New program offers early intervention for youth

May 22—More and more youth are finding their way to Cumberland County’s youth services — referred by schools for minor infractions such as vaping or brought by parents for unruly behavior.

A new program formed by the Cumberland County Sheriff’s Office and juvenile justice office hopes to help these youth find a new path.

“We had over 280 kids at the Sheriff’s Youth Academy last year,” Sheriff Casey Cox said of the summer youth program launched in 2015. It’s been incredibly successful in building relationships with youth in the community and law enforcement officers.

But Cox said he began seeing that the program wasn’t reaching the at risk kids he wanted to reach.

“We were missing the target audience,” he said.

The Sheriff’s Office, school system and youth services department had been working to develop a program. Cumberland County General Sessions Judge Amanda Worley signed on enthusiastically for the Juvenile Justice Education Program.

“Now we have a better chance of reaching that kid at risk of going down that bad path in life,” Cox said.

The juvenile justice education program is referred to as VALOR — for values, attitude, leadership, order and respect. It’s a 12-week program that offers an alternative to more formal juvenile justice, such as probation or, eventually, detention.

“We try our best not to incarcerate as much as possible, but there’s just not a lot of things they can do,” said Sgt. Gary Howard, community services director. “If these kids have not been in much trouble, we want to try and divert them away from that system. But, we don’t want them to think they can get away with it.”

The program begins with a success plan agreement — a set of rules the youth agree to follow, from not possessing alcohol or drugs to following curfew and getting parent or guardian permission before leaving home.

“Those are customizable,” Howard said. “It’s like coming along and reinforcing the parent’s right to be a parent.”

Classes cover topics like communication and conflict resolution — both parent-youth joint sessions.

“You’ve got a lot of parents that are struggling,” Howard said. “They don’t feel that they have any ability to parent any more.

“We want them to understand there are ways to set boundaries.”

Goal setting and allowing kids to dream about the future is part of it. The first session asks kids — what do you want to be when you grow up.

“Some of them don’t know. Some of them, their dreams are really large,” Cox said. “Some, they want to go into cosmetology or auto mechanics.”

In those cases, Cox said they’re trying to connect the youth to people in the community in those fields.

Meetings are held on Monday evenings. Attendance is mandatory.

The youth are also expected to journal every day and bring their journal to the sessions.

During school, the School Resource Officer checks in on them to make sure they’re attending classes and keeping up in their academics.

“If we find a problem with academics, we try to work with the schools to get tutoring to help,” Howard said.

There are also home visits monthly during school or weekly during breaks.

The program lasts three months, marked by a graduation ceremony with a pin and certificate.

Any pending charges are dismissed.

“We follow up with them for three months and try to help them and their mentors to create a project to give back to the community,” Howard said.

Plans are in the works for graduates to take on trail clean up on the Cumberland Trail, which runs through Cumberland County.

“I strongly believe you can change a kid’s path,” Cox said. “Kids want to be loved. They want to be nurtured. They want to be respected. We’re only with them for 12 weeks, but we’re hoping to build that relationship with them.”

From there, the bond can continue with school resource officers and mentors in the community.

“We want them to identify five people in their life — their people,” Howard said.

Each student’s “people” will celebrate graduation from the program, academic successes and other life events.

“We can get them five mentors that will be in their life,” Howard said.

That’s a critical piece, he said.

Seven middle school students made up the first class of the VALOR program. That age group had the greatest need, Howard said.

There are plans to expand in the future to elementary and high school in the future.

A parent tool box is under development. That will include resources for parents on specific topics, like communication or social media.

“A class I’d like to have is how to be a parent and a friend,” Howard said, noting both were important for effective parenting.

Howard said he’d had an idea for the program for many years, and he thanked Cox for supporting it.

“Every time we come up with a good idea to do something, he’s all in to help families and kids,” Howard said of Cox. “The Valor program is a great opportunity to teach basic things my grandpa and my dad taught me.”

Cox said there would be a small budget appropriation sought in the coming budget. The initial program was launched within his current budget, but they’ve had help. Four churches are taking turns providing dinner to the youth and the staff.

Parents can contact Cumberland County Youth Services if they would like more information on the program and think their child could benefit from participating in it.

“We’ve had parents and guardians, they’re at their wits end,” Cox said. “You’ve got parents that just don’t know what to do.”

That’s why parents are also part of the program.

Heather Mullinix is editor of the Crossville Chronicle. She covers schools and education in Cumberland County. She may be reached at

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