Troubled teens learn of life's realities in Juvenile Diversion Program's Shock Education program

TAMPA — Two dozen teens sat in Courtroom 8. The two brothers had been charged with battery. Another boy had resisted arrest. Still others were there for domestic violence, armed robbery or other offenses.

Their paths downtown to the George E. Edgecomb Courthouse varied, but they were all there for essentially the same reason: They were given a second chance.

Instead of jail time or probation, they were allowed to attend a six-week program designed to show teens how their actions could lead down a dark, dangerous path. Shock Education is part of the county's Juvenile Diversion Program and is designed to do more than scare delinquents straight.

"It's kind of a support group," said coordinator Maggie Pines. "Just kind of open that door, getting them to think about their choices."

Since 1995, the program, which accounts for a fraction of the program's $405,000 budget, has exposed troubled teens from all over Hillsborough to real-life situations. Boys and girls, ages 12 to 18, are referred to the program by different agencies — juvenile court, probation offices, Department of Children and Families, school resource officers and parents.

During the program, the teens are separated by gender and attend various sessions that cover a range of topics, from gun violence to sex. In one class, an HIV-positive couple — the husband has AIDS and the wife has HIV — talks about sexual responsibility.

"It's just getting them to think," Pines said. "To stop and think how it's going to affect them, their families."

Shock participants meet teen mothers at Tampa General Hospital. They talk to grieving parents at funeral homes. They hear from those who have been convicted of crimes from drug possession to manslaughter. Convicts tell them what it's like to be in prison.

Participants, many of whom declined to tell their names, seemed grateful for the chance to trade probation or stiffer punishment for the educational program. Participants are only given one chance. If they offend again, they can't re-enroll in the Shock program and must serve their punishment.

On a recent day in Courtroom 8, 22-year-old Andrew Pitti told participants about his experience serving six months in prison.

"I've seen people get beat so bad they actually defecated on themselves," Pitti said.

Guards are there to protect inmates, he said, but they can't protect them all the time.

It's part of Pitti's probation to talk to the youths about his mistakes. He hopes they're really listening.

"I don't want a kid to go through the same thing I had to go through," he said. "I wish it would change someone's life."

Pitti was arrested in 2004 on charges of possession of marijuana with intent to sell and possession of drug paraphernalia, according to arrest records. He then violated his probation five times and spent six months in prison, plus three years on house arrest. He will be on probation until 2012.

John Templeton Jr. also hoped his story would resonate with the boys. He has made his speech many times, but the story still haunts him.

"I didn't think the choices I was making would affect my life," he told the teenagers.

In 2002, Templeton was charged with DUI manslaughter in the death of 18-year-old Julie Buckner. After a night of drinking in Ybor City, Templeton was intoxicated and driving north in the southbound lanes of Interstate 275. He hit Buckner head-on, the impact ejecting her from the car.

"I was praying that somebody was going to tell me this wasn't true," he said.

Buckner died at the scene. Templeton was taken to Tampa General Hospital, where he was treated for his injuries. He later pleaded guilty to a DUI manslaughter charge and spent nine months behind bars. He will be on probation until 2017. His license has been revoked for life.

He was also sentenced to work 1,000 hours in community service. He finished those hours in 2006, but still shares his story with youths, hoping to keep them away from the mistakes he made.

"This is your second chance," he told the group.

Dennis Johnson, 18, one of the program's participants, agrees. He said listening to the men's experiences was "creepy."

"I learned my lesson," he said.

Amy Mariani can be reached at (813) 226-3374 or amariani@sptimes.com.

Troubled teens learn of life's realities in Juvenile Diversion Program's Shock Education program 08/06/09 [Last modified: Thursday, August 6, 2009 5:30am]

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