SECOND CHANCES: Troubled youth graduate from program

Published 12:01 am Thursday, May 21, 2015

Adams County Court Judge Walt Brown shakes the hand of a graduate of Adams County’s Adolescent Opportunity Program. (Sam Gause / The Natchez Democrat)

Adams County Court Judge Walt Brown shakes the hand of a graduate of Adams County’s Adolescent Opportunity Program. (Sam Gause / The Natchez Democrat)

NATCHEZ — They weren’t wearing caps and gowns, but for five Adams County graduates Wednesday, the walk across the courtroom may have been just as meaningful.

It was a second chance.

The five graduates of the Adolescent Opportunity Program are now free to go about their lives without the eye of the juvenile justice system looking over their shoulder.

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The AOP is a three-step initiative within the county juvenile justice system to help troubled youth who have been involved in criminal activity learn new behaviors and coping skills and ultimately turn their lives around.

It’s an intensive probation system that not only keeps tabs on the teens but also helps them with schoolwork and provides support from mentors, teaching anger management and positive decision-making skills.

“I’ve got butterflies in my stomach,” one graduate, 18, said. “It will be nice to have my privacy back, not to have to take drug tests even though I don’t smoke. Now I’m going to try to get into Co-Lin, get a certification in welding and have a family.”

A key element of the program is giving graduates a chance to enter productive society. Three said they have dreams of becoming auto mechanics, while a fourth wants to be a welder and the fifth has the goal of being a music producer.

The program used to be known as the Adolescent Offender Program, but it was re-named in an effort to highlight its goals, Youth Court Judge Walt Brown said.

“It is an opportunity for that child to prove himself or herself to the court, to their parents and to the community that they are capable of being productive members of society,” he said. “It is a chance many are afforded but few achieve.”

Brown said many people suggest youth offenders should be locked up and the key thrown away when they commit a crime.

“I am a former prosecutor, and I have subscribed to that idea a time or two because there are some people out there who will never do right, but children and adolescents deserve a second chance, and hopefully they will take that and do right,” Brown said.

AOP Director Tracy Collins said the program is not looking for perfection in students, but it does look for progress.

“Most of these guys have had to endure the word ‘no,’ have not been able to get their way,” he said. “Initially when kids come to us, they are not used to that, and it is kind of hard when that started off.

“You can teach anger management and coping skills, but I can’t teach someone how to care, but watching these kids start to care about themselves and then about others, that is something else.”

When he addressed the graduates, Brown said he wanted to see them back in the system — but next time as mentors, to show others it is doable.

“I look forward to seeing you guys when I get my car fixed, when I need something welded or if I ever figure out how to play my guitar better,” he said