Tom Nordlie (352) 392-1773 x 277
Damon Miller (352) 846-0996, ext. 225
Linda McClellan (850) 643-2229
Gloria Keenan (850) 643-5235
BRISTOL, Fla.—To prevent school violence in Liberty County, University of Florida extension agents are helping at-risk youth learn to settle disputes peacefully, as part of a new federally funded delinquency prevention program.
Liberty Investing For Tomorrow, or LIFT, combines conflict resolution training with character development, tutoring and cultural enrichment, said Damon Miller, assistant dean for 4-H youth development with UF’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.
The program, designed by UF 4-H faculty, encourages positive change in all areas of life. “These kids aren’t bad — often, they’re just bored,” Miller said. “The community has few recreational outlets and a high level of poverty. There’s not a lot to do.”
He said Liberty County is located in a heavily wooded part of Florida’s Panhandle. With about 6,500 residents, it has the lowest population of the state’s 67 counties.
While the county has not suffered any extreme acts of school violence, young people there sometimes settle disputes with their fists, said Linda McClellan, LIFT director and a 4-H agent with the Liberty County Cooperative Extension Service in Bristol.
“In some families, walking away from conflict is not considered honorable,” McClellan said. “But our society takes youth violence seriously now. Kids have to control themselves or face the consequences.”
McClellan said LIFT serves students age 10 to 18, who typically remain in the program for one or two school semesters. She uses instructional videos, group discussions and role-playing exercises to encourage participants to explore nonviolent ways to resolve conflicts.
“We help kids analyze what happens in a conflict,” she said. “When they understand their options, they’re more likely to make wise choices.”
She said LIFT incorporates the nationwide “Character Counts” curriculum, which encourages students to develop strong personal ethics. The LIFT program also recruits students for traditional 4-H programs.
“Many of these kids have leadership abilities that 4-H can bring out,” she said. “LIFT provides scholarships for students to attend 4-H Camp and some of them eventually train as camp counselors.”
Students are referred to LIFT if they are considered at risk for juvenile delinquency, based on criteria developed by the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice, McClellan said. Criteria can include disciplinary problems, truancy or poor academic performance.
“Many of the kids referred to LIFT have had little or no trouble with the law,” she said. “And the program is not a punishment. It’s a way to help them take the right path in life.”
Ronny Snipes, a Liberty County sheriff’s deputy who serves as school resource officer for the entire county, expects LIFT to make a difference.
“We had a similar program in place last year, and we had only five or six serious fights in the entire school system,” he said. “I’m sure LIFT will build on that success.”
One child who benefited from the program that preceded LIFT is Beth Latimer, 11, now a seventh grader at Bristol Middle School. Last year, while having problems with math and English, she entered the Youth Outreach Activities Program, or YORAP, which featured conflict resolution, tutoring and cultural enrichment in a format similar to LIFT.
“In nine weeks my math grades went from F’s to A’s,” she said. “And the role-playing skits helped me get along better with my older brother.”
Beth’s mother, Lara Latimer, said she was impressed by YORAP.
“I loved it,” she said. “Linda McClellan and the tutors had a fabulous attitude and really motivated the kids. Besides working on her academics, Beth learned a lot about art. During the semester the kids attended several cultural events as a reward for their efforts.”
LIFT was inaugurated July 1, 2001, and is expected to run for three years, said Gloria Keenan, LIFT coordinator. The program is offered in six locations, with 75 youth currently participating.
Keenan said LIFT received funding partly because the YORAP program met its goals. The U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention provided LIFT with a $97,000 grant administered by the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice.
“The grant comes with certain requirements, and our performance is evaluated,” she said. “The Florida Department of Juvenile Justice examines students’ attendance and grades before and after they complete the program.”
She said the grant was obtained by the Liberty County Board of Commissioners and the Liberty County Juvenile Justice Council, a community coalition that helps direct local juvenile justice activities. Both Keenan and McClellan are members of the council.
The council will seek additional federal funding by submitting a comprehensive plan for preventing juvenile delinquency, Keenan said. The plan will identify community problems and describe possible solutions.
“The situation in Liberty County is different from what you’d find in a big city, yet we have to protect our children from many of the same dangers,” she said.