Skip to main content

The Journal Gazette

  • Chad Ryan | The Journal GazettePaul Federspiel is a program coordinator at New Haven High School for the Allen County Juvenile Court’s new Check & Connect program. The program identifies at-risk youth for problems and connects them with Federspiel, who works with 25 freshmen at New Haven.

  • Chad Ryan | The Journal Gazette Paul Federspiel is a program coordinator at New Haven High School for the Allen County Juvenile Court's new Check and Connect program that identifies at-risk youth for problems and connects them with Federspiel, who works with 25 freshmen at New Haven.

  • Heath

  • Fred McKissack

Wednesday, March 16, 2016 11:14 pm

FLIPPING the SCRIPT

FRED MCKISSACK

He looks like he works there. He’s got an office at New Haven High School with computer, desks, chairs and books. He’s got an athletic build but, with his measured, friendly tone, he reminds one of a thoughtful guidance counselor rather than an employee of the Allen County Juvenile Court.

Yet, for 25 New Haven freshmen, Paul Federspiel is literally a guide at the crossroads of their lives. They’ve been identified as students who, due to chronic truancy, are on the cusp of walking down the path toward Federspiel’s boss, Allen County Superior Court Judge Daniel Heath.

Federspiel and his four colleagues – one each located at South Side, North Side and Wayne, plus a program coordinator – are a vanguard for a preventive measure to juvenile delinquency adopted by Heath and the Allen County Juvenile Court.

At a time when the justice system is taking hits for shuffling kids from school to jail, Check & Connect, the program adopted by the ACJC, is about mentoring and refocusing freshmen who’ve already been identified as truancy risks from middle school, rather than relying on punitive measures that have not worked.

Heath moved from civil court to ACJC in April 2013, and, he said in a recent interview, he was instantly heartbroken by the statistics: 45 murders in the city; the conversations he had with community leaders, particularly black ministers who despaired at seeing dead teens in the street; and the line of young men and women who faced him in court – a disproportionate number of them, he says, minority young men.

"From my perspective, part of the problem is that a judge wants to do things, but we are on the bench 80 percent of the time," Heath said. "I look at a 16-year-old in front of me, and I wonder what the rest of his life is going to be like. I’m looking at the kid and the tsunami that is staring him in the face."

Heath said that he had gone through enough files to see a pattern among defendants who stood before him: chronic truancy, a low level of reading and writing ability, a severe shortage of credits to graduate and drug abuse.

As he talked, it was striking to look at the art on the wall behind him: nineteenth-century English court scenes – regal legal. In those days, incorrigible youth were dispatched to the borstals, hard-labor penitentiaries for boys that now make for unsettling period movies. But are we really that far removed?

We’ve given them new euphemisms – boot camps and detention centers rather than reformatory and "juvie." In the end, it’s warehousing a problem; the United States imprisons more juveniles than any other country in the industrial world. During a year, about 500,000 juveniles will spend some amount of time in detention. Story by story, survey by survey, one gets the point that youth imprisonment is the beginning of a steady life cycle.

What Heath, Judge Charles F. Pratt, the ACJC and a committee formed to find solutions knew was that data supported a thesis that much of the crime committed by juveniles happens during school hours. Increasing the number of truancy officers is a punitive measure.

According to U.S. Department of Justice reports, truancy sweeps do work, but they’re not a long-term solution.

Heath’s judicial approach flipped the script: preventive rather than punitive. And the justice center’s research came up with Check & Connect, a truancy intervention model developed in 1990 by the University of Minnesota.

"Check & Connect is an intervention used with K-12 students who show warning signs of disengagement with school and who are at risk of dropping out," the program’s site explains. "At the core of Check & Connect is a trusting relationship between the student and a caring, trained mentor who both advocates for and challenges the student to keep education salient. Students are referred to Check & Connect when they show warning signs of disengaging from school, such as poor attendance, behavioral issues, and/or low grades."

It is an effective matrix of data-driven analysis and one-on-one relationships. Participation is voluntary, requiring student and parental consent. The four mentors each work with no more than 25 students.

Students become candidates for mentorship after being evaluated on a point system based on a list of factors that includes number of days absent and grade-point average.

Check & Connect hit at the very heart of what Heath said ACJC wanted to do. There are two things at play: commitment and money.

East Allen County Schools is so committed to Check & Connect that when Federspiel showed up for his first day of work, he had an office and a list, assembled by the deans and guidance counselors, of 30 possible candidates.

"I was made to feel part of the staff right away," Federspiel said. He, like the other mentors, is a half-time employee, working at school from 7:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Last year, Federspiel was a teacher’s aide at Bishop Dwenger, his alma mater.

Federspiel says his reception among parents and students has been favorable. Not one of the parents has turned down his offer of assistance, but there is a distinct divide: the parent(s) who agree to allow the child to participate, but border on apathy; or the parent(s) who is encouraged by the program and willing to share insights about their child’s history.

So far he’s met face to face with 15 students, and the reception is about what you would expect from a freshman.

"They usually ask, ‘What did I do wrong?’ " Federspiel said. "And I say, ‘No. I am here to help.’ "

After that, the face-to-face meetings chill, and the majority of conversations have been positive.

Federspiel, a sociology and social work graduate of the University of Saint Francis, said that while he had his own expectations of the students he would be working with, he was surprised at how diverse his group is in terms of gender, race and socioeconomic background. Even their education ability does not quite sync to the stereotype – one of his charges is in an honors class.

Chris Hissong, Fort Wayne Community Schools’ secondary schools director, has high hopes for the program. He recalls early meetings with Heath and ACJC as they tried to figure out a way to lift attendance. Last year, about 2,000 students between the two districts’ population were considered truant. (FWCS and EACS have a total of about 40,000 students.)

It has been, Hissong admits, a slow process, but the reception at the district has been positive precisely because it is an option for parents and students rather than a disciplinary measure that leads to unneeded antagonism.

While it is in its early days, Check & Connect in Fort Wayne is part of a pilot study by the University of Minnesota on the program’s effectiveness.

Commitment is not lacking. Funding is there – for now.

As it stands, Check & Connect’s $75,000 program fee is paid through grants, including money from the state and federal level, but also by probation user fees, an idea that was signed off on by the County Council. However, Heath said probation user fees are not a long-term solution for funding.

For Check & Connect to succeed, much less flourish, agencies and foundations ought to consider ways of assisting ACJC in bringing the mentors to full-time status, as well as adding more mentors.

The data on truancy and delinquency are clear, as is the 20-year success of Check & Connect.

If we want to derail the school-to-prison train, this is an effective way to do it.