Honoring Teens on the Way Back Up

'Operation Graduation' celebratesCalifornia's young former criminals who have managed to turn their lives around

News that crime statistics have dropped may be lost on many Californians who are busy debating the merits of the new law known as "Three Strikes, You're Out" and voting to increase the penalty for driveby shootings. But hidden behind headlines of crime and violence is a success story of some youthful heroes who already have known more brutality than most people experience in a lifetime.

Last Saturday, June 11, about 250 (out of a total of 400) students, most of whom have been wards of Los Angeles County Juvenile Court, took part in "Operation Graduation: a Celebration of Success." Held at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in the Los Angeles Music Center, this was the seventh of these annual graduation ceremonies.

For years, young offenders who made the difficult journey from drugs and drivebys to diplomas received their certificates unceremoniously in the mail. Thanks to the efforts of some other heroes, these young men and women now stand before their families, friends, and distinguished community leaders to be honored for their achievements.

"Operation Graduation" originated as the dream of two officers in the Los Angeles County Probation Department: Steve Canin, former assistant to the chief of county probation (now retired), and the late Ray Berger, then the department's communications officer. They were convinced that youths who had demonstrated courage and commitment in the face of terrible odds should be celebrated with at least as much pomp and circumstance as typical high school graduates.

They saw their dream come true in 1988, when 70 students in caps and gowns received diplomas at the Hollywood Bowl. Since then the numbers have grown - gradually at first, recently at an accelerated rate. The 1994 roster of 400 graduates is up by 100 over last year.

Self-esteem, ridiculed by some as a solution to crime, was no joke to Messrs. Canin and Berger, whose long careers as probation officers brought them into contact with hundreds of troubled youngsters almost certainly headed for heavier offenses and prison sentences. Many were remanded to a probation camp, one of 15 county facilities (sometimes called "boot camps") whose programs are considered models by corrections officials across the country.

Diagnosed as terminally ill in 1990, Berger devoted himself to completing a video called "The Champs." It presents a picture of former "young punks" now hard at work, engaged in team sports, undergoing vocational training and counseling, paying earnest attention in the classroom - doing all of those things for the first time in their lives. "We're talking opportunity," says a counselor in the video. "We're here to keep score, tell them how they're doing. If we say we're here to help them, we make them helpless."

Richard Saenz, who supervises the probation department's gang unit for the San Fernando Valley, understands the mind-set of people who believe that kids, even kids in bad neighborhoods, should have enough sense to stay out of gangs. But he wonders how many people - youngsters in particular - can be expected to isolate themselves from the only social group, maybe the only family, they've ever known. Sometimes it is the probation camp that provides the break and the new environment they need.

Ask the young people themselves, and many will tell you that the dreaded camp where they "did time" turned out to be the nicest home they had ever known. They found structure, respect, and support. They discovered abilities they never knew they had, choices they never dreamed they could make. They began to take pleasure in facing responsibility. Thanks to remedial classes (some taught by volunteers on weekends) many students advanced as much as three grade levels in only six months.

"I'd be dead now," says a boy from last year's graduating class who knows camp saved his life. He thanks God that he was caught stealing and wound up in camp. Many of his old friends, who were not caught, are dead.

A graduate named Rene stared "gang bangin' " a year after his mother left him. He was nine years old. When his father went to work at night, the boy was out the door. He quit school, and for years gang life was all he knew. At camp he and boys from other gangs discovered they had no real enmity toward one another. They joined "Gangs for Peace" and wrote a play about their experiences, which they've since performed at schools.

Under the county's Alternative Education Program, youngsters from the camps, as well as others on probation, enroll in independent studies where they are taught one-on-one by teachers like Stephanie Volk, whose tireless efforts on their behalf is legendary.

"I believe in them," she says. "I know that they can be anything they want to be."

This year's valedictorian was Pauline Cortez, a 17-year-old Latina student of Ms. Volk. Abandoned by her family and a single mother, she is raising her baby, working diligently at her studies, and planning to attend Los Angeles Valley College to pursue a nursing career. She inspires everyone who meets her.

Year after year, Los Angeles County camps and alternative education programs barely survive threatened budget cuts. Community support in the form of volunteer teachers, counselors, and role models is very much needed and valued. It is significant that, while candidates for office are promising to lock up more and more violators, some dedicated people are pursuing another solution to crime: helping would-be criminals discover who they really are.

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