13 MARCH 2002

Melrose police, youths connect in new program

High school principal Daniel Burke can tell how well a program is getting through to teenagers by how eager students are to join it. By that measure, he said, the Melrose Police Department's fledgling Mentoring Academy is succeeding.

Born of Police Detective Mike Bloom's frustration at lack of community support for a Big Brother-Big Sister program in Melrose, the Mentoring Academy debuted in September. It began with seven middle and high school students sitting uneasily in the Melrose Police station on a Tuesday night, most wondering why they were there and not sure they wanted to be. It ended three months later, Bloom said, with teenagers completely ''buying in,'' some asking to be part of the next go-round.

At the high school, which supplied most of the recruits, students have been discussing the program among themselves, and ''the grapevine definitely has given it a five-star review,'' Burke said. A new class of 10 students started this month.

''There's an overflow. We've had kids come in and say `I want my name put in on the next one,''' said Burke.

The Mentoring Academy matches Melrose adults with youths referred to the program by school guidance counselors. Mentors are graduates of the Melrose Police Department's 3-year-old Civilian Police Academy and screened by the state Criminal Offender Record Information system, Bloom said. Last fall's students learned about police topics such as drug enforcement, traffic safety, firearms, and handwriting analysis, met with a psychiatric counselor and a violence-prevention specialist, and took a field trip to the Billerica House of Correction where three inmates detailed the consequences of poor decisions.

Police Chief Richard Smith said the program works because it avoids lecturing to kids and instead opens a dialogue. A discussion led by Detective Sergeant Barry Campbell, the force's narcotics officer, was especially compelling and opened eyes on both sides of the table, mentors and police said.

''The focus is not to gather intelligence but to share information,'' Smith said of the academy, one of several programs funded through a $105,000 community-policing grant from the state Office of Public Safety. ''We're all sitting around talking. We take the guns and the hats and the badges and all that stuff and put it in the closet.''

Fall session mentors and students will begin monthly one-on-one follow-up meetings in March, said Bloom, who plans to apply for a three-year federal grant to expand the mentoring program.

Melrose Alliance Against Violence executive director Rebecca Mooney said she believes Melrose's approach is unique locally, and at first had her doubts that it would work. What makes it succeed, she said, is a structure that fosters relationships between youths and adults, including time built into each session for students and mentors to converse privately. Mooney attended the first session in September, a mid-course meeting, and graduation in December. Changes in the students, she said, were incredible.

''Kids talked about some of their bad decisions and destructive behaviors, and the adults talked about it with them. They didn't skirt the issues,'' said Mooney.

Of the 12 students handpicked for the program by guidance counselors last fall, seven agreed to participate (with their parents' consent), signing a contract promising to show up every week, obey the law, and pay attention in school. Of the five who didn't opt in, one has since dropped out of school, Bloom said. Another ''heard good things from the other kids'' and signed up for the current session, he said.

The rules for entering the Mentoring Academy aren't hard and fast, except for one: It is not for youths who have already run afoul of the law and ended up in court. The program is designed to intervene before a child goes that far off course. Recruits include teens who are withdrawn, apathetic, and low on self-esteem, as well as those who may be hanging with the wrong crowd. With each student, there is ''a buried issue'' that is beginning to affect his or her attitude and behavior, said mentor Cheryl Santosuosso

''These are students who at times we have been concerned [about] - kids who at times make good decisions or at times don't,'' high school guidance counselor Maura Quinn said. ''Other kids we thought could use a role model - quite simply.''

The common thread, said Bloom, is that ''they're good kids, but they take some bad risks.'' The hope is that, by sitting them down with police officers each week and pairing each student with a caring adult, they might realize that today's decisions could have lifelong consequences.

''You can tell they're not bad kids. They just haven't found their nook, and it's hard to do it at the middle school if you're not with the `in group,''' said mentor Joan Bell, assistant director of the Melrose Recreation Department. ''They just need to be around people who will find that in them, who will point out maybe something they don't see in themselves.''

Greg Lotardo said he saw nothing to lose when a Melrose Veterans Memorial Middle School counselor recommended the academy for his daughter, Courtney, 13.

''Courtney didn't really have a lot of changing to do. She just had some realizing to do. I think now she realizes what could happen if she ended up in the wrong crowd. This quarter she pulled out a little better grades,'' he said.

''My attitude is more like, `I'm not going to do drugs because I know how bad it is and how much trouble you can get in,''' Courtney said.

For Levi DiFranza, 17, a high school junior, the Mentoring Academy became the first step in a career path he hopes will take him from the National Guard next year to a college ROTC program and active duty in a military special forces group. DiFranza, the police Web site volunteer, said he hopes to retire from the military when he's 28 and join a police department.

De Bellofatto, a volunteer who helped Bloom set up the Mentoring Academy, said it helps students who don't participate in a lot of extracurricular activities find a focus.

''We had a kid like Levi, who has so much energy, and he might not have had the opportunity to channel it,'' Bellofatto said. Added, DiFranza, ''I want to take it [the academy] again. That's how good it was.''


Report by Lisa Capone, Globe Correspondent, 3/10/2002



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