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3:56 PM Sat, Sept. 22nd

Milestone Project: Cooperation helps create best solutions for troubled youths

PRESCOTT — Sometimes it seems as though nothing will cut through the bureaucracy of educational, criminal justice and other agencies.

But local officials have discovered a one-word scissors that slashes red tape instantaneously.

And that word is "Milestone."

In light of Monday's student violence at a suburban Santana High School in Santee, Calif., that left two dead and 13 injured, local officials took an overview of its interagency communications system, the Milestone Project.

The project started in the wake of a tragic shooting incident by two students on the campus of Columbine High School in April 1999.

The local project brings together the juvenile court system, Prescott Unified School District, Excel schools, Yavapai County Health Department, Prescott Police Department, Child Protective Services, Youth Count and the West Yavapai Guidance Clinic as partners for identifying and helping troubled youths who meet a range of criteria.

Don Ostendorf, executive director of the West Yavapai Guidance Clinic, said those criteria were one of two difficult decisions the group needed to make.

Cast too wide a net, and the group risked spreading itself too thin.

While it could aid more troubled youths that way, Ostendorf said the group couldn't chance the possibility that one severely troubled child would fall through the net and endanger classmates and society.

On the other hand, the group could create a criteria list so restrictive that professionals spend more time analyzing a child's "fit" for the Milestone Project and less time coordinating the services that child needs — perhaps critically and immediately.

"We've had some children surface through the system, that upon evaluation, are not thought to meet the criteria at all," Ostendorf said.

He said while the team has a list of criteria that might identify a potential threat in a youth, those guidelines have been broad by design.

"We don't want to restrict this to the point where people feel they are not empowered to take a step," Ostendorf said. "If they feel some behavior is a concern, we want them to raise an alert: 'I am concerned about this child.'"

The other quandary the team faced with Milestone was the target student population, Ostendorf said.

Many of the agencies cover large areas: the entire tri-city area, western Yavapai County, Yavapai County or even northern Arizona.

At the same time, the program was new. No one knew how many young people would fit the Milestone criteria.

So defining that focus was probably the hardest call to make. Eventually, the group decided to start in Prescott, then branch out to the other tri-city and 69 Corridor communities after they saw the program working, he said.

After a year of planning, Milestone was in effect at the start of school in August. To date, nine students fall under the Milestone header, Ostendorf said.

"It's not a label," he said. "We don't want to label kids. This is a way of getting help to a small group of potentially violent young people."

Most of the time, the red flag goes up from the school or police. Anytime a youth makes a threat against a student, teacher or the school, has a history of violent behavior or takes part in an act of violence, the officials take another look at whether the child fits into other patterns:

• A lack of effective parental cooperation/participation.

• An affiliation with gangs or cults.

• Isolation from others, low self-esteem, unkempt or unusual dress or a grudge against society.

• Access to or a preoccupation with weapons.

• Mental health issues.

• An obsession with violence or violent thoughts, expressed through violent music or art, or an obsessive interest in historical acts of violence.

• A violent home or previous violent victimization.

Each of the agencies has a key person who evaluates information from teachers or other school staff, police officers, or caseworkers.

They act as a check and balance, or send up the red flag to other agencies. And one word, Milestone, sets off that instantaneous response.

Ostendorf said it was like creating a whole language in one word: Milestone.

"Saying that we have a Milestone child makes people act," he said. "It cuts through delays, gets people moving."

Parental support can open the doors to all the agencies. If parents agree, agencies can share their records with each other and find good solutions for problems that might cross from school to the court system to community activities.

One might think that parents might be wary and resistant, once they see what officials are telling them about their children. But that hasn't been the case. "With only one exception, parents have been not only cooperative, but seem very re-lieved that there was a system in place to help their child," Ostendorf said.

Juvenile Court Services Dir-ector Gordon Glau said that in the seven months the Milestone Project has been running, he is seeing the benefits.

The court system, in some ways, is a receiver. The young people that the school or police identify come in his direction.

But when he knows the court system has a Milestone youth, they stand ready to look for and provide extra services.

For instance, he may guide other court professionals to detain a young person in the juvenile facility, rather than return the child to the home or difficult peer situation.

"If we detain him here, it can slow the process down, so we can do a good assessment of what's going on," Glau said.

Glau said he's seeing those kinds of decisions reaping benefits for young people. In some cases, they can keep students in school, whereas in others, an alternative placement is in a student's best interest.

In all things, the professionals look for the best answers. Sometimes those require a total look at what's troubling a child. Maybe it's lack of success in school, or no real peer group for that student's interests.

Ostendorf said the group has arrived at some answers to what may seem like a single-faceted problem. It's not a court problem, or a school problem or a mental-health issue. It's a child.

And Glau said keeping that as the focus has been the key to their successes so far. Success is hard to define, but every day without school violence is another day they haven't failed.

"I think we've been able to head off some situations," he said.

Contact Gail Kenny at gkenny@prescottaz.com