The Erie County District Attorney's Office adopted the Buffalo's Alternative School on South Park Avenue to work with troubled teens. WBFO's senior reporter Eileen Buckley says the program is offering students in grades seven through 12 a chance to focus on a stronger path for their future.
Students are referred to city's Academy School 131 because they've been incarcerated, involved in some type of crime or created trouble. About 180 students come into the alternative school each year to be rehabilitated and return to their former school or graduate.
“I’ve had students that have been shot and killed. I have students that have been the shooter of somebody who has been killed. I have students that are doing armed robbery. I have car theft. There’s a lot of little petty larceny things like that,” said Michael Mogavero, an instructional coach.
The school has only about a 12 percent graduation rate.
“We have a transiency rate that is huge. We have about 180 students that come here a year and we probably have almost the same amount—not quite that many—that drop, so we have this new student coming in, old student going out, so we have a changing population all the time. It’s almost impossible to sustain a graduation rate of 50, 60, 70 percent,” said Mogavero.
Last July the Erie County District Attorney's Office adopted this school.
“It was a bit rocky at first and I think it is what we expected to be,” said Ashley Lowry, assistant district attorney.
Once a month the assistant DAs and criminal investigators visit the school working to break down barriers between students and law enforcement.
“They have misconceptions, you know as do we, and we wanted to be there to help clarity any questions they may have in hopes of creating a better future for them. This allows us to give them a path forward—let them know they have options,” Lowry explained.
Buffalo School Board Member Patty Pierce is also a criminal investigator in the DA's office.
“And that we told them from day one, if we are going to participate in this program, and when we say we are going to be here, we are going to be here” Pierce remarked.
Pierce tells WBFO News she considers these students the "most vulnerable." She considers them an underserved population in the city school district.
“I can really speak from experience that the education—to the lack of education—the 'pipeline to prison’ does exist. Many of them just don’t have one caring adult in their world and we know the difference between success and failure in a child’s life is just one caring adult,” Pierce said.
During most visits the assistant DAs will work with students on debate skills and discuss current events, but last Friday's visit was a break from that format. Members of the Messinger Woods Wildlife Care & Education Center brought in a variety of birds to teach students about wildlife. They showed off an owl, hawk and crow. Students were fascinated as the wildlife crew demonstrated how the crow can actually say words.
“Can you say hello?” asked the Messinger Woods member. “Hello,” responded the crow. “Oh!” declared students.
This type of mingling of the DA's office and these students is an effort to work 'conflict resolution.' The alternative school faces big absenteeism numbers and these partnerships can help break barriers for students to stay out of trouble and work toward the right side of the law.
“It’s an amazing experience. It makes me feel good that I can accomplish something you know as a minority and as a young black man in this world. I want to set an example for other people too,” said Demarcus Vaughn, high school senior.
Vaughn is now an intern the DA's office. He said he landed in the alternative school because he didn't make good decisions, but now he's on track to graduate in June. He wants to attend college and become an electrical engineer.
“What changed my mind was the fact that I’m getting older. I can’t keep doing the same shenanigans I was when I was 12, 13, 14 or even freshman in high school—can’t keep doing it simply because same things don’t apply all the time. So, you know, a lot of talks with my father—he told me to grow up—that’s what I had to do,” Vaughn explained.
For Vaughn, it's an experience he will never forget.
“An old saying goes ‘never forget where you came from,’ so even if I’m 52, 62, 72, never forget where you came from. Always give back to the ones who gave to you,” Vaughn replied.