A district court judge in Ascension Parish is offering some juveniles who are awaiting trial — after they've been arrested, charged and released to their families — a way to have their charges dismissed: Attend four consecutive, daylong Saturday programs with lectures about good behavior, with some fun thrown in, as well.
Judge Alvin Turner Jr. calls the voluntary option that he's able to offer to many of the juveniles and their families he sees in his courtroom a "refocusing" program.
Since the program began in November, with breaks for the holidays, more than 20 students, all of whom were arrested for fighting in school, have either completed the program or are in the process, said Turner, who is the judge for Division E in the 23rd Judicial District Court, which serves Ascension, Assumption and St. James parishes.
The participants are mostly ninth-and-tenth graders. Girls slightly outnumber the boys, Turner said.
"I've been seeing so much in juvenile court about kids fighting in school," Turner said. "School is not the place. They're there to learn, not to fight."
"I let the parents know about this new program, when their children are in court. It's up to them whether they want to participate," said Turner, who's also chief judge for the five-judge court. "I have not had one who said they didn't want to take part,"
Under a cooperative endeavor agreement with local agencies, the program is held from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. in the gym at East Ascension High School in Gonzales, and security is provided by the Gonzales Police Department.
Breakfast and lunch are provided to the students, and Turner gives three, hour-long talks at different times throughout the day.
The teens can visit between themselves at other times. No cell phones or computers are allowed, although the kids have played games like bean bag toss.
"The first Saturday they come, it's almost like you are the enemy," Turner said. "They don't like you and they don't want to have any part of it; they're there because they have to be."
"But if I can talk one-on-one with them, I can address their issues," he said. "By the second or third Saturday, we've become friends."
Turner hopes to recruit other volunteer speakers to the program that's still in its infancy stage.
"This is not going to happen all overnight," said Turner. "But they've been real receptive. It takes time for them to see that you genuinely care for them. Once they know that, they're very open to what you say."
Students must also provide 10 hours of community service and submit records of their service after they've completed the Saturday program, he said.
"I certainly support the judge being creative with juvenile justice," said Ascension Parish Sheriff Bobby Webre. "It's well needed."
When the teens return to court to have their charges dismissed, after meeting all of the requirements of the new program, Turner gives them an arm band with the message "Students Against Bad Behavior."
And he lets them know that he'll be following their progress in school, that he's expecting good things from them.
"When I was coming up, the people in the community were so positive," Turner said. "I had people tell me at church that they were so proud of me for going to school and getting my education."
"You remember stuff like that," he said.
The teens will likely also remember something else from their Saturdays together -- the big pot of jambalaya they all cooked together for lunch on the last day.
Turner brought his equipment to the school and they all took turns stirring the jambalaya, then got to enjoy their meal.
"They were so proud," he said.