PALMETTO BEACH — With his father dying of cancer and his mother left paralyzed and unable to recognize him after a horrible car accident, David Sever dropped out of school and got into trouble with the law.
His record includes charges of burglary and assault with a deadly weapon. One arrest occurred last May — the same day his dad passed away.
By September 2008, a probation officer had assigned him to the Tampa Marine Institute, an alternative school on Maritime Boulevard, near the Port of Tampa, for Hillsborough County troubled youth.
The institute offers academic as well as behavioral classes, such as aggression therapy and moral reasoning. Some say it is a cheaper and more effective option to juvenile detention facilities.
Now, after a future that seemed a blur of uncertainties, 16-year-old Sever said of the facility, "I am proud of being here, it keeps me on the right track."
Institute officials, however, fear they won't be able to help as many kids like Sever in years to come.
The program suffered a 12 percent budget cut last year and a 4 percent cut after the state Legislature's special session in January, board president Seth Nelson said.
The budget is now $1.2-million, with funding from the county school district and the state Department of Juvenile Justice. Nelson fears things will only get worse as legislators continue to hammer out Florida's budget during the regular session that began this week.
"If we get another big cut, what's going to happen with those kids? What's going to happen is that in the long run they are going to end up in the prison system," he said.
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In 1969, a Fort Lauderdale juvenile judge, Frank Orlando, gave an alternative sentence to a couple of boys who kept coming back with new offenses. He asked a friend, the late Robert Rosof, who managed a marine research program at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton, to take them to work with him on the research boat.
They were given responsibilities and treated as equals, instead of criminals, and the teenagers seemed to develop a sense of integrity and purpose, according to www.amikids.org, the program Web site. Soon, Orlando asked Rosof to take more kids, which led to the molding of the Associated Marine Institutes. Today, AMI has 60 programs in eight states, including 27 in Florida. The program's main headquarters are in Tampa.
This behavioral modification program revolves around a token economy system, where students earn points for desirable behaviors, such as participation, leadership and respect. The better their performance, the faster their graduation date.
According to Nelson, about 75 to 80 percent of students who graduate do not relapse into crime during the first year, which is considered to be the most critical time.
"Our goal is to make tax payers, not tax burdens," said TMI executive director Mark Carroll.
The institute has 15 employees and sees about 110 kids per year, Carroll said. Juveniles end up at the institute after committing mostly property crimes, grand theft auto, burglary, assault and battery. Some come from broken homes and have no positive role models. The program also aims to help teens overcome trust issues by building relationships with the staff.
"That's why our staff is so critical," said Nelson.
One person has been laid off because of the cuts so far, and the institute is short about $100,000 to cover necessary expenses. More layoffs and cuts could be in store.
State Sen. Victor Crist, R-Tampa, and Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa, have been supportive of the program, saying it is more effective and less expensive than detention centers in Hillsborough County, where one juvenile offender costs the state $125 per night, according to Carroll.
"I value the work that they do," Joyner said. "I will continue to do what I can over here in the Senate."
Sever, who has been living with his aunt, was expected to graduate from TMI today.
"I learned how to control my anger; I am straight," he said.
He will leave the program full of plans and hope. Soon, the ninth-grader will go back to school at Jefferson High. Someday, he plans to apply to Louisiana State University. He says he wants to join the university football team and be a Tiger.
And, he said, he plans to stay out of trouble.
Alessandra Da Pra can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3321.