August, 16 2018

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Florida Institute Seeks to Help Troubled Teens

They're patted down every morning to search for contraband and check in to school with a machine that scans their fingerprints and photos to confirm identification.

And the students at Volusia County Marine Institute have no Spring Break, summer vacation or extended winter holidays. They're expected to be in school from 9:15 a.m. to 5:15 p.m. every day and are subject to being hauled back into court if they aren't.

The program, which operates out of a shopping center on Mason Avenue, combines education, close supervision and behavior modification counseling for teenagers who've been in trouble with the law and are court-ordered to attend it.

"I consider it a lifeline for many kids," said Circuit Judge Jack Watson, who handles juvenile cases in East Volusia and sees the program as a last resort option before ordering a troubled teen into a residential program.

"I couldn't be more pleased or speak more highly of a program than Volusia County Marine Institute," Watson said. "It's a wonderful program because the people who work in that program are people who really want to invest in lives. They really have their hearts in what they're doing."

The program opened in Daytona Beach in April 2006 and currently serves 42 East Volusia students between the ages of 13 and 19. Most stay in the program four to six months before returning to a more traditional school or earning a high school equivalency diploma.

It's funded by the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice and Volusia County Schools, based on the number of students enrolled, and community donations with a projected budget of $243,174 for 2007-08.

The program is run by Associated Marine Institutes, a Tampa-based nonprofit organization that has 61 programs for juvenile offenders in eight states.

It evolved from a program that started in 1969 when a Broward County judge assigned several troubled teen boys to work on research projects with scientists at a Boca Raton oceanographic institute to teach them responsibility.

"The biggest thing we teach is thinking before acting," said Dan Toffoli, executive director of the Daytona Beach program.

That's a lesson Kevin has learned well in his 10 months at Volusia County Marine Institute. Students' last names weren't released because they're juvenile offenders.

"I used to have anger problems," said Kevin, who just turned 18 and was charged with assault and battery on another student at Atlantic High School. Kevin said he also skipped school regularly and smoked marijuana.

"You can talk to them about the problems you have," Kevin said of the staff at Volusia County Marine Institute. He's learned from them to work off his anger by playing basketball or just walking away from a confrontation.

"There's a better way to handle problems than to fight," he said.

Classmate Laura, 16, ended up in court on a charge of shoplifting a cold medicine some people have abused to get high and is under court supervision after flunking several drug tests.

She heard "nothing good" about Volusia County Marine Institute from friends before she arrived there about two months ago, but Laura said the program is helping her turn her life around.

"The teachers are extremely helpful in the classroom," she said. "They accept you for who you are."

Associated Marine Institutes monitors students for a year after they complete the program to see whether they are charged again with breaking the law and reports more than 70 percent of them do not.

Toffoli said firm figures for the local program aren't available yet but he expects them to fall in the same range.

Now that the Daytona Beach program has built a firm foundation, Toffoli said he'll be reaching out more to other agencies to develop service projects for its students to help them learn the value of giving something back to the community.

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