CHILD AND YOUTH CARE NETWORK
14 NOVEMBER 2003
Members of the state Department of Probation, as part of the Choices Program, were at Wooster Middle School Wednesday to talk to students about making good decisions.
Program helps youths make good decisions
Seventh grade students rotated rooms to meet, listen to and ask questions of various members of the Connecticut probation system. Speakers addressed students about how good choices impact their future. The program, now in its seventh year, was organized by Skip Lance, a seventh-grade teacher at Wooster. The program came to light after Lance met Bridgeport probation officer George Zamory at a softball game.
“I said I'd love to bring probation officers into the schools and teach a unit on choices,8 Lance said. “It has a great effect on kids. We mix it in with curriculum to show that there are consequences to bad decisions, and when the law has to get involved.”
Lance said students definitely enjoy the program. “It's a great success,” he said. “It's been fun for the kids. They learn that your choices and decisions come down to you.”
Judge Burton Kaplan gave the opening remarks.
“At that age, children are very impressionable and can be influenced by bad elements,“ he said. “This exposure shows them what happens, especially when they meet someone who has gone to prison. This program gives what kids hear on TV a human element.”
Probation Officer Margot Nalewajk spoke to classes about the consequences of getting arrested. Accompanying her was Richard, a former gang member and former student at Wooster who talked about his experiences in making bad decisions and how he has learned from them. Nalewajk warned students that the streets are getting rougher for children. “You could get hurt, and then your life goes nowhere.”
She said though Richard is no longer in a gang, “It's still a struggle for him. It never goes away.”
Nalewajk said the best way for children to stay away from trouble is to make the right decisions and choices. “Gang life is a different life. You can't understand it until you're in it,” she said. “I can almost tell who in this classroom will make it and who won't.” She added, “If Richard gets to one kid, it's worth it.”
Richard was asked if he would steal money to buy his children things. “Maybe when I was in trouble a long time ago I would have,” he said. “But now, I wouldn't. I know what not to do now. Gangs have already tried to recruit my son, and I just told him it's his decision, but only bad things come from it. I told him how bad it was for me.”
Lance said, “It's one thing for an adult to talk to you about [these things]; it's another to [hear it from] someone who went through the system who made poor choices.”
Public defender Susan Cocosia and state attorney Chuck Stango talked about how small initial bad decisions often lead to serious results in the future. In jail, Cococcia said, freedoms are taken away and people are no longer able to make choices. “We see the choices you make, whether they're right, but usually when they're wrong,” she said.“‘Benefits’ from these choices may seem tempting, but the ‘rewards’ are few and fast.
State attorney Chuck Stango said initial bad ideas usually snowball. “Small bad decisions lead to big bad decisions, and lead to trouble,” he said. “Before you know it, you're dealing with charges and sent to jail. It's not grounding — something your parents would give you — it's [much] tougher.”
Stratford Police Officer Tom Clements, Officer Celeste Robitaille and Zak the German shepard were in another room teaching students about bringing drugs to school. They demonstrated how Zak can sniff through the room and find drugs like marijuana. Officer Robitaille said she thinks the program is great for students.
“It helps to educate the community so that they know about this resource,” she said. “The dog acts as a deterrent. If they know we have the tools to catch them and [find] the drugs, they'll not make bad decisions and bring drugs to school.”
Juvenile Probation Officer Brian McLaughlin said bad choices get people into the criminal system. He said it's his job to help children 16 and older to stay away from them. “I don't want to see you unless you're practicing law in the courthouse,” he said. He demonstrated handcuffs, using volunteers, emphasizing how important it is to make good decisions.
Students were complimentary about the program. Student Matthew Szypulski said he liked Richard's talk the best. “It was very emotional,” he said. “It shows what you should and shouldn't do. Richard showed us what happens if you make bad decisions. It was scary.”
Student Daquon Gomillion said he now wants to become a probation officer.
Student Cindy Guerrero said she also liked hearing Richard's story. “Richard made me realize the consequences,” she said. “He's been through it. He made me think about my choices and to make sure I make the right ones.”
Seventh-grade teacher Alicia Mcintosh said, “Kids really start to understand that the choices they make can effect them. Now they are at the age with more freedoms, and they're in situations where they have more opportunities to make decisions for themselves.”
Seventh-grade teacher Susan Lance said Richard
“tells it like it is,” and therefore kids see the reality of making bad choices.
“If he gets to one child, it's been worth it,” she said. “They have more freedom
now, so they have to learn how important their decisions are.”
By Elizabeth Misiewicz
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