Tahlequah Daily Press

June 27, 2011

Friday Night Lights helps troubled teens

The court-sanctioned program helps youth understand consequences.

Special Writer

TAHLEQUAH — For teens, Friday nights in the summertime are great to spend time with friends and family, having fun and pursuing interests.

But for those who have found themselves in court, “boot camp” may be where they find themselves.

Friday Night Lights is an opportunity for teens to think about the choices they make and the consequences of those decisions. The adults who sponsor the program and give up their Friday nights to put it on hope the kids will consider making better choices in their lives so they don’t find themselves in jail or dead.

“Stand still! Don’t talk! Run in place! Exercise!” barks First Sgt. Army Reserves, Marcus Sams.

The kids hustle to do what they’re told. The fitness segment that takes place the first hour is the hardest, but all portions of the program include some form of exercise.

By the end of the evening they’re soaked with sweat, even though two large fans are blowing. Some of them had injuries and were allowed to do exercises that take the ailments into consideration. One girl had a bladder infection and had to leave before the first hour was over, only to have to reschedule for the next Friday Night Lights. Sometimes, they throw up in a barrel.

“Eat about an hour and a half before you get here,” said Sams.

Sams, who started with the Thunderbird Youth Academy in 1996, reminds them just showing up doesn’t give them a pass, they have to do what they’re told. In the end, they all pass. But along with physical challenges, they get encouragement.

“I think some of them don’t ever finish what they start,” said Sams. “This shows them they can. Some come one time and are done. I see it on their face.”

And some like it, Sams said.

“They come back, because for four hours someone pays attention to them and talks to them,” he said.

They get the self-discipline of standing at attention and not talking. Supervisors make sure the youth take breaks and remain hydrated.

In 2001, Sams was hired by former District Attorney Dianne Barker-Harrold to  form the Cherokee County Regimented Education Academy. He was deployed to Iraq for a year in 2009-’10. He’s trained in field artillery and chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear defense.

The boot camp started back as Friday Night Lights when he returned

Parents sign in their kids for participation from 6-10 p.m., and pay a $25 court-ordered fee. Any parents who do not enforce the court-mandated experience can be held in contempt and ultimately arrested. The idea is that parents are responsible for their children and their actions.

Some parents who feel they cannot control their children can voluntarily sign their teens up for the program

As many as 46 teens from counties including Cherokee, Tulsa, Wagoner, Muskogee and Adair have participated in the program.

Other volunteers include School Resource Officers Randy Jordan, Brian Stanglin and Bryan Swim, along with Billie Jordan, Janelle Meigs and Cindy Farmer.

Sams has a tough, all-business, military exterior and a tender heart to help kids help themselves before the choice is no longer their own.

“It’s these kids, some of them need somebody to push them in the right direction and realize they don’t have to quit or give up,” Sams said. “They realize they can make it to the end, it’s not a freight train coming at them but a light at the end of the tunnel.”

A lot are here for mischievous reasons like curfew violations, Sams said.

“This is a consequence for a wrong action, they’ve done something their parents or probation officer didn’t want them doing,” Sams said.

Jordan said she believes the program helps teens.

“We hope and pray they’re getting the lesson they’re supposed to be getting. They’re going to get attention one way or another; they need attention,” Jordan said.

Meigs said volunteers help check kids in and with monitoring.

“We talk with the kids in terms of making good choices and encourage them, we’re not here to counsel them, we’re not trained for that,” she said. “It’s a fairly quick consequence, that’s the difference between this and community service. They can do community service on their own time.

Meigs said very few teens repeat the experience, which makes the program successful.

SRO Stanglin used to be an Oklahoma Scenic Rivers Commission ranger.

“I had to arrest and take to jail kids who were drunk and making bad decisions,” Stanglin said. “This gives me a chance to help them before they get in trouble. Kids already know what Saturday Night Lights is from other kids going back to school and talking about it and they don’t want to go there. It’s preventive to do this..”

Parent Jesus Cerda is an accountant in Stilwell. His daughter was at a friend’s house and they went out to get a pop, he said.

“They were caught out after curfew, and the judge gave my daughter eight of these [boot camp sessions.] Other kids got two,” Cerda said. “This is more than what adults get when they commit a crime. They can go pay the ticket and be done. The kids have to pay every time, it will be $250 for her to come to this.”

Cerda said his child always behaves.

“The kids weren’t drinking or anything, this seems too much punishment,” Cerda said. “I’m a former Marine. I don’t put up with nothin’. The judge is a former Marine and we do see eye to eye. Some people tell the judge they can’t control their child, but I tell him I can control my kids. Talk to me, not my kid.”

This is supposed to stop them from going down a bad path, but it doesn’t educate their mind, he said.

“I would suggest some of these kids’ mindset is already to breaking in and not respecting someone, and physical fitness doesn’t do nothin’ to stop it, they need something to educate their mind,” said Cerda. “They could be sent on a trip to prison and see the actual prisoners’ lives; a field trip to scare them.”

The younger generation tries to blame everything on their peers, Cerda said.

“I grew up in east L.A., smack in the middle of bad stuff, and none of us did drugs; we played baseball and sports, that kept us out of trouble. We need more sports around here.”