Boston judge works hard to keep kids from going bad

Too many young people, 10 to 14, ''hang out'' and ''walk the streets'' during school hours, and Harry J. Elam is disturbed -- so upset that he is knocking on doors, dialing telephone numbers, and buttonholing people.

''Urban adolescents need help, and it takes adults to help them,'' says Mr. Elam, chief justice of the Boston Municipal Court. ''And I am afraid that if I do nothing, and others do nothing, they shall one day appear before me in court. And my job may be to send them to jail.''

Judge Elam says that he already sees ''too many juveniles'' as defendants in court or as ''deadbeats'' on the street ''with nowhere to go.''

The Judge has devised a program -- he calls it Project Commitment -- that he hopes will help junior high school youths turn away from the streets toward taking a shot at a career. He unveiled his plan to the Boston public Feb. 10 at the John F. Kennedy Memorial Library.

Project Commitment has been in operation in six public junior high schools since September. Judge Elam, assisted by Ruth Batson, on loan from Boston University where she is a faculty member, has recruited five other judges to work with him. Each judge is working with a school and its principal.

All six are inner-city schools with reputations for problem students. Although young, many of the students already have been in trouble for attacking classmates and even teachers. Absenteeism is high.

''Too many evil influences -- drugs, prostitution, crime -- are seeking to entice these young people away from school,'' Judge Elam says. ''And these schools, hampered by budget cuts, offer little that appeals to these students. Our goal is to offer them alternative role models to copy.''

Mrs. Batson, a civic leader who works in behalf of children, is no longer on loan, but she volunteers her free time as acting director of Project Commitment. Assisted by Constance Booker, a work-study student from Northeastern University, she keeps an office open at the centrally located Harriet Tubman House, an inner-city cultural and community center. They have recruited 100 volunteers.

''Our goal is to find 200 more people, giving each school 50 volunteers,'' Judge Elam explains. ''Each volunteer is committed to give at least four hours a month to a school and its students.''

He emphasized these aims to 500 people who attended the public meeting at the Kennedy Library. And he also stressed the basic need of his project: ''As a judge I cannot ask for money, but there are others here who can speak out.''

Currently Project Commitment operates from a neighborhood social-service center, located within walking distance of downtown. ''Frankly, we have no money to pay any rent,'' Judge Elam told the meeting.

Originally, the program had set a budget of $250,000. This would provide a project director, an office staff, and a paid worker at each school.

''We have been forced to scale this down to $100,000,'' Mrs. Batson says. ''Contributions have only trickled in. With the minibudget we can afford a bare-bones staff -- project director and a full-time clerical administrative assistant for the office and hopefully a work-study or graduate student at each school. The students will be paid small stipends.''

Overhead will include rent, telephone, and supplies.

''Saving these young people,'' Judge Elam says, ''is so important that we had to call the public meeting. We have received some contributions from local corporations and the Shaw Foundation. We shall seek United Way help next year.''

Various community agencies have also helped Project Commitment during its first year, says Mrs. Batson. ''It is difficult to launch an enterprise like this without full-time paid help and make it work,'' she says.

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