Troubled St. Croix students in alternative education face an uphill struggle to catch up enough to graduate by age 18, leaving them with few good routes to education and jobs, Victor Somme, the Education Department’s director of intervention services, told a Senate panel Wednesday.
The alternative education program separates students who are disruptive and at risk of not graduating from other students and tries to give them some extra help. There once was a separate Positive Connections Alternative Education Program, where students were taught in a separate school, but the program was shuttered and students returned to their home schools, Somme said. So now the program works with students as they take regular classes.
The average age of children in the program is 16.8 years, meaning they have a short window to study and catch up before they reach the age where education is no longer compulsory, he said. "Sometimes the question is how to complete four to five grades in the six months before the compulsory age kicks in," Somme said.
Somme was one of several agency and nonprofit officials testifying about the root causes and prevention of youth violence to the Senate Culture, Historic Preservation, Youth and Recreation Committee.
Having separate programs for disruptive and troubled students helps the troubled students and the rest of the student body, Somme suggested. On the one hand, school safety is a greater concern among V.I. public high school students, parents and staff, compared to the U.S. mainland.
"Virgin Islands youth were more likely to report not attending school for personal safety reasons, to have been threatened or injured on school property and to have carried a weapon on school property compared to students on the mainland," he said, citing statistics in "The 2007 Virgin Islands Youth Risk Behavior Survey" produced by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
At the same time, research has "overwhelmingly revealed that successful alternative education programs are characterized by placing high-risk students separately from other students, relating work to education, small class size and low student-to-teacher ratios and supplying intensive counseling and supportive services," he said.
While the poor economy and closure of Hovensa have added to the stress and financial hardship of many on St. Croix over the last few years, straining social and youth programs, not all the news regarding youth crime and violence is bad, according to Human Service Commissioner Chris Finch.
The number of youths remanded to the V.I. Youth Rehabilitation Center on St. Croix for criminal activity has declined for each of the last three years, Finch said. In Fiscal Year 2011, 163 youths were remanded, with 130 on St. Croix and 33 from St. Thomas and St. John. In FY12 there were 127, with 97 from St. Croix and 30 from St. Thomas. And FY13 saw 115 remands, with 79 on St. Croix and 36 from St. Thomas or St. John, he said.
YRC can house 52 minors and currently has 25 residents, of whom 21 are males and four are females. Of the residents, 21 are from St. Croix and four are from St. Thomas. Ten are detained for violent crimes, one for a property crime and 14 for contempt of court. The violent crimes include four murder charges, two assault and three robbery charges, Finch said.
From 2003-2011, juvenile violent crime arrests varied from a low of 45, in 2010, to a high of 106 in 2008, Finch said, citing figures from the V.I. Police Department. The numbers vary by district, with St. Croix providing more arrests some years and St. Thomas more arrests in other years. There were four juvenile homicide arrests in 2011; one in 2010; three in 2009, one in 2008 and one in 2007, but none in the preceding four years.
YRC tries to get youth back on the right track and, "for many of the youth placed at YRC, the staff provides not only disciplined treatment but a stable, consistent structure that many of the youth need to begin to gain self-control over their behavior," Finch said.
Recidivism rates at YRC have remained between 40 and 50 percent, Finch said. Most rearrests are for contempt of court and not necessarily new charges, he said. "This rate of recidivism concerns us, although it is within the range of many state studies that show recidivism rates of 30 percent to 60 percent with some states reporting over 70 percent," he said, cautioning that comparisons are difficult because detention practices vary widely.
Finch, Somme and all the testifiers emphasized the need for more resources. "Although the numbers of youth referred and remanded seems to be declining, there is still much work to do. Certainly additional intensive counseling services for youth and their families would be a help," Finch said.
Denise Lewis, president of the St. Croix Unity Coalition, said she’s “been saying for years that if we invest in some minimal intervention, we won’t have to pay for expensive incarceration. It is that simple," she said.
BGCVI President O’Neil Canton said in submitted written testimony to the committee, "It is a fact that funding invested into Boys and Girls Club of the Virgin Islands is reinvested into our economy via our children. If we don’t pay on the front end today, we will pay on the backed tomorrow," Canton said.
Senators at the hearing agreed in principle, although no new funding was on the table.
"If we can set aside millions of dollars for legal fees and such, we can set aside funding for prevention programs," said Sen. Myron Jackson, the committee chairman.
"If you think about what we could do if we could save the money we spend on incarceration, my goodness we could have anything. Streets paved with gold. Milk and honey," said Sen. Nereida "Nellie" Rivera-O’Reilly.
No votes were taken at the information gathering hearing. Jackson said the goal of Wednesday’s hearing, and a similar one on St. Thomas Nov. 20, was to gather ideas from experts and stakeholders in the community, with the goal of crafting an effective, affordable legislative proposal to help address the problem of youth violence.