something we are currently working on, but I am not prepared to elaborate at this time.”  

Scott said he and Ellis appreciate the support of the school system, campus police, all city and county courts in Bartow County and CPD Chief Frank McCann. 

“This is a community effort, and we do this in hopes it will not only improve the lives of those who complete this training but also improve the future of this community,” he said.

He also said the current course is still open, and teens can show up Thursday at 6 p.m. at the CPD training room to participate.

For questions or more information, contact Scott at 770-606-5800, ext. 1033, or donnie.scott@bartow.k12.ga.us.

“If there is anyone in the community that feels like they know a young person who is headed down the wrong path and may benefit from a program like this, we encourage them to contact us,” Ellis said. “We are hoping to make a difference in the lives of our youth and our community.”