Mesa County diversion program offers “a place of safety and guidance” for kids on the edge
By: Nancy Lofholm Special to The Colorado Sun
Twitter: @nlofholm More by Nancy Lofholm
Blair Parmeter stopped going to school this winter. The 15-year-old had missed some of his freshman classes at Central High School in Grand Junction because of illness. He was also struggling with splitting time between his divorced parents’ homes. At some point, he recalls thinking: Why bother? His grades had tanked. He couldn’t see a way to catch up.
“I got further and further behind,” Blair said. “I was failing everything.”
His family physician learned of his struggles and suggested a way forward. She recommended that Blair get involved in the Lighthouse Project, a program created a year ago by the 21st Judicial District Attorney’s Office, in collaboration with Mesa County Valley School District 51 and Colorado Mesa University.
The program melds the district attorney’s longstanding juvenile diversion division with a new effort aimed at identifying youths at a tipping point for justice system involvement due to life circumstances. That includes teenagers like Blair who, while not justice-involved, are missing too much school—which research has shown can be an indicator of potential challenges to come.
About a quarter of high school students in Mesa County and across Colorado are considered chronically absent, meaning they miss 10% or more of school days, according to the Colorado Department of Education.
For Blair, who was missing 90% of his classes, the Lighthouse Project created a web of support and a week-by-week plan that, within three weeks, had him off the couch and away from long days of video gaming. He is back in school and has pulled most of his grades up to the passing level. He has a goal of doing well enough to qualify for STEM classes and eventually go on to higher education, with an end goal of becoming an engineer or a mechanic.
“The program kind of, like, forced me to go to school,” Blair said. “It made sure I was being productive. It made me feel like I belonged.”
Help for the whole family
The program was extended to his younger brothers, Colton and Zeke, when they began to miss middle and grade school classes.
“We are trying to create a sustainable change in the whole family,” explained Jacque Berry, who does double duty as director of the Lighthouse Project and longtime director of juvenile diversion for the 21st District.
The Parmeters’ new support system encompasses everything from after-school tutoring through the Riverside Education Center, to regular communication with teachers, administrators and school counselors. Expectations have been set for the boys, and Lighthouse Project service providers help the family offer incentives (such as evening cell phone privileges) to the boys for good attendance and keeping grades up.
College-age mentors are also an important part of the program for the Parmeters and the 20 other youths currently enrolled in the Lighthouse Project. Berry has enlisted Colorado Mesa University students who are majoring in psychology, criminal justice, counselling or social work to be mentors. They are paid by the university using federal work-study dollars. There are currently two active mentors and five in training.
Kathy Ebel, the recently retired director of social and emotional learning and behavior for School District 51, helped to set up the mentoring system and said she sees that piece as “huge.”
“Kids who have never seen themselves as college material, taking them onto campus helps them see different potential futures for themselves,” Ebel said.
“Our help is a lot about them being accountable,” said McKenzie Curtice, a recent Colorado Mesa University graduate who studied social work and was an early mentor participant in the Lighthouse Project. “Identifying these kids before they get in trouble is a project that just spoke to me.”
Colorado Mesa University student Carolyn Naftanel, a honor-roll criminology major, volunteers with the Lighthouse Project now and has been mentoring the Parmeters. She said her efforts to help the boys reduce their truancy includes being a role model and plugging them into a university campus so they can envision a future in higher education.
“In the future, I want to work in juvenile diversion,” Naftanel said. “The rewards of this program are hard to describe. The time you put in with these kids lets you realize how much potential they have.”
Quick growth from concept to deployment
The Lighthouse Project, which ballooned from concept to a full-fledged organization in early 2022, was sparked by a conversation on a hike during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. The hikers were 21st Judicial District Attorney Dan Rubenstein and his wife, Stephanie Rubenstein, an attorney and former district court magistrate.
In terms of youth intervention, “you’re too late,” Stephanie remembered telling Dan as they tromped up a popular local trail while discussing the ins and outs of juvenile justice. “About two years too late.”
Stephanie, who had worked as a magistrate for a dozen years, had observed that some kids on her docket likely could have been guided to better choices and avoided entering the justice system if they had been singled out for help earlier. She convinced Dan to look at the problem differently, which meant stretching his focus from prosecution to prevention. Since he began working as a deputy in the district attorney’s office in 1996, his job focus had always been on the prosecution realm, he said.
“Why can’t I change how I do my job and reach out to them sooner?” Dan said he asked himself after his wife piqued his interest.
He looked to the expertise of the district’s state-mandated juvenile diversion program as he began to rethink how diversion could be more proactive. He first reached out to Trish Mahre, one of his deputy district attorneys who also served on the school board at the time. From her dual perspective, Mahre agreed that more could be done sooner.
District 51 has high rates of poverty, and that—along with experiencing racial discrimination or homelessness, or growing up in foster care—can create stress for children that they’re not equipped to handle. A majority of district students who end up justice-involved come from homes that are at or below the poverty line, per district data. About half of students in the district qualify for free or reduced-cost lunches. Some of the students in the district who end up in the juvenile court system are unhoused, though it’s unclear how many at present. More than 60% of the kids are from homes with divorced, separated or deceased parents. Some suffer from gender identity or racial discrimination.
Remote learning during pandemic shutdowns compounded the truancy problems once schools were back in person. Some students just didn’t see the need to return to classes.
Dan Rubinstein enlisted the help of Colorado Mesa University early on by approaching his friend, university president John Marshall, with what he called “a crazy idea.” Marshall immediately signed on, committing to make Colorado Mesa students available as mentors and offering campus space for the project.
Other key players from education, health care and youth programs were pulled in to help with planning, and the project was off and running. The effort was dubbed the “Lighthouse Project” because its founders wanted it to be “a place of safety and guidance,” said Berry.
Berry said the Lighthouse Project is just beginning, in its first year, to quantify all the variables that contribute to kids missing school. That data will help direct the project’s resources where needed in the future.
The data to date shows that 18 of the 23 students involved in the project are living in multiple homes or with someone other than a parent. The same number are living at homes that fall at or below the poverty line. Ten of the participants have generational substance use in their homes. Five have parents with identifiable mental health issues.
District 51 tackles lower-level truancy with five attendance advocates who have large caseloads of about 400 students each. The district’s three truancy officers, who deal with the most serious cases of missing school, share a caseload of about 4,000 students. Elena Lhatka, an attendance advocate with District 51 and also a victim advocate with the Grand Junction Police Department, said the Lighthouse Project gives her more tools as she deals with kids missing school.
“So far, it has been amazing,” she said of the Lighthouse Project. “It had been difficult to find a program in the past that would take on all of a family under one manager. And, they got on it so quick. Every day that you miss school is crucial in these cases, because every day is another day of falling behind.”
Truancy can lead to criminal charges
Lhatka said the problems with school attendance in the Parmeter family could have eventually led to criminal charges being filed for egregious truancy, if the Lighthouse Project hadn’t become involved and tackled the issues on the family level.
The Lighthouse Project is designed to personalize programs to address all the reasons a student might not be attending school. That help includes addiction treatment, anger management, grief counseling and family therapy. Often, without changes in the family dynamic, truancy will continue, said Berry: “Parental buy-in is key.”
Sam Atkins, an engineer for the City of Fruita, said he learned new ways of approaching truancy problems when his 15-year-old son, who wasn’t attending school because it didn’t interest him, was guided by his ex-wife’s divorce attorney into the Lighthouse Project. The project’s service providers delved into his son’s interests and learned he liked to cook, so he was directed into a school district culinary program. For part of each school day, he works at a district-run café where his Lighthouse Project providers and family meet regularly to talk about his progress.
“It has been really good for him, and that involves him going to school now,” Atkins said. “Before, he had a routine of not wanting to go.”
Blair Parmeter’s mother, K.C. Miller, said she now keeps a chart at home to track her sons’ school attendance and also to track any rewards they might have earned.
“I think Blair would have completely failed” without the Lighthouse Project, she said.
The project has set up offices in the Colorado Mesa University student wellness center, where there are currently six Lighthouse Project staff members, three interns and the five university mentors jammed into tiny offices.
Berry, whose office is the size of a walk-in closet, said she has hopes of eventually having larger quarters on campus and establishing a satellite office in Clifton, a community between Grand Junction and Palisade. The Lighthouse Project got a recent boost to help carry out its work with a $100,000 donation from the Mike and Kay Ferris Family Fund.
Berry said she was able to put a spotlight on the Lighthouse Project for the rest of the state during a juvenile diversion conference at Colorado Mesa University last June that brought in 125 judicial district representatives from across the state for training. She said the group has continued to have monthly virtual meetings to discuss truancy diversion tactics.
“I wanted them to see what we’re doing and share what we’re doing,” Berry said. “It was an opportunity to share what has been working and what might not be working as we go beyond ‘putting a Band-Aid’ on a troubled teen and get them looking at the future.”
Dan Rubinstein said he shares that forward-looking hope for the program.
“It is very important to me that we not focus on the reason why these kids got to where they are,” he said. “I want to focus positively on how to go forward so we can see a broader future for them.”
Blair Parmeter recognizes that even with his progress, he has a long way to go. For now, he is feeling that the Lighthouse Project has been a success for him. He can look to a future that includes education.
“It’s been pretty smooth sailing so far,” he said. “It has shown me that I can do this.”
Freelance reporter Nancy Lofholm wrote this story for The Colorado Trust, a philanthropic foundation that works on health equity issues statewide and also funds a reporting position at The Colorado Sun. It appeared at coloradotrust.org on March 1, 2023, and can be read in Spanish at collective.coloradotrust.org/es.