ATOSS program keeps 'kids who make bad choices' out of system

Posted: Wednesday, March 17, 2004

At one end of the spectrum exists a group of high school students who always behave, turn in their homework, get good grades and graduate.

At the other end are young people who don't do so well for one reason or another, get into a lot of trouble and end up being thrown out of school.

However, those aren't the only classifications. Somewhere in the middle is a group of kids enrolled in the ATOSS program, conducted at the Kenai Peninsula Youth Facility on Marathon Road in Kenai.

ATOSS stands for Alternative To Out of School Suspension, and is conducted locally by Judy Downs, an educator who holds a master's degree in counseling psychology from Alaska Pacific University in Anchorage.

Students who have been suspended from school for a typical period of 30 to 45 days, have a chance to get back in by attending ATOSS classes.

"These kids are not in the system yet," said Downs, meaning they have not committed crimes that actually land them in jail, but they might be heading in that direction.

Offenses candidates for ATOSS may be guilty of include being under the influence of alcohol or marijuana, possessing drug paraphernalia or another person's prescription drugs, possessing a knife in a backpack, repeatedly getting into fights or sexually harassing others.

The concept behind ATOSS is that the more consequences the youth experience, the less likely they will offend again.

"They're here for 15 days and to get back into school, they have several requirements they need to complete," Downs said.

Those might include completing youth drug and alcohol evaluations, performing 20 hours of community service, completing school assignments or having their parents attend parent-to-parent classes, according to Downs.

ATOSS isn't new to the Kenai Peninsula. It began at the Alternative School in Kenai in 1998.

By conducting the ATOSS program inside the newly opened youth facility, which first began taking in youth in December, young people get a close-up view of where they might be headed.

"A lot of parents want their kids to see 'jail' down the road," said Steve Kiefer, superintendent of KPYF.

When students are suspended from school, they are not allowed to be on school grounds and are not allowed to participate in any school activities at or away from school.

"We want them to feel the consequences," said Downs.

"They just need to do what they need to do to complete the program," she said.

Her advice to parents, to keep kids from getting suspended or placed in the youth facility in a detention status, is to be aware of what their children are doing at all times.

"Parents should follow their instincts," she said.

Parents usually know if something is not right, according to Downs.

She said she often sees children from good families, but the kid just makes a poor choice.

"I had one kid I said that to, who told me he always thought he was a bad kid. We don't get bad kids. We get kids who make bad choices," she said.

"He smiled."

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