Forum allows teens in custody to share their stories with students

Students at Camden's Cooper B. Hatch Family School listen as teenagers from the Juvenile Justice Commission Speakers Bureau share how life events led to their confinement, and their hopes for the future.
Students at Camden's Cooper B. Hatch Family School listen as teenagers from the Juvenile Justice Commission Speakers Bureau share how life events led to their confinement, and their hopes for the future. (ED HILLE / Staff Photographer)
Posted: March 08, 2014

At Cooper B. Hatch Family School on Thursday, a 17-year-old boy described how his mother introduced him to getting high when he was in the sixth grade.

An 18-year-old told the middle-school audience of seeing her boyfriend being stabbed, and of how he died in her lap on the way to the hospital.

Another boy admitted selling drugs and robbing even before he got to high school. Yet another described being well on the road to addiction by his teens.

All four - all residents in the state's youth correctional and rehabilitation system - are working to reclaim their lives. All spoke in the hope that their stories might keep others from going down their path.

The teenagers are members of the state Juvenile Justice Commission Speakers Bureau, a program within the commission's Restorative Justice Unit. Last year, 15 speakers bureau forums were held around the state, reaching 715 students and 61 faculty.

The program is intended to benefit both listeners and speakers.

"What [the speakers] get out of it is the opportunity to give back to their community," said Ray Trader, commission program specialist. "They get the opportunity to develop public speaking skills. It builds their self-esteem and gives them an opportunity to realize they can do things differently than they did in the past, and they can make a healthy and noteworthy impact on their peers."

Their audiences, it is hoped, learn from their mistakes.

"Having them hear it from a kid is sometimes more effective than listening to us," said Kevin Brown, executive director of the commission and a graduate of Hatch.

It was not, however, an in-your-face, scared-straight-style program. Rather, the speakers, who were not identified because of their juvenile status, spoke calmly but candidly about their lives, mentioning absent parents, unstable homes, in some cases homelessness, anger and fights, good grades that plummeted, multiple brushes with the law, and multiple disciplinary or rehabilitation placements. For some, addiction was a big part of their story.

They portrayed life in custody as regimented, confining, and lacking in privacy - with bad food.

Many of their young listeners were not strangers to corrections. When Brown asked whether any had a relative or friend who had gone through "the system," most of the children raised their hands.

The speakers fielded the Hatch students' questions.

"Is it fun to be on parole?" one child asked.

"Parole is difficult, not fun," said one of the boys, who hopes to become a lawyer "and help some kids in my situation."

Another, who wants to be a counselor, described it as having another person dictating everything you do.

"It's not fun at all," he said.

Hatch student Ivry Griffin, 12, said the juvenile correctional centers sounded "sad." So did the girl's account of having to move from relative to relative.

"She went from house to house, and her family members kept throwing her out," she said.

Savannah Rogers, 12, said she got the message "not to do drugs and try to stay away from probation."

The speakers believe what they do can make a difference.

"I feel if someone had come to my school," said the aspiring lawyer, "I wouldn't have made the same mistakes they made.


rgiordano@phillynews.com

856-779-3893 @ritagiordano

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