By John McGreevy, TJJD Communications
It started as a simple enough idea: to create a program for young people going through difficult times in their lives to learn ways to cope and make better decisions before heading down a more harmful or unproductive path.
In Tom Green County, the Education Supervision and Prevention program (ESP), a highly successful initiative, has been in operation since its inception in 1995.
It has left an indelible mark on the area, with young people in the region recalling how it helped them years and even decades later.
Mariah Harris, now in her 30’s, was a participant of the program almost 20 years ago and still has an appreciation for what a positive influence it had in her life. “I was going through a lot,” she said. “I was in seventh grade, I had to be the adult in my house and look after my siblings and take on things a kid shouldn’t have to do, and I was very angry.”
Back then, Probation Officer Amber Sellers learned about Harris’ situation and reached out to her.
“At first, I didn’t want to be a part of it,” Harris said. “But I went and that was a good thing. Ms. Amber was there when we needed somebody. She was there to guide me in the right direction.”
Early Success through partnering with schools
ESP was the brainchild of the late Roy K. Robb, a prominent figure in the juvenile and adult supervision and corrections fields. The program targets at-risk middle school youth (grades seventh and eighth). However, as is often the case with long-standing programs like ESP, numerous individuals deserve credit for the work accomplished over the years.
“It was Mr. Robb’s idea,” said Mark Williams, TJJD regional program administrator for the West and Panhandle regions. “We wanted more interaction with the schools and to show support for them. It was his idea to put juvenile probation officers at the middle schools because he thought that’s where they would have the most impact. And it worked, and not so much as the officers being disciplinarians but as someone to support the kids and get to know them.”
The program has operated continuously since 1995 and earned statewide recognition in 1998 when it received an award from the Texas Corrections Association for its innovative approach, said Monica Schniers, Tom Green County Chief Juvenile Probation Officer.
Mark Williams played a vital role implementing and structuring the program while he was employed by the county probation department, though Williams does his best to downplay that.
“My job was to take all of Mr. Robb’s great ideas and make them work. The program has always been a good cooperative effort, because a key part of that was always allowing the schools to have some say in the program and not us just going in and telling them how it was going to be.”
“The schools appreciated that,” Williams said, “and consequently our officers had more knowledge about the kids that were coming into our system. That was something we hadn’t predicted.”
Today, the youth groups meet three days a week for about one hour. Group meetings are usually held on school campuses, but they occasionally go to local parks for team-building activities.
They focus on better decision-making, problem-solving, self-esteem, and improving their attitudes toward their peers, teachers, and families.
The ESP officers communicate with teachers, principals, and counselors regularly. Attendance is checked randomly but specifically on scheduled group days, because this helps ESP officers know how many students to expect.
Communication with the students' guardians is essential. The program is voluntary and all parents or guardians are required to sign an ESP packet to authorize their child's participation. ESP officers also communicate with the guardians regarding a child's failure to attend a meeting (without prior notification) and/or any other identified issues.
The foundation of these group discussions and activities comes from the Rainbow Days Training - Curriculum-Based Support Groups (CBSG) Program. Tenured ESP officers have accumulated additional activities and discussions from various sources throughout the years, including guest speakers from around the community and a tour of Angelo State University.
Keeping ESP effective by accepting youth and building rapport
Referrals for the program are received via the Juvenile Justice Center (JJC) and school administration. Students who are first-time offenders, have had a Supervisory Caution, or have been placed on deferred prosecution are generally good candidates for the program and are referred by a juvenile probation officer. School staff refer students who display behavioral issues in the classroom. Such issues could include a youth being notably introverted, needing a peer support group, having been placed in foster care, or experiencing familial issues such as divorce, death, or incarceration of a family member.
“I’ve been doing this program for 23 years,” said Sellers, the juvenile probation officer who today runs the ESP program at Lone Star Middle School in San Angelo. “We work with at-risk kids the majority of the day. We’re trying to keep kids out of the juvenile system.
ESP is based on a reward system. Positive incentives (candy, tokens, etc.) are given during meetings to encourage participation. The last meeting of each week is considered a reward day for students who have not received detention or In-School Suspension and attended all scheduled ESP meetings during the week. A typical reward day involves a pizza party or other snack food and a fun activity.
“The kids have been in class all day,” Sellers said. “We want to make things fun for them.”
The ESP officers spend most of their day at their assigned campus. They communicate with the teachers and staff daily and can provide courtesy checks for the probation officers seeking updates on how a student is doing at school. They can also request and pick up school records and remind students of upcoming appointments with their probation officer.
Confidentiality is a key part of ESP. All participants are asked to keep anything said in the group to themselves, and generally, this is respected. They trust that the officers will do the same. If a student communicates a desire to harm themselves or others, the ESP officers are required to follow departmental reporting protocols.
Building rapport with the kids is important. “That takes time,” said Jonnie Benge, a juvenile probation officer who has been running the ESP program at Glenn Middle School for 24 years.
“When they first start in the program, they don’t know you too well. You let them know that you’re someone there that they can depend on. You let them know that you’re here to help them, whether it be with school or with something at home. And you’ve got to be positive with them, work through their mistakes with them and praise them when they do good things. That way if they do get in trouble, we can talk to them about it and they’re less likely to get upset because they know that we legitimately care about them.”
“We’re able to be flexible with the group,” Sellers said. “We always talk to them and to each other about finding ways to better help and communicate with the kids. Being available is important. They can contact us, their parents can contact us, and not just at the school during school hours.
“They build relationships with us and with the other group members, and they all find support in that. That keeps them coming back.”
A necessary ingredient: Positivity
Benge and Sellers both stress the benefit of confidentiality. “It’s a place where they know they can share what’s going on in their lives and not feel judged,” Benge said.
Kali Gordy participated in the program in 2018 and remains grateful for the experience. “I didn’t want to do it at first,” she said. “I didn’t think there was anything wrong with my behavior, I didn’t think I had any issues and didn’t need to be in that class.”
The program changed her mind after getting to know Sellers. “I’d never had anyone I felt I could talk to until then. She taught me how to look at things more positively. We still talk and still see her.”
“These kids need someone positive in their lives,” Benge said. “A lot of them only hear negativity. Kids respond better to us telling them they need to change their behavior if we give them positive feedback on the good things.”
Both officers agree that the best part of the job is working with the kids.
“They’re why we’ve both been doing this for so long,” Sellers said. “I don’t think we could be here if we didn’t have the passion for doing this and love working with the kids the way we do.”
“We love this program and love these kids,” Sellers continued. “Can it be stressful? Absolutely, because we worry about these kids – we want them to be safe, we want them to be happy. But I always say to people ‘Where else can you go where these kids are so happy to see you.”
“A lot of these kids feel like we’re the only adults they can depend on,” Benge said. “Some of their home lives are rough.”
As is often seen in the juvenile justice community, the people tasked with working with young people find their own lives changed in the process. “I’ve learned so much more compassion and patience for people,” Sellers said. “It’s helped me as a mom. It’s helped open my eyes to what teenagers can go through. It’s helped me communicate better with my own kids.”
The bonds and friendships created often continue even after the kids have left the program.
“We’ve stayed in contact with several of the kids,” Sellers said. “We’ve gone to weddings and baby showers. These kids are a big part of our lives. They’re a blessing to us. We get to see the changes in them. We get to see them flourish.”
Mariah Harris attributes the program’s success with her to the powerful connection that Amber Sellers was able to forge with her.
“There’s something about her,” Harris. “She made it so much easier to want to go to school and to learn. I enjoyed her class a lot. She helped think differently about things and look at thing in a different way. She has patience and she’s just amazing. She made me believe and understand that there were people out there who cared.”
Harris says she would urge any parent who might be uncertain about placing their child in the program to give it a try.
“My daughter is in the program right now and she just loves it,” Harris said. “I would tell any parent to allow their child to go to this program. It’s changed some kids’ lives, the same way it changed mine. Friends were made in this program.”
Going forward, and thanks to the success of the program over the years, making ESP available to more youth is in the works.
“Our goal is to expand the program to two additional junior high schools and two area DAEPs, one of which covers 12 rural school districts,” Schniers said. “The long-term objective is to continue extending the provision of school-based prevention services, life skills training, and support group programming to as many junior high and middle school campuses as possible, as well as the rural areas served by the Coke County Juvenile Probation Department.”