“You either love this program or you hate it,” Charlie Stancil says of his creation, a shock regimen for disruptive youth that begins with military-style drills at dawn.
George W. Bush loved it – so much so that when he ran for president in 2000, one of his campaign commercials featured him walking with kids from that program, called STAR. If elected, the commercial said, Bush would use STAR as a national model.
Nearly four years later, STAR has grown to 32 for-profit programs in four states, serving 7,225 youths this past school year. But its growth has little, if anything, to do with the White House, and everything to do with youth workers struggling for ways to set troublesome kids straight while keeping them in school and out of court.
While this alternative to suspension or expulsion for 9- to 15-year-olds claims impressive results and wins praise from educators and juvenile justice officials in several states, some parents and child advocates charge that it degrades and frightens youth and exposes them to physical and verbal abuse.
Swirling around the debate over STAR are hard questions about how to handle bullies and chronically misbehaving youth: Can even the worst offenders be kept in classroom settings, rather than being dumped into secure juvenile facilities? Can a nonresidential “shock” program improve attendance, grades and behavior over the long term for a significant number of youth? Are the wrong kids being swept up as well, in a classic example of widening the net?
STAR tries to answer these questions with a regime that includes daily physical drills at sunrise, mandatory parental involvement, daily tutoring, weekly therapy for youth and parents, and collaboration with schools, juvenile and family courts, and youth-serving agencies such as the YMCA.
STAR claims that hundreds of its youngsters have improved their grades and been diverted from the juvenile justice system. “I don’t like the idea of guys yelling at kids, but the positive results of the program are indisputable,” says Pete Colbenson, director of Georgia’s Children and Youth Coordinating Council.
But foes say STAR’s approach is all wrong: that youth will reflect in their behavior the “controlling, unthinking, unfeeling” nature of their military model (in the words of criminal justice professor Lucien Lombardo), that children with learning disabilities could be irreparably harmed, and that STAR doesn’t assess whether the youth need this type of program. Several parents have complained that some youth have been verbally or physically abused.
“STAR has apparently not diverted any youngsters from the system,” says Orlando Martinez, former commissioner of Georgia’s Department of Juvenile Justice. “I haven’t seen any decline in the numbers of people coming into the system because of STAR.”
“We are not a boot camp,” declares Stancil, who created STAR after initially setting out to create – a boot camp.
It was 1993, when youth boot camps were a fad. School officials in Montgomery County, Texas, were pressing for the creation of a boot camp for suspended and expelled kids, and the county’s chief juvenile probation officer, Mel Brown, tapped Stancil to lead the effort. Stancil, who had retired as a senior chief petty officer after 22 years in the Navy, had responded to a job announcement for a “boot camp coordinator” at a local military recruiting office.
“I was sent around the state to observe the boot camps, and what I saw scared me,” Stancil recalls. “Little or no education and a lot of abuse.”
Brown says he worked with school officials to create a compromise, “taking the military approach and putting it at the front end of an educational program.” The objectives were to keep kids in school while reducing their disruptive behavior and improving their grades.
Stancil was hired to implement Specialized Treatment and Rehabilitation (STAR) in a middle school in Conroe. Probation officials say the program soared. But Stancil left in frustration when school and juvenile justice officials decided to move the program to an alternative education building – away from the school that the STAR kids came from. Stancil’s reaction reflects his belief in the benefit of bringing the program to the kids, rather than isolating them in an alternative setting.
“We lost the [deterrent] ripple effect of the STAR student being in the same classroom with the others,” he says. “And we lost the presence of a STAR instructor who would have been nearby to quell a classroom disturbance if it had broken out.”
Stancil launched a for-profit version of STAR in Georgia in 1996, changing what the acronym stands for to Student Transition and Recovery. He says the original name “sounded too ‘mediciney.’ We don’t rehabilitate anybody.”
The original nonprofit still operates in many Texas counties, either as STAR (run by school board and juvenile justice collaboratives) or the Juvenile Justice Alternative Program (under the Texas Youth Commission).
Stencil’s version of STAR is an amalgam of the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) used in many high schools and colleges, and an intensive before-and-after-school physical fitness and tutoring program.
It operates mostly in rural counties in Georgia, Alabama, New York and Pennsylvania on a $4 million annual budget. Its fees range from $100,000 per year in some Georgia counties to $225,000 in Genesee County, near Rochester, N.Y. Most of the programs are funded by local, state and federal funds (the latter mostly through Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention state formula grants). The programs are overseen by local school boards and juvenile courts, sometimes assisted by county social services departments.
STAR offers three tracks. Youth are referred to its one- and 30-day sessions by their schools in lieu of suspension, and to its six-month track by juvenile court or social services agencies, usually in lieu of juvenile detention.
The one-day session is for youth who’ve committed minor infractions such as repeated talking in class and “sassing” the teacher. It accounts for 63 percent of program participants.
The 30-day track is for repeat offenders who’ve been through the one-day session, accounting for 28 percent of participants. The other 9 percent go to the six-month program, which is for youth who have been charged with criminal offenses, such as assault and car theft.
STAR instructors greet the youth promptly at 5:30 each school morning for calisthenics and running exercises, either in a building on the school grounds or at a central site where several schools bus their students.
The instructors wear military-type uniforms and yell commands during the exercises and formation, while the youths yell back, “Yes, sir!” and “No sir!” or other answers to questions. For the one-day participants, a military-style haircut is optional.
Sounds like a boot camp? “I abhor them,” Stancil says. “We do not call our personnel ‘drill sergeants,’ we call them ‘instructors.’ ”
The youth workers are forbidden to touch the youths, Stancil says. The workers go through restraint training but are not equipped with handcuffs, straps, hooks, blackjacks, billy clubs or weapons. “It’s dumb to teach that violence is not the answer and have a gun hanging at your side,” Stancil says.
The “sergeant/instructors” make $22,500 a year, Stancil says, while “captains” or “majors” who coordinate several programs start out at $28,000 to $31,000.
After the morning drills, the STAR students, wearing a star stitched onto their shirts, attend regular classes. The drill cacophony goes at ease. The instructors remain on site, typically monitoring the halls and rendering assistance if needed – such as if a disturbance develops among students.
When regular classes end for the day, the youths attend study halls supervised by teachers, with STAR instructors helping out if a youth asks. “Homework is done if we have to stay with them until 10 p.m. or beyond,” Stancil says.
Community service is often part of the regimen. For instance, some STAR youth may clean YMCA facilities in exchange for getting use of the facilities.
Parental participation is required. Without it, youths can be removed from the program, and in some cases their parents are threatened with jail.
Weekly parenting classes and counseling sessions with parents and students are held at the school, with mental health and counseling staff assigned by the school district.
Orlando Martinez, who resigned in August as commissioner of Georgia’s Department of Juvenile Justice, is not a fan of STAR.
“I do not support boot camps or any programs such as STAR that use shock tactics,” Martinez says. “I would question the results of any of these programs. I’ve never seen any wholesale evaluation of these programs.”
Yet, an evaluation of STAR’s performance in 10 Georgia communities showed marked declines in absenteeism and disciplinary referrals and an increase in grades.
“STAR is an effective early intervention program,” said the study, “The Student Transition and Recovery (STAR) Program: An Evaluation Report,” which reviewed data on the 1998-1999 statewide program. Fifty-two percent of the 562 youths who participated in the six-month and 30-day programs during that time took part in a survey. Seventy-nine percent of those surveyed had improved their grades, 67 percent got along better with their parents and 61 percent attended school more often.
Of course, it’s unclear how the results would have changed if the other 48 percent of STAR participants were in the survey.
“If we’d had enough money to do a more in-depth longitudinal survey, we would have done it,” says Colbenson, director of the Children and Youth Coordinating Council, who commissioned the study. “These results had to serve as an indicator as to whether the program had merit.”
Colbenson was responsible for STAR’s first foray out of Texas. In 1996, as the juvenile justice specialist in charge of the state agency that administers Georgia’s formula grants from the U.S. Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, Colbenson routed $100,000 of that money to STAR for a pilot in Colquitt County. The results were good enough for the state to fund “four or five more” in 1999 at $50,000 apiece, Colbenson says.
He praises STAR as an “alternative to alternative schools. … Since we were skeptical of the approach, we monitored these programs more closely than any other program type we ever funded.” He says the instructors were “particularly good at informal follow-up” by “staying in touch with the kids, asking about their grades and greeting them warmly upon meeting them.”
Rick Beal, a high school principal for 24 years in Michigan and Georgia, says that when STAR was instituted at his Georgia school, “79 percent of those in the one-day program never showed up again as discipline problems.” Beal, now an educational consultant for Georgia’s Central Savannah River Area, says STAR was especially effective in dealing with bullies, which he called the “public school’s No. 1” problem.
Nationally, Stancil cites these recidivism rates for STAR participants: 14 percent in the one-day phase, 18 percent in the 30-day phase and 36 percent in the six-month phase.
Even though Stancil left Texas in a dispute over how STAR was being carried out there, Bush found the Texas version effective when he was governor. Chad Trulson, who worked on the original STAR effort and is now a professor of criminal justice at the University of North Texas, recalls one of Bush’s presidential campaign ads:
“There he was, Governor Bush, featured in a TV commercial marching with STAR students behind him and at his side, while the announcer said the program will serve as a national model. Boot camps were in favor here then. But STAR isn’t a boot camp.”
A White House spokesman could not say whether the Bush administration has tried to use any elements of STAR as a national model.
There have been a few allegations of abuse by STAR staff:
• The Augusta Chronicle reported in April 2001 that an “injured boy, 11, was sprayed with water throughout the day while crawling through wet sand, according to the youth’s grandmother, while a drill sergeant asked, ‘Who’s going to help you now?’ ”
The paper said the STAR program at a middle school in Kingsland, Ga., (Camden County) was shut down because of the incident. It quoted Stancil as saying, “With the exception of Camden County, we never had an accusation of injury to a student.
What happened was an isolated incident that should have never happened.”
Stancil now says that by “mutual agreement” the contract was not renewed.
Camden County Assistant School Superintendent Edwin Davis says he doesn’t “precisely recall the incident,” but “vaguely” remembers that “an instructor might have been fired.” STAR “had merit,” Davis says. “The only reason it was discontinued was because we no longer had funds to support it.”
Stancil says that if an instructor has been found even to curse at a youth, he or she must apologize to the youth in front of the others. “The instructor will get one verbal warning, one written warning, and if there is a third time, they will be fired,” he says. He says this procedure led to the firing of an instructor in 1999.
• The Georgia Advocacy Office (GAO), a watchdog group based in Tucker that watches for practices that might violate the rights of children with disabilities, says through a spokesman that it is “looking into around five complaints from around the state” regarding STAR.
“The [federal] Individuals with Disabilities Education Act recommends research-based positive behavioral intervention systems for students with disabilities,” the spokesman says. “STAR is the opposite of what research recommends.” Some STAR programs include youth with attention deficit disorder.
• Lucien Lombardo, a professor of criminal justice at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va., urged the Berrien County, Ga., School Board in February “to rethink having the STAR program in your schools.”
“Experiences that are felt as degrading stay with and shape the adults these children become in incredibly negative ways,” Lombardo says in an interview. “These students need to feel their human dignity is supported, not degraded.”
Berrien County’s program ended in May because of overall funding reductions, says Gary Chapman, executive director of Communities in Schools of Berrien, which funded STAR at $100,000 a year for three years. One parent there complained about her son being abused by STAR staff, but the complaint apparently has been dropped.
Stancil says STAR’s critics are “misinformed. When the schools and the courts come to us, that means they have already tried” other approaches. “This is a volunteer program.”
Stancil, revealing some military steel, says, “I’m getting frustrated with these people who think that their way is the only way. Give them my number and tell them to call me anytime, visit any program and ask any questions.”
Charlie Stancil, President
P.O. Box 2694
1118 Main St.
Bandera, TX 78003
Pete Colbenson, Director
Children and Youth Coordinating Council
10 Park Place South
Atlanta, GA 30303
Eileen Kirkpatrick, Director
Department of Social Services
5130 E. Main St.
Batavia, NY 14020
Professor of Criminal Justice
University of North Texas
Denton, TX 76203
The Georgia Advocacy Office
100 Crescent Centre Parkway
Tucker, GA 30084
Ron Leach, Director
Montgomery County Juvenile
200 Academy Drive
Conroe, TX 77301
Making Parents Participate is Crucial
Parental participation is key to the success of STAR, says Eileen Kirkpatrick, director of the Genesee County, N.Y., Department of Social Services, which has been working with STAR for three years.
“The mandatory parenting classes for the 30-day kids and the six-month kids forces the family to look at how they relate, rather than just saying, ‘This kid is a problem,’ ” she says.
Star founder Charlie Stancil says the average parent profile reads: single female on welfare living in small, rural area. Some are alcohol and drug abusers, he says, but most are not addicted.
“The biggest number of them simply have no parenting skills, so the parenting classes are crucial,” he says. “And far too many of them were themselves goofballs in school who passed it on to their kids.”
Kirkpatrick adds that the parents learn age-appropriate discipline techniques, along with listening, negotiating and intervention skills. The classes are held at least one hour a week, she says.
Parents or legal guardians who don’t participate could face sanctions. In the 30-day session, Kirkpatrick says, the children of parents who don’t participate are supposed to be released from STAR and face whatever disciplinary action the school may otherwise have administered.
For the six-month sessions, family court judges issue orders directing the parents to attend. If they don’t, Kirkpatrick says, “the parent may do some jail time. One came close, but straightened out when she found out we were serious.” In Georgia, judges also issue orders requiring parental participation.
Program administrators say the threat of punishment seems to work. “To my knowledge only one parent was put in jail” during the 10 years of the program, Stancil says.
As for kicking kids out for parental nonparticipation, he says, “We have kept kids even though the parent would not support us initially. Court pressure eventually gets them back into line. I would not punish the student for the action of the parent.”