Chester’s STORM targeting at-risk youth

jmcfadden@heraldonline.comMay 4, 2013 

Officers with the Chester County Sheriff's Office oversee the first 14 participants in Project STORM.

PHOTO COURTESY OF THE CHESTER COUNTY SHERIFF'S OFFICE

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— Tamika McMullen’s 18-year-old son has always loved the spotlight.

Occasionally rebellious, but consistently spoiled, he had the tendency to follow others, hang around the wrong crowd and act out for attention, she said.

“His weakness is he’s a follower instead of a leader,” said McMullen, an administrator with the Chester Police Department. “He was just doing whatever. He was doing things he shouldn’t have been doing,” such as skipping his GED program.

But after he spent a night in the Chester County jail, eating “mystery meat,” speaking to his parents on a single telephone line while behind a glass barricade, and hearing the story of a 50-year-old inmate who had been in jail on drug charges for 17 years with 10 more to go, McMullen’s behavior changed, she said.

He wasn’t eager to join 13 other boys on the “paddy wagon” and spend a Friday night behind bars, Chester County Sheriff’s Sgt. Johnny Neal recalled.

According to Neal, none of the 14 boys who were the first to participate in the Sheriff’s Office Project STORM – Showing Teens Our Real Mission – program were enthusiastic about wearing prison garb and eating whatever deputies told them to eat.

Of the original 14, several had sour attitudes, were doing poorly in school and were disrespectful to authority figures, including the officers who transported them to the program , officials said.

They didn’t stay that way for long.

“They didn’t know what they were in store for,” Neal said.

“About two or three hours into it, you could start seeing the change coming,” said Sheriff Alex Underwood. “Just seeing those kids when their parents walked away, you can see the light bulb come on.”

The program is similar to one offered through the Richland County Sheriff’s Office where teens spend a night in the Columbia jail, take orders from detention center officers, speak with inmates and learn what it’s like to be incarcerated.

When he was elected sherif last November Underwood said he wanted to introduce more programs targeted at the county’s youth. Now, he and his deputies are taking aim at at-risk youth and troubled teens before they wind up behind bars.

The program is funded solely by registration fees. The cost is $25. The deputies who pick up the children and spend time instructing and guiding them in the jail volunteer their time. For now, deputies plan to hold the program on Fridays.

At 6 p.m., children are picked up at the Clemson Extension Service office on Ella Street in Chester. They are taken to the Chester County Detention Center where they receive inmate uniforms and are placed in individual cells.

For the next several hours, they’re at the mercy of law enforcement. They eat what they’re told to eat. They speak with their parents over phones, sitting on one side of a glass barricade.

“I want it to be as close to reality as possible,” Underwood said. “It’s a difference in actually being able to touch somebody than you talking to them on the phone and then, when it’s over with, they get up walking out the door to go home and you walk back in the back.

“Your freedom’s gone,” he said. “That’s a shock to a lot of people.”

Unlike the A&E channel’s “Beyond Scared Straight” reality show, where troubled youth are put in jail in hopes of curbing their behavior, there are no commercial breaks or retakes, Underwood said.

“This is the real deal,” he said.

At the end of the program, the children write letters to their parents.

“The end result is to change the mindset,” Neal said.

While their children experience jail parents are sent to the Sheriff’s Office for a two-hour parenting class.

“It’s not saying that you don’t know how to raise your child,” Neal said. “It’s just trying to give you some tips on what to look for in the child’s behavior.”

“It starts at home,” Underwood said. “We’re going to do our part to help them out, but we’re also going to have to do our part to make sure the parents get right.”

Since that first Friday, some parents, such as Tamika McMullen, have noted change in their children, Neal said.

Even before his first night in lockdown, her son began making progress. cutting ties with the people who were a negative influence, she said.

Each participant is paired with a deputy, who serves as a mentor. Within two weeks of each session, deputies plan to contact the participants and partner with school resource officers to keep track of their progress monthly.

“I would hate for one to come back through,” Underwood said. “If he had to come back through…it’s going to be storm, hurricane, tornado, tsunami and everything else.”

A session for girls will be this Friday, and the Sheriff’s Office will continue to accept applications until that day. The next boys session is May 31.

Underwood said he hopes the Chester County Department of Juvenile Justice will consider using the program as an “intermediate” step before incarceration, which he said isn’t always the answer.

“Sometimes when people go to jail, they become a better criminal,” he said. “It doesn’t rehabilitate them; it just teaches them how to do it a better way, so they don’t get caught” the next time.

“Instead of sending them to Columbia,” Underwood said, “let us try first.”

Jonathan McFadden •  803-329-4082

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