Youth Center numbers surge

Oct. 2—A few weeks ago, there were fewer than 10 kids locked up at the Ector County Youth Center. On Friday, there were 28.

"Historically, our referrals and population increase at the beginning of each school year and remain steady through the end of school. However, this year we have seen a larger than normal amount of referrals. Most are related to threats being made on campus," said Kevin Mann, director of the Ector County Juvenile Probation Department.

A significant number of the kids were arrested by Ector County Independent School District police after allegedly threatening fellow students and teachers. A few are accused of more serious crimes, such as severely beating a teacher, bringing a gun to school or stabbing a fellow student.

Although legally prohibited from commenting on specific kids, officials with the Ector County Probation Department said many of the adolescents who have been arrested for making verbal threats in recent days are first-time offenders whose immaturity got them into trouble and whose futures remain bright.

When COVID-19 forced schools to shut down and students to learn remotely, they predicted there would be negative consequences, said Maria Sosa, assistant director of the Ector County Juvenile Probation Department.

"These kids are being integrated back into society, and sometimes they just don't know how to handle certain situations, because there's too much anxiety," youth center intake supervisor Amber Padilla said. "It affected adults so much, how could it not affect the kids?"

Dee Balogun, a juvenile probation officer who handles felony cases, agreed.

"These kids don't know how to socialize in person anymore, they're so used to associating with their friends through social media. I mean, these are kids who use emojis as sentences, so when they get into a public setting, they may not always know how to interact with somebody right off the bat," Balogun said.

Many of the kids accused of making threats in recent days are either the victims of bullying or bullies themselves, Sosa said.

In some instances, they and their parents have told authorities they complained about being bullied, and they reacted impulsively when bullied yet again, Sosa said.

Studies have shown that the frontal lobe, the part of the brain that controls impulsivity and helps humans make decisions isn't fully developed until age 25 or so.

"At the instance when these kids are being pushed around and kind of cornered in a sense by other kids, they say what they can say, and sometimes whatever is the scariest thing is what comes to their mind. We know the kids aren't fully developed, their frontal lobe is not functioning very well at that point," Sosa said. " You just have word vomit. They spew, and they say whatever they can to, to try to back themselves out of that tough situation, and then they end up in a place like this, at a detention center."

Other kids don't immediately realize the seriousness of their words, Padilla said.

"A lot of them say, 'Oh, I was joking. I was kidding.' I think the thing is to make the kids aware we can't joke like this. This kind of stuff is not anything to joke about because these have grown into bigger incidents where people get hurt," Padilla said.

The kids who made threats, but did not act upon them, have shown remorse and been well-behaved thus far, said Albert Aguirre, facility administrator.

In years past, such kids would have simply been referred to the juvenile probation department and not detained, but because of the explosion of cases, ECISD and the court believes a message needs to be sent about the inappropriateness of their words, Sosa said.

"They come in knowing what they did and said was wrong and they shouldn't have said it. So I think that's a step, and it's helping them and they're aware," Padilla said. "It's kids from all areas. It's kids from football, kids from band. It's kids with good grades. I have kids with perfect attendance. It's all across the board; different kinds of kids."

Sosa agreed.

"They're not the kids that social media has made them out to be," she said.

The probation department reiterated what ECISD officials have been saying for the past couple of weeks. Parents need to have conversations with their children about how they can resolve conflicts in an appropriate manner.

Sosa and her colleagues said some situations start out with jokes and name calling and then snowball. Whether the kids actively participate in the bullying or stand by and say nothing, they just want to fit in, Balogun said.

"I think it's a lot harder to be a student these days...The things I hear these days, I don't remember hearing back in my day," Padilla said. "I think it's a lot harder, and there is more pressure to just be mean to each other, for whatever reason. It's a battle to go to school almost."

Sosa and her colleagues also urged parents to start monitoring their children's social media accounts and cell phones to get a better sense of what is going on in their lives. Students often act far differently at home than they do at school and it's often influenced by what they see on social media, Sosa said.

While the kids are in the detention center, they attend classes taught by alternative center teachers and can seek mental health counseling, Sosa said.

Lately, she's been referring roughly two students a day for counseling services.

For most, being in the detention center will be a life-changing experience, she said.

"They've never even gone before a truancy court. Their first time before a judge it's because of a criminal offense, and they're in full gear; they're shackled up. You know, it's their first experience. It's a really sad one, and it's a really bad one," Sosa said.

The juvenile probation department is working closely with ECISD leadership and police officers to reduce the number of kids being referred to the juvenile probation department, Sosa said.

"Our officers are out there almost daily. They're out doing home visits, school visits, checking in with their school counselors," Sosa said. "We try to intervene with any signs of bullying, whether it's our kids doing the bullying or our kids are being bullied."

As for the kids facing more serious charges, Sosa said the department will be doing what it can to see to their needs while continuing to protect the community.

Mann noted that the increase in school threats is happening at the same time as the department is seeing an increase in the number of kids being arrested on robbery and gun offenses. Referrals to the department are up 40% over last year at this time, he said.

"I really think this year, unfortunately, we are going to see record numbers of detention and referrals compared to past years," he said.