Officers taking kids under their wings

Mentors: An award-winning program teams Woodlawn police officers with at-risk youths.

March 12, 2001|By Tim Craig | Tim Craig,SUN STAFF

Bonnie Ruff was frantic last spring when her son, Wayne Shower, was removed from school because of disruptive behavior that included fits of rage and tearful outbursts.

Wayne, 14, has bipolar disorder, and Ruff was afraid he might have to be hospitalized because he was contemplating suicide.

But his mother, who was struggling to raise Wayne on a monthly government disability check, had one last hope: Baltimore County police officers in the Woodlawn precinct.

"I was about to have a nervous breakdown myself," Ruff said. "I have never seen anybody so depressed as he was. I knew I had to do something, so I called the police because he needed a male role model."

Wayne was enrolled in the Woodlawn precinct's award-winning mentoring program, which matches at-risk youths with an officer who serves as a role model.

The 2-year-old program helps 20 youths, including Wayne, who for the first time in his life has a father figure.

Most of the youngsters live in single-parent households, which constitute about a third of the households in Woodlawn, according to the county Planning Department.

Officers meet with their proteges at least one hour a week -- most meet several times a week -- and go on monthly group outings to destinations such as New York City or a ski slope.

"A lot of kids don't have any role models, and officers can talk to the kids and get them over the hump in life," said Lt. Jonathan Trentzsch, the project's coordinator and founder. "You have to spend a lot of time with these kids in order to make a difference."

Youngsters selected for the program, which is available to youths ages 12 to 15, must have demonstrated a pattern of behavioral problems. A few participants also have spotty juvenile criminal records.

Each youth is paired with an officer of the same sex. But, whenever possible, African-American youths are paired with white officers and vice versa to help erase the cultural divide, Trentzsch said.

The efforts appear to be working.

Ruff credits her son's bond with his mentor, Officer Earnest Sasser, for a remarkable change in his life.

"It is almost like [Sasser] put a block on everything, and now my son is very outgoing and intelligent," said Ruff. "They can talk to each other like men should."

Sasser and Wayne spent the past year attending lacrosse and basketball games, going horseback riding and sharing adventures that his mother described as once-in-a-lifetime experiences.

Wayne returned to school in September and quickly blended into middle school culture, Ruff said. He no longer has behavioral problems or anxiety attacks, his mother said, and his daily dosage of anti-depressant medication has been reduced from 10 pills to one.

Wayne recently pursued, on his own, a job at a Liberty Road auto shop. Now he is saving money and wants to join the military or become a police officer.

Trentzsch said similar successes can be found throughout the program, which takes in children from middle schools in the Woodlawn area.

The program is funded by a $65,000 block grant from the U.S. Department of Justice. That grant will expire in September, but officials have requested an additional $82,000 to continue the program.

Sgt. Andre Davis, a supervisor in the Woodlawn precinct's Community Outreach Team, said the mentoring program also is designed to bridge the gap between juveniles and officers.

"We want to provide them with a rounded knowledge so they would be able to make the right moral and ethical decisions on how they want to lead their lives," Davis said.

Adam Spector, a spokesman for the Office of Justice Programs, a division of the Justice Department, said mentoring programs are vital to protect at-risk children from the temptations of drugs, alcohol and crime.

Spector said that few surveys have been done on police-sponsored mentoring programs, but a recent study of youths in Big Brothers and Big Sisters, a nationwide mentoring program, shows that participants are much less likely to use alcohol or drugs.

Mentored youths were 45 percent less likely to use drugs, 27 percent less likely to use alcohol and 33 percent less likely to hit someone than non-mentored youths with similar backgrounds, according to the study, commissioned by Public/Private Ventures, a national nonprofit group that works to improve the effectiveness of social policy and community initiatives. Mentored youths also skipped half as many school days as those without mentors, according to the study.

"Mentoring is something we need more and more of in every facet of society," said Thomas Cursio, executive director of the Board of Child Care, a Rockdale group home for at-risk children. "Children learn by seeing what others have done and aspiring to do what others have done."

The Woodlawn precinct's mentors and proteges have participated in several joint community service projects with the Board of Child Care.

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