Fort Dodge Community School District

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Getting Kids on the Right Path - from The Messenger

September 12, 2020

Kids who get busted for vandalizing property or possessing tobacco are going to be in trouble with the legal system and, often, with their school.

But will throwing the book at those youths deter them from a life of crime? Maybe not.

Faced with mounting evidence that putting young people charged with non-violent misdemeanor crimes into the juvenile justice system does more harm than good, city, law enforcement and school leaders in Fort Dodge have created two diversion programs intended to get youths back on the right path in life without ending up in court.

Kirsten Doebel, director of secondary education for the Fort Dodge Community School District, said data shows that youth who end up in the juvenile justice system often end up committing more offenses later.

''The research is actually pretty clear that once a juvenile enters the juvenile justice system, their recidivism rate increases,'' she said.

The school district has set up a program in which students who commit a simple misdemeanor for the first time can be sent to a program conducted by Lutheran Services of Iowa instead of going to court, The program is showing promise.

''Typically, they don't reoffend,'' Fort Dodge Police Patrol Officer Bryce Presswood said of students who complete the program.

Presswood works as a school resource officer at Fort Dodge Senior High School, and he sees the impact the program has on students.

Giving youths the opportunity to complete a diversion program doesn't amount to being soft on crime, according to officials who work with the city and school initiatives. They point out that no one who commits a violent crime or felony is eligible for a diversion program.

The school district's diversion program began in the 2018-2019 school year.

Presswood said when a youth is facing a simple misdemeanor charge he explains what could happen to them in the legal system, and tells them about the diversion program. He said the students ''typically jump on board pretty quick'' when offered a chance to get into that.

Kids in that kind of trouble face consequences on two levels, according to Presswood. He said there is a legal consequence, which can be resolved through the diversion program. There is also a consequence through the school, such as detention or suspension. Getting into the diversion program doesn't eliminate discipline through the school, so the youth will face detention or suspension.

Those who are accepted into diversion are sent to what is called the Friday Evening Program. It is a two-hour session conducted by a facilitator from Lutheran Services of Iowa. According to Doebel, it consists of ''a lot of reflection and thinking.'' The goal is to get the young people to learn how to think and act in ways that will keep them out of trouble.

Doebel described the program as ''responding with a teaching moment.''

''I never take my eyes off the endgame, which is to produce happy, contributing members of society,'' she said. ''I'm not out to get a piece of flesh. I'm out to grow good, strong human beings.''

The school district provides space for the Friday Evening Program. However, the program is paid for by the state. Lutheran Services of Iowa has a contract with the state's juvenile court office to conduct the program.

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