WESLACO — “Good kids make bad choices. I made a bad choice,” 16-year-old Noah said in front of his mother, his peers and officers from the Weslaco Police Department Friday.
Noah was one of several teens who were on hand at Weslaco City Hall last week to celebrate the successful completion of the “First Offenders” program by its inaugural class.
Offered by the Weslaco Police Department, in conjunction with the local school district, the program gives teens who have had first-time run-ins with the law the chance to set a new course in life.
“This program has told me that I don’t want to put my parents through I put them through,” Noah said.
“It taught me that we can do better and we can make better of ourselves.”
Weslaco Police Chief Joel Rivera initiated the program at the suggestion of Renee Betancourt, who, as judge of the 449th state District oversees juvenile justice cases.
“You have my respect and my admiration for accepting the challenge,” Rivera said to the half dozen teens and their parents who attended the ceremony.
Afterwards, the teens were called forward one by one to shred Manila folders in a symbolic shredding of their criminal records.
The teens were then congratulated by Rivera, Betancourt and other city leaders as they embarked upon their fresh starts.
“It felt good. It felt like I was free — like I was held in a capsule and now I’m just free,” Noah said of the moment he saw the folder disappear into a paper shredder at the front of the room.
Another teen, 15-year-old Gladys, echoed those sentiments. “It felt like a new life for me,” Gladys said. “I’m feeling free now that I have no problems against me.”
The program requires teens to attend six classes at the police station, followed by 90 days of probation. During the classes they learn to address issues in constructive ways. Class topics can vary from dealing with dangers on social media, to overcoming substance abuse, to dealing with mental health, Rivera said.
Both Noah and Gladys said the classes taught them how to be more responsible in tangible ways, such as performing chores at home, babysitting, and being helpful to their parents.
Gladys said she learned “that we don’t have to be getting in trouble for something that’s not worth it.”
The lessons prompted Noah to pursue a lifeguarding job at a local pool.
But, the First Offender program goes beyond teaching kids how to deal with issues before they become problematic. One of the requirements of the program is that the teens’ parents also attend classes.
“It’s a dual approach. The child has to go through education; the parents have to go through education,” Rivera said.
Parents learn practical parenting tips and how to communicate better with their children.
“It gave me a perspective to … be able to tolerate and to be able to deal with the situations that the kids do,” Noah’s mother, Monica said.
The classes have allowed her to look at things from a new perspective. As a result of the program, she and Noah communicate better, and he has shouldered more responsibilities.
“They (children) have to change, but parents have to change also,” Monica said.
For Judge Betancourt, every success story means one less juvenile standing on the other side of the bench in her courtroom, where the potential consequences may be more long-lasting. “If it gives this child an opportunity to get self-esteem … then I’m a supporter of that,” Betancourt said of the program.
Rivera was visibly ecstatic with the new program’s success, repeatedly telling the teens how proud he was of them for their hard work. Of approximately 20 teens who enrolled in the program, only four did not complete the requirements, he said.
Their stories hit somewhat close to home for the police chief, who recently earned his doctorate in Homeland Security. Rivera described himself as a “horrible” student when he was a child — until someone stepped in to give him a second chance.
“I saw a little bit of myself in those students, in that you know how it is when you’re a young teen … You’re looking at the world through a completely different lens,” Rivera said.
“I know these are good kids. And I know that all they need is just a little bit of direction.”