Getting a G.R.A.S.P.

Friday, November 16, 2007

With a new location in downtown Greencastle came new numbers from Putnam County Community Corrections (PCCC), indicating that the success of its alternative suspension program is having a ripple effect that is spreading to Putnam County schools, courtrooms and crime statistics.

Generating Responsibility through Alternative Suspension Program, or G.R.A.S.P, is designed as an alternative to traditional out-of-school suspension for local schools.

"It gives us another tool in our box to persuade students to make better decisions," said Greencastle High School Assistant Principal Russell Hesler, who often refers students to the program.

Students participating in G.R.A.S.P spend the morning in a supervised classroom completing class work, and the afternoon on a work crew doing anything from shoveling snow to garbage clean-up.

"Instead of kicking kids out of school, students make up work, are supervised, often show a change in attitude and parents get involved," Hesler said.

Since the program was launched in 2004, suspension rates in county schools have consistently dropped, from 400 in the 2003-04 school year to just more than 250 in 2005-06.

Statistics reported in PCCC's 2007 annual report also indicate that referrals from county schools have risen consistently, indicating that the program has support from all four county high schools and Area 30.

The program has several benefits over more traditional disciplinary action, said PCCC executive director Jamie France.

Schools are able to count students participating in G.R.A.S.P. on attendance rolls, an important factor in No Child Left Behind accountability. Students are able to complete course work while enrolled in the program, which was previously not allowed during out-of-school suspension, in addition to providing service to the community.

Annual statistics indicate that the community benefits of G.R.A.S.P. are not limited to school performance, but have also spread into the juvenile justice system. According to county officials, the program has had a dramatic influence on the number of adjudicated youth in Putnam County, reflecting a decrease in daytime crime rates.

"When I started years ago we had 400 kids on probation," said Renee Marsteller of Putnam County Juvenile Probation. "Now, we have 150 to 200."

According to Marsteller, before G.R.A.S.P., any actionable offence committed on school grounds, from fighting to possession of a controlled substance, often resulted in a sentence of probation. This program gives the courts new options -- instead of probation and a criminal record, kids can go to G.R.A.S.P.

There is a "scared straight" element of grasp that many involved with the project said is a powerful deterrent for future criminal behavior. After being referred to the program, students are court-ordered to comply and are required to meet with a local judge.

France suggests that the brief brush with the criminal justice system often goes a long way without inflicting any permanent damage to a student's record. All court records are destroyed after successful completion of the program.

Mandated parental involvement is touted as another key to the program's success.

Participation in G.R.A.S.P. requires that parents attend an intake meeting and are responsible for the paying court and other fees associated with the program.

"Involving parents who are inconvenienced as a result of their kid's behavior can go a long way in bringing the numbers down," Marsteller said.

The collaboration between schools, parents, Community Corrections and the courts brings together all necessary parties to help local at-risk youth, said Assistant Principal Hesler.

"Between all of us, we have the components we need to help a student be successful," he said. "If they're not turned around, they're bound for Putnamville (Correctional Facility) and you may as well buy them a t-shirt."

G.R.A.S.P operates on a slim budget and spent less than $40,000 last year. In addition to funds generated by program fees, additional funding comes from the Indiana Department of Corrections and all area schools.

G.R.A.S.P reported a 97 percent successful completion rate last year.

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