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A community’s tough love helps youth find themselves


Early on a Saturday morning in November, Los Angeles Police Officer Abel Muñoz of the Rampart division walked up and down three lines of at-risk youth, ages nine to 17, standing on Belmont High School’s outdoor track. They stood in formation, silent and still, their eyes fixed ahead.

“What is discipline?” Muñoz questioned firmly in a booming voice.

No answer.

“What is discipline?” he asked, louder this time.

“Discipline is a skill, sir!” one teenage boy ventured.

“Wrong!” Muñoz ordered the students to the ground for push-ups.

After adding some jumping-jacks, sit-ups and jog to the school gym, Muñoz gave his own answer. “Discipline is having self-control of your mindset, your behavior, your conduct… Other influences do not affect your self-discipline.”

Next came the formation drills. At Muñoz’ direction, the 23 students called out in unison as they switched from position to position—hands behind them, hands to the side, salute.

Standing in those formations were teens and pre-teens from various inner-city schools who were there for reasons that ranged from talking back at home to criminal offenses.

But the Juvenile Intervention and Prevention Program (JIPP) is no ordinary boot camp. In a collaboration between Belmont High School and the Los Angeles Police Department’s Rampart division—a unique junction between two of the city’s largest bureaucracies—students not only get vigorous physical training and police officers screaming discipline into them military-style, but they receive counseling, leadership skill training and tutoring as well. Parents are also required to do their part by attending group counseling sessions.

The program, entering its third year, is starting to gain recognition locally and nationally and uses what Belmont High School assistant principal Stephen Koffman calls the “whole child” approach. It appears to be working. About 90 students who participated in JIPP's fourth through sixth "cohorts," or 18-week sessions, were tested before and after their enrollment. The results showed that after completing the sessions, students’ reading and math scores rose by 25 to 30 percent, and the number of students who reported feeling “normal” increased by 127 percent in the Beck Depression Inventory test. Except for severe depression, all other levels, such as borderline clinical and extreme depression, showed decreases.

“We put the child at the core of the program, and (looked at) what are the three macro interventions that affected the child’s life,” said Koffman, who helped develop JIPP. “We came up with the community, with the school and with the family.”

Police and schools working together

Koffman joined the project in the fall of 2006, about six months after Rampart division officer Larry Covington founded the program in March of that year under a different name. It started out as just a boot camp, under the auspices of the police department, but Covington sought out Belmont High School for assistance once he realized the students in the program were reverting back to old behavior. Koffman was chosen to help.

“Being a licensed clinical social worker and working with at-risk kids for about 15 years, I realized that boot camps are completely ineffective means of invention, as well as prevention, and one of the things that we wanted to concentrate on was to affect the whole child…We’re not a punitive program by nature. We’re delivering the message to the kids that we’re not going to give up on you.”

Since the partnership, Koffman and Covington have headed the project as a team, scrapping together limited resources and volunteering a lot of overtime hours. For the past two and a half years, JIPP has relied on what services the school district and police department could offer. The school district’s Beyond the Bell program provides learning materials that prepare the students for the California High School Exit Examination (CAHSEE), and it also pays for the program’s teachers. The police department provides overtime pay for the Rampart Division officers who train the youth, though the officers were donating their Saturdays for the first two years. Koffman and Covington were also able to recruit outside help from California State University, Los Angeles, which contributes counseling by psychology graduate student interns.

Parents pay $140 per child for each 18-week period, but Koffman and Covington say the minimal fee along with the services provided by LAUSD, LAPD and Cal State LA are no longer enough to sustain the demands of the developing program, which has had class sizes ranging from about 20 to 130 students. That is why a recent grant—the program’s first—of $85,000 from the AT&T Foundation means major help for JIPP in the former of an additional staffer to process paperwork and continuing raising more money.

The grant has also served another very important function—it has brought long-awaited recognition to the program that has been trying to break above the surface for the past couple of years. Since receiving the AT&T grant, JIPP has been formally recognized by the Los Angeles Unified School District’s school board.

As a program held at a high school with the district’s second highest dropout rate—56 percent of its students dropped out in the 2006-2007 school year—JIPP has also been selected to present as a model program at two national dropout prevention conferences. The events were the 20th National Dropout Prevention Network Conference in November and forum by the National Dropout Prevention Center that will take place on February 2009.

“It’s almost like if you go to those award shows and (they call) the singer for the best new artist, and they get up and say, ‘Yeah, I’ve been on the road for seven years, but I’ll take the new artist award,’” Koffman jokes as he sits in his Belmont High School office. “Yeah, that’s us.”

Koffman and Covington have been trying to get the word out to schools in the area, letting administrators know about what they do. Some schools are already making full use of it, such as Burroughs Middle School in West Los Angeles, which has referred about 100 students to JIPP this year alone.

How Martin benefited

Martin Muñoz started smoking marijuana this year at age 12. The five-foot, seven-inch boy, who looks more like a 14- or 15-year-old, was belligerent at home and in the classroom. So, when his mother received a call that he was skipping classes and found out he was at a local park, she went straight to the Rampart police station and asked the officers to bring him in. They said they couldn’t make an arrest, but they did hand her a JIPP application. A month later, Muñoz was in the program.

“He was one of the rebellious ones,” said Officer Abel Muñoz. “He would smack his lips, he would roll his eyes, and he gave us attitude in the beginning for a few weeks.”

Martin Muñoz was angry with his mother for enrolling him in JIPP, but now he actually enjoys the physical training, and he has even taken on responsibilities in the program.

“As the weeks progressed, we saw a change in his behavior and his motivation to the point where we promoted him as a squad leader because he’s taken a leadership role,” Officer Muñoz said.

While Muñoz’ mother said he son still has to work on his attitude at home, he is now behaving better at school. According to Martin Muñoz, the program hasn’t been easy, but he is glad he is making the progress.

“I stopped doing the drugs and everything, and (I’m) just focusing on school now,” he said with a smile. “When I first came, it was hard for me. I had to push myself a lot to get where I am now.”

Many of the kids come in with bad attitudes when they start. That is why JIPP’s first six weeks, called the Resistance stage, consists mainly of training with the officers who set the disciplinary boundaries, shaping up bodies and attitudes. To many of the teenagers, it is a complete shock.

“I would admit, the first Saturday, the officer made me cry,” said Maritza Hilario, a 15-year-old sophomore from Bravo High School high school whose mother enrolled her in JIPP in September because of attitude problems. “After that, I just went along with it. Just do everything you have to do, and you’ll get by.”

Koffman and Covington said the students’ behavioral problems often stem from the struggles of their home and neighborhood environments. While the JIPP accepts students from all over, most of its youth come from the local District 4, or the Pico-Union area, known for its high concentration of immigrant and low-income families, as well as its gang activity.

“(The kids) face the culture of poverty,” Koffman said. “Are they worried about their lights being turned off? Are they worried about getting fed, having clothes? They have to walk one or two miles around certain neighborhoods just to get to school… So, they’re dealing with all types of psychological trauma.”

Another problem the program leaders find is that many of the youths’ parents fail to assert appropriate disciplinary guidelines, which is what they work on in the parenting classes.

JIPP has a 66 percent completion rate, which Koffman and Covington say is good for an intervention-prevention program. Some of the most “hard-core” kids tend to drop out at the beginning because they don’t want to deal with the police, others are kicked out for extreme behavior, and a very small percentage are arrested for criminal behavior while they are enrolled in the program.

“Some people will forget that they’re dealing with police,” Officer Covington said.

A brighter future

But the ones who Covington describes as “on the bubble” usually stick it out to the end, many of them later moving on to other LAPD-run programs.

Gregory Tett, a sophomore from Lincoln High School, said he wants to go into the Explorers program next. The Explorers program trains youth for future careers in law enforcement.

Tett was ordered to enroll in JIPP by the courts after he got in trouble for doing graffiti on private property, which he committed while on probation for separate robbery and assault offenses. The 15-year-old’s commanding officers and teachers in the program identify him as a bright, dedicated young man who made some wrong decisions and is trying to turn his life around. Tett said the other kids who dropped out could have also made the change if they had made more of an effort.

“If they pushed themselves a little bit harder, they could have done it,” Tett said. “There’s little kids that came here—still here. If they did it, I think the other guys could have done it, too.”

Since JIPP began two and a half years ago, the program leaders estimate that more than 220 at-risk youth have graduated from the program. Tests and surveys of the students and parents who have participated in past cohorts show that JIPP has not only improved students’ behavior, but it has also led to improvements in other areas of their lives.

In 2006, for example, a random sampling of students who participated in JIPP showed that their overall school attendance levels increased by 46 percent for all periods. It was even higher for some individual periods—first and fifth period class attendance each increased by about 63 percent.

During the same time, Belmont High School also saw a significant reduction in full-day school suspensions. There were just 96 full-day suspensions in the 2006-2007 school year, a 73 percent decline from the 361 full-day suspensions a year earlier for “disruptive defiant behavior,” the school’s most common suspension type.

“Unfortunately, we only have the kids once a week on Saturday and they’re back to their normal routine throughout the week,” Officer Muñoz said. “This is not a miracle program. This is not a magic program where kids come through our program and they leave, and they’re all good. We’ve had very successful stories, and we’ve had stories where kids have to repeat, come back to the boot camp. But we do see a good number of them that do go out and change their lives and their behavior for the better.”