County attempts to keep juveniles on the right track

By Megan R. Harrell
STAR STAFF

   Editor's Note: This story is the second in a series on juvenile crime and rehabilitation.
   The national trend of misguided teens grasping for help through bad behavior has not escaped Eastern Tennessee. The area, like the rest of the nation, is trying to combat juvenile delinquency the best it can with the resources available.
   Most of the minors that are caught violating the law are sent to Juvenile Court. Punishment varies depending on the severity of the crime committed, but includes probation, home confinement, fines, and parole. The only Juvenile Detention Center in the area is located in Washington County. There are some juvenile group homes in Elizabethton, but area educators are trying their hardest to keep local teens from punitive facilities.
   Elizabethton is home to an alternative school that takes in juveniles from Carter and Johnson counties. Life Intensive Fundamental Training Academy (LIFT) is a joint project between the state of Tennessee, Department of Human Services, Department of Corrections and the Carter County School System. The state provides part of the staffing as well as part of the funding for the program, and Carter County provides the building and part of the staffing.
   LIFT is the only alternative school program of its kind in the area. It emphasizes behavior modification, the continuation of academic subjects, and vocational studies. The program is funded by a combination of state and local sources.
   "Our objective is to provide an alternative learning situation for students that are having difficulties," LIFT Principal Wallace Isham said. "We give an opportunity for students to resurrect themselves and to get on schedule to be successful."
   Students who had problems at their high schools are referred to LIFT. County principals send students to LIFT after they have exhausted all other disciplinary measures at the schools. Many of the students at LIFT have gone through the in-school suspension program at their high schools. The major goal of the program is to get students to the point where they can go back into their regular classrooms.
   Students remain at LIFT until they have worked through all levels in the program. They are not sentenced to time periods to which they must serve. As the teen works his or her way through the levels, more freedoms are gradually reinstated.
   Once students first begin the LIFT program, all of their freedoms are cut considerably. Two resource officers guide students to and from the bathrooms. Students are put into small clusters, and if problems arise they are dealt with immediately. There are three counselors on staff who deal with psychological aspects of the rehabilitation process. "Students and parents need to realize that this is one of the last steps," Secondary Instructional Supervisor Gary Smith said.
   There are 21 teen-agers, 7th-12th grades, currently at LIFT. The program served between 100 and 135 students last year. The students are held to the same testing standards as all other high school students in Carter County. Most of the students at LIFT are freshmen and sophomores, older students seem to mature out of the system.
   LIFT has a student return rate of 30 percent. The same student may re-enter the LIFT program as many as three times in one year. The main struggle for administrators and educators lies in character traits that are all but impossible to build inside the classroom. Smith says that the teens who return to the program are not motivated in the right direction, and that it is very hard to teach morality in school. Smith noted that there are many other influences on teenagers when they leave school that educators have no control over.
   With repeat offenders on the rise, administrators at LIFT are proud of the success stories that come out of their program. "We do feel that we have had some successes with LIFT, and some of our students are able to go back into their classrooms. The major goal is to get students back in the regular classroom where they can be successful," said Pat Hicks, Assistant Superintendent of Carter County Schools.
   Isham, principal at LIFT, spoke of a teen who came to the academy, and through the help of teachers there, was able to get back on the right track. This particular student went on to receive the highest grade in the county on the Gateway Algebra I exam.
   Teachers at LIFT have helped another former student re-evaluate life. "When I got up there all the teachers were so nice to me. They were kinda hard on me at first so I could learn some things, but then it was like we were all friends, plus the surroundings. I mean, all the great teachers really got to me. They always bragged on me and told me what a great kid I am."
   County schools are trying to intercept problem youths at younger ages. The schools have adopted a morality education program. In elementary schools, teachers are using a "Character Counts" program. The program, which was first used in 1998, concentrates on eight different responsibility issues. Smith believes that it will be a while before the program makes a huge impact, but he can already see some of the numbers dropping.
   Teachers are introducing a program called "Moral Combat" to high school students. The program deals with morality issues and is targeted towards students who are involved in truancy violations, violent behavior, alcohol and drug abuse, breaking and entry, vandalism, and disrespect.
   "If we can alter the destination of two or three kids, if we take one who is not producing for society and make it so he or she does, then we have achieved a great goal," Smith said. "But we will never be successful until there are no kids in the system."