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In-your-face discipline

Community: Scared-straight program gives at-risk teens reasons to curb their behavior

Posted: February 13, 2011 1:55 a.m.
Updated: February 13, 2011 1:55 a.m.

Ricardo Gonzalez, 13, is reprimanded for an infraction by Vital Intervention and Directional Alternatives program instructors Art Blanco, center, and Martin Lopez on Saturday in Santa Clarita.

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It’s visiting time.

Daniel and Yolanda Rivas enter quietly through the wrought iron gates of the Sequoia Charter School on Centre Pointe Parkway and find a shady seat on a stone bench.

They’re here to see their two sons who are in pseudo-jail.

It’s Saturday, first day of the Vital Intervention and Directional Alternatives “scared straight” program for “at-risk” teens.

The Rivas boys — ages 13 and 14 — are in here for tagging.

“Even though they’re not in a gang, tagging crews turn into gang members given the opportunity,” said their mother.
“We just want them to make good choices.

“We’re hoping it’s really going to put some fear in them.”

Prison-like structure
Structured fear begins at 8 a.m., Saturday.

The Rivas boys arrive for the first day of their 16-week sentencelike program.

It begins with a bang that sounds like a holler.

Confrontation, discipline and in-your-face fear greet them the second they come through the gates.

The Rivas boys join about two dozen other teens, 12 to 17, who have also received some kind of citation from law enforcement officials.

About one-fifth of them are girls who stand in the same line and are given the same harsh treatment.

Their uniforms are not county jail orange — but they could be if they stay on the same road.

As VIDA participants they wear green sweatshirts and sweatpants.

The name tags they wear are not Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department booking numbers — but they could be one day.

The nametags bear their last names — which VIDA drill officers use to bark out commands — sit, stand, be quiet.

They run in line-formation to go to the restroom, in line-formation to return to class.

“Tuck your shirt in, you’re not at school,” one red-faced boy is told.
“Is that the proper stance? I said, is that the proper stance?”

“You going to shave your upper lip? You better do it.”

Attitude adjusting
Sheriff’s Deputy Timothy Ferrone runs the VIDA program, which offers counseling, family action, community service, physical training, team building and career guidance to wayward youth.

He and his fellow instructors want to help redirect negative behavior of our youth, who they say may be tempted to explore gang affiliation, drug use or crime.

“I’m telling these kids right now ‘You’re not going to intimidate your parents anymore,’” Ferrone told them Saturday. “Those days are over.”

“A lot of you here are bullies. You think you’re tough. You better learn that there’s always a bully bigger, tougher, faster and meaner than you,” he tells them.

For the Rivas boys, like many of their pseudo-inmates, they balk at the yelling.

It’s just words.  They’re convinced, says their mother, that adults can’t legally touch them.

“Their response after registration night was ‘Yeah, right. I don’t really care, and it’s not going to change anything.”

One of her boys told her defiantly, “I like it ... When he yells, I’m in my habitat.”

If they’re anything like most of the previous VIDA participants who have emerged from the 16-week program over the last four years, however, 80 percent of them will not re-offend, according to Ferrone.

Bigger and tougher
The VIDA deputies are all too familiar with the attitude, the defiance and the lack of respect for authority.

So for the opening session of VIDA they brought in the big guns of attitude — loud screaming members of the United States Marine Corps.

While none of the teens buckled under the flying spit from vein-popping Marines yelling at them, one thing was clear for young VIDA enrollees — their voices were not the loudest, or the toughest or the most threatening.

The challenge for VIDA is to install respect and save the lives of teens on a clear path to jail.

“This is a reality check,” said Daniel Rivas. “They’re not playing. We’re not playing. There’s a lot of potential in both our sons.

“Their life is ahead of them,” he said. “They can either ruin it or prosper.”

The VIDA enrollees, however, are only half of the “at risk” problem.

Parental guidance
After the Marines depart, the VIDA kids sit quietly eating from their paper-bag lunches.

Once they finish eating, each of their parents enter the classroom and sit in a chair behind them.

Four students were told to phone their parents and remind them to attend class immediately.

“There will be a few kids here who will tell you stories about how awful it was but, as we told you, it is time to take the reins back in your household,” Ferrone told the parents and their kids.

About spanking, he said: “Nobody does it anymore and we’re almost at the point where we just want to be our kids’ friends and we don’t want to do any infliction of anything ... but the deputies are not going to come and do the dirty work for you.”

“Can I hit my child if he hits me?” was one of the tough questions for Ferrone.

Ferrone told them the force used to discipline and control their child must be reasonable under the law.

“When I tell my son he can’t leave the house and he grabs my shoulders and moves me aside, is that assault?”
Ferrone says it’s battery.

If you kick the feet of your child who refuses to get up off the couch and do chores that is not assault, Ferrone explains.

If, however, you kick him in the ribs because you’ve come home and found him still in front of the TV, that is assault, he said.

The force used to discipline and control your child must be reasonable, he said.

“We have a responsibility to act as parents,” he told the group. “If you tell your child not to go out at 10 o’clock and she says, ‘No way, I’m going,’ your responsibility is to keep that door locked, by whatever means necessary, and I’m not talking about taking out a gun.

“I’m talking about you have to use force to keep that door shut and keep that kid home. That’s your responsibility.
“It’s your duty as a parent.”

Lesson understood
The VIDA kids are not the only ones learning from the program.

“What we’re seeing,” said Daniel Rivas, “is that we were lost. We needed their help and their guidance.
“We’re going to be held accountable as well.”

The city of Santa Clarita funds the VIDA program.

Grant money from the federal government’s Gang Resistance Education and Training Program is used to help supplement portions, paying for  additional staff on an as-needed basis.

VIDA is a collaborative effort between law enforcement agencies, the city of Santa Clarita, community-based organizations, volunteer United States Marine Corps drill instructors and other community volunteers.

The program costs $75 and anyone wanting to know more about the program can call Ferrone at (661) 510-0881.

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