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They came together to help at-risk kids in the midcoast. Will it be enough?

Deputy Chief Alex Gaylor talks with a student at youth mentorship night at the Rockland Flanagan Center on Dec. 7, 2023, in Rockland.
Ashley L. Conti / The New York Times
via the BDN
Deputy Chief Alex Gaylor talks with a student at youth mentorship night at the Rockland Flanagan Center on Dec. 7, 2023, in Rockland.

Callie Ferguson spent one year examining the juvenile justice system in Maine as part of The New York Times’s Local Investigations Fellowship. This article, which is part of a series, was written and edited by the Bangor Daily News after the fellowship concluded.

On the first day of class, the 11 students, mostly girls, painted the walls of their new classroom white until they ran out of paint.

The large room had been used for storage in Thomaston’s town office until Steffany Tribou, assistant superintendent of the district overseeing Rockland-area schools, took it over in late April 2023 for a new endeavor. For the final eight weeks of the spring semester, the room would serve as an alternative education program for middle schoolers on the brink of expulsion, a last-ditch experiment to keep them in school.

Their presence in the classroom was an achievement on its own. During a recent trip to Oceanside Middle School in Thomaston, Tribou encountered one of the students in the hallway who should have been in class. The student asked her, “‘Why are you here?’” she recalled. “‘You’re not going to fix any of us.’”

By that spring, the Rockland area had garnered statewide attention for a surge in juvenile crime. Rockland police Chief Tim Carroll vented on Facebook that state officials had curbed the number of youth sent to the state’s only youth prison without providing communities like his with enough local alternatives to detention. His officers kept dealing with the same kids over and over without them receiving the support and consequences they clearly needed.

From the midcoast to the halls of the Maine Legislature, the resulting publicity made Rockland shorthand for chronic problems in Maine’s juvenile justice system. Today, however, the region has become as much a case study in solutions.

Over the past year and a half, dozens of motivated community members have come together to figure out how to better support their most troubled, often most vulnerable, youth. The police department started a mentorship program and a weekly youth night, marking a shift in its approach to adolescents. School officials such as Tribou found creative ways to keep disruptive students in school. Teachers, nurses and social workers gave up their evenings and weekends to sit on panels, apply for grants and ask kids what drove them toward unsafe behavior — and what it would take to make Rockland a better place to grow up.

“It all started out of this desperation and an understanding that no one was going to come fix this problem for us,” said Jessica Berry, assistant superintendent for the St. George Municipal School Unit and the district’s director of special education services. She helped lead the local collaboration last year through an organization she founded, the MidCoast Community Collaborative.

As the question from Tribou’s student dared, tackling the problem hasn’t been easy, and it isn’t fixed. The root causes driving the uptick in juvenile crime and the shortage of intervention programs that exist for young offenders are bigger issues than what local officials can solve on their own. At the same time, the region is building a formal strategy to better support youth in their communities, something that state leaders have been criticized for not doing as they’ve wound down numbers at Maine’s youth prison, Long Creek Youth Development Center in South Portland.

Juvenile justice experts took notice early on. The most effective strategies for keeping adolescents out of the juvenile justice system, and helping those already in it, are based on the specific needs and strengths of the places where kids live and grow up, said Jill Ward, director of the Center for Youth Policy and Law at the University of Maine School of Law. But state government must support those local initiatives with funding, infrastructure and guidance for them to last.

“They need to be an active partner in figuring out how to sustain local responses to kids and develop models that work for other communities, who might need different things,” said Ward, who tapped a law student last summer to write a report about what was happening in Rockland.

Last month, the MidCoast Community Collaborative received the most concrete recognition of its promising grassroots efforts when it and several partners won a $450,000 federal grant to create a blueprint for addressing and preventing juvenile crime in the region.

‘Change never really makes it down’

In December 2022, about a month after the police chief voiced his concerns about a lack of options for youth, a 15-year-old girl who had run away from her foster home forced Oceanside High School in Rockland into lockdown. She had threatened a staff member during a mental health crisis, brought on by a recent sexual assault.

The police who showed up already knew her. She was one of the unnamed teenagers who had made local headlines for screaming profanities at officers and trying to fight them, and her situation embodied the problem that Carroll had called attention to, the chief said. After the lockdown, officers brought her to the police station, only to release her 20 minutes later with no meaningful plan to keep her out of future trouble.

Joseph Hufnagel also believed something needed to change.

As the director of the Landing Place, the teen program operated by Homeworthy, formerly the Knox County Homeless Coalition, in downtown Rockland, he had come to know many of the kids in the news for assaults, thefts, burglaries and vandalism. The headlines broke his heart, he said. He did not condone their behavior, but he did not see bad kids. He saw kids who did not always have a consistent place to sleep at night, food to eat or families to rely on. He saw astonishing levels of anxiety, depression and trauma.

He saw big gaps in his community’s ability to support them. The girl who caused the lockdown said in an interview last summer that, after leaving the police station, she went to the Landing Place, one of the few places she felt safe. But she was back on her own when it closed at 5 p.m.

Then, in January 2023, something of a watershed moment happened. Berry organized a panel discussion at the Elks Lodge in Rockland called “Change for Midcoast Students,” hoping to raise awareness about some of the same problems she observed among her students in St. George. To her surprise, more than 200 people showed up.

Panelists, most of them school officials, described how their districts were struggling to manage the skyrocketing behavioral and educational needs among students. A local nurse practitioner lamented the unavailability of mental health services, and critical gaps in coverage due to high turnover, for her most vulnerable patients. Hufnagel, who also spoke, said it was time for the community to come together in response to the alarm bells sounded by law enforcement, emergency room staff and kids themselves.

Berry planned the event to raise awareness that might attract outside help. But the problems, she came to realize, were not unknown to the state agencies that oversee interventions for struggling kids such as the Maine Department of Health and Human Services and the Maine Department of Corrections.

“The state, and not in a bad way, but the state does all this research and data gathering,” Berry said. “But change never really makes it down to communities. It just doesn’t.”

State officials have pointed to efforts they’ve made to boost community-based behavioral health and accountability programs, although they have resisted more sweeping overhauls that some advocates, lawyers and consultants to the state have argued are necessary.

Since the fall, however, staff from several state agencies have been meeting to discuss collaborating on juvenile justice issues. Tony Ronzio, a spokesperson for the Maine Children’s Cabinet, which is overseeing the effort, said the group has been working toward a plan but did not provide details.

At the local level, Berry started organizing the MidCoast Community Collaborative in March 2023, envisioning it as a hub for organizations that work with youth and families to enhance their collaboration. If no big fix was coming, she wanted to see what the community could accomplish solely by leveraging the resources it already had.

The same month, Tribou, with Regional School Unit 13, comprising schools in Rockland, Owls Head, Thomaston and Cushing, won $400,000 from the Maine Department of Education, drawn from a one-time pool of funding that lawmakers created the previous year for restorative, school-based juvenile justice programs.

Her district had observed an increase in troubling behavior at the middle school in Thomaston, usually for disrespectful language, but there were a few fights, Tribou said. Parents had volunteered to provide additional supervision in the building, including by monitoring the girls’ bathroom, where a handful of students were congregating and making their female classmates feel unsafe. Some were the same kids getting in trouble with police.

In one extreme example, a mother said in an interview that she had to remove her daughter from school in the fall of 2022 because another girl who had bullied her broke her collarbone during a fight.

As Tribou found herself in more meetings with the police department, Berry and others, it didn’t feel right to her and Colden Golann, the former principal of Oceanside Middle School, which serves grades six to eight, to expel their most challenging students, especially at such a young age. Most of them were chronically absent and skipped class when they did attend, leading Tribou to wonder how the district could rebuild relationships, not terminate them, she said.

She saw police trying to get creative. The Rockland Police Department started a weekly basketball game with a few boys who had been getting in trouble a lot, including one who had recently spent five weeks at Long Creek. Alex Gaylor, the deputy chief, said he hoped that surrounding the boys with adults who cared about them, including staff from the Landing Place, might steer at least a few in a better direction.

The middle school alternative education program came together before Tribou and her colleagues felt ready. The grant paid for the lease at the Thomaston town office where the focus would be on rebuilding lost trust and respect between school and the students, while weaving in academics.

Of the 12 kids the district invited to participate, one never showed up, Tribou said. On the third day, only six did. But in one hopeful sign, by the end of the eight weeks, school attendance rates rose for eight of the 11 students. One student only attended school 25 percent of the time before the program began but was going to school almost nine out of every 10 days by the end.

‘It would give us more hope’

Around 5 p.m. on a sunny Thursday in April, Doran Wright carried about a dozen boxes of pizza into Rockland’s Flanagan Community Center, helped by a local 18-year-old he’d met while volunteering inside Long Creek. Nearly 30 kids and teenagers filled the building’s gymnasium over the next hour to play basketball and four-square, and eat free pizza and cake.

Over a year, the police department’s basketball game evolved into a mentorship program and a popular weekly youth night. Wright, a pastor with Straight Ahead Ministries, a faith-based organization that works with youth in the juvenile justice system, started supporting the efforts last June, though there is no religious focus to the evenings. The nights are for all kids, not just at-risk youth.

“We like playing with the officers,” said a girl who came with her sisters.

In 2023, police complaints involving kids kept going up, exceeding the previous year by 25 percent, according to the department. But the number of criminal summonses and arrests fell by 20 percent, which Carroll attributed to his officers taking a different approach by diverting kids away from court — and one that has been shown to reduce recidivism over the long term for minor offenses.

The problems he complained about a year-and-a-half ago are far from solved, the chief said, as evidenced by a few recent examples: a boy who threatened an officer with a knife after allegedly stealing alcohol in February, and a group of minors who prompted multiple calls to police over a two-day stretch for trespassing at local businesses, damaging property and making business owners feel unsafe. But since January complaints are down 25 percent compared with the previous period last year.

“Young people who are more likely to offend, or re-offend, are beginning to see more adult support there for them and actually modifying their thinking because of that,” Wright said. “It’s a big shift and doesn’t happen overnight.”

Most of what’s changed in Rockland over the past year and a half has been hard to measure, especially because so much of it is focused on preventing and mitigating delinquency over the long term. It often looks like small interactions and more seamless collaboration than big, new programs.

But there are hopeful signs. The MidCoast Community Collaborative now has a website and takes referrals to help connect families with more than 70 organizations that work with families and children.

Tribou learned in March that her district has received $450,000 in special congressional funding through U.S. Sen. Angus King’s office to continue the alternative education program in Thomaston for middle schoolers, among several other district initiatives. Next year, students will toggle between regular classes and more project-based learning in the program, set to move into modular classrooms closer to the middle school.

All but one of the six students who continued with the program this year are expected to go to high school in the fall, followed by the education technician who has been with them since the start as a way to smooth their transition, Tribou said. As of early May, they all had attendance rates exceeding 82 percent, according to district data. A student who only attended 17 percent of school days last year has a current attendance rate of 89 percent.

In addition to the mentorship program and youth night, police officers have driven teenagers to their therapy appointments when they can’t find a ride, so they won’t violate their court-appointed counseling requirements.

Rachel Wilcox, a longtime primary care nurse practitioner in Rockport who has worked closely with the collaborative, has spent nights off having dinner with local mothers and grandmothers at the Landing Place, extending a connection between families and an often-daunting medical system.

Like the police, she has filled gaps outside her job description. For instance, she has managed her patients’ medications when their families couldn’t find an available psychiatrist.

“You don’t have to try to fix everything at once,” Wilcox told an audience at the Camden-Rockport Middle School in late April during a panel on teen mental health. “Just be a positive force in every interaction you have with an adolescent.”

Hannah Faesy, a new liaison between families and the Rockland-area school district who was hired with funding from the grant Tribou secured in 2023, said she suspects that positive interactions with adults, especially Hufnagel, played a big role in a turnaround for two boys, Timmy and Harry, who were continually in trouble with the law in 2022 and 2023.

Harry agreed, if only a little, in an interview last fall. “The Landing Place was good. We’d eat there if we didn’t have food at our houses, or if we needed clothes,” he said. “It wouldn’t stop us from committing crimes, [but] it would give us more hope that at least there are some good people out there.”

Over the long term, change that relies so heavily on volunteers is not sustainable, multiple people said in interviews. Wilcox, like so many others, is feeling burned out. Giving kids a ride to therapy, or helping teenagers find a job so they stay out of trouble, shouldn’t be tasks that rely on the availability of a police officer juggling 911 calls, Carroll said.

And there are gaps that volunteers or existing organizations can’t fill. Nearly every town in the midcoast lacks affordable housing, a December study found, pushing families into homelessness or closer to it. A statewide shortage of child welfare case workers is especially acute in the Rockland area. Mental health services for youth keep closing.

Police and staff at Homeworthy said they see a need for somewhere kids can go on the weekend and in the evenings, when school is out and the sun is setting, either because they need a place to sleep or something fun to do to stay out of trouble. Hufnagel has heard pleas from teens for a skate park, he said.

Gaylor, meanwhile, would love more mentors to help keep kids busy when his officers can’t — or at least give them rides, something he was shocked to learn their probation officers aren’t allowed to do.

“The one thing kids need help with is transportation because they’re kids, especially in a rural area,” he said. They need “someone to meet with these kids, learn about them, what they like.”

Over the next 18 months, the region will create a long-term strategy for better supporting at-risk youth, under the grant to the collaborative from the U.S. Department of Justice. The region is proud of what it’s done, people said in interviews, but they don’t want their work to be mistaken for having solved problems they have only started to confront.

Berry will take the lead with help from several partner organizations. She hopes the project can become a model for other communities in Maine.

Plus, she added, “I can only work 100 hours a week for so much longer.”

Callie Ferguson is an investigative reporter with the Bangor Daily News. She may be reached at cferguson@bangordailynews.com.

This story appears through a content partnership with the Bangor Daily News.