CINCINNATI — On Tuesday, 13-year-old Nehemiah Smith went to the Hamilton County Justice Center.
“I guess it would be because of my behavior and the way I’ve been acting,” he said.
But, the teen wasn’t facing jail time. Instead, he was learning that he had a choice: to act up, or step up.
“I might start changing how I act. Decrease the amount of doing whatever I do. Make it smaller and smaller,” he said.
Smith is one of about a dozen young men that participated in Super Seeds this week, a positive behavior intervention program. Executive Director Candice Tolbert said the program shows teens the real-life consequences of their actions in an effort to divert them from making bad decisions. There’s also a major emphasis on keeping the kids in school.
“Our goal is to disrupt the school to prison pipeline” she said.
The two-day program takes participants on a tour of the Hamilton County Justice Center. The teens get to witness in-court arraignments, inmate intake, an interview with an inmate and discussion with judge. Then, it moves to UC Medical Center, where the teens get to speak to a shooting victim and trauma surgeons. Finally, it visits the University of Cincinnati, where the participants can learn about educational opportunities.
Currently, Super Seeds is working with the Lockland School District, where in some cases, it’s being offered as an alternative to suspension or expulsion. Tolbert hopes that by keeping kids in the classroom, the trajectory can be changed.
“If they’re not seated in the classroom, they’re going to end up in jail or prison. And so if we’re every going to change what’s happening in our community we need to take it although way back to the classroom,” she said.
The Hamilton County Juvenile Court has also referred juveniles to complete the program in exchange for wiping clean a charge.
“It’s been wonderful to watch the change in some of the kids,” said Peter Billey, a corrections officer at the Hamilton County Justice Center. He’s helped lead the tour at the Justice Center for the last two and a half years and also serves as a board member of Super Seeds.
“Statistically not all of them are going to be changed. Statistically some of them will be going down the road we’re trying to stop. But there has been change in many of them,” said Billey.
He said the program is not a “scared straight” program.
“If they’re going to get scared it’s from the reality of what is,” said Billey.
To date, more than 400 teens have gone through the program. And, Tolbert said about 92 percent of the kids that go through the program modify their own behavior. The success — plus the opportunity it gives to trouble teens — is why Cincinnati Councilmember Tamaya Dennard is supportive of Super Seeds.
“We have to understand that public safety and making people safer isn’t how much money we can give to police. It’s about these type of programs who help young people, who listen to young people,” said Dennard.
She advocated to help fund the nonprofit in the upcoming budget. However, at this point, it doesn’t have enough support from the budget and finance committee. She plans to reintroduce the push again next budget cycle.
“Imagine if someone just invested in them and showed them what’s out there, you don’t know what that can mean for someone’s life,” she said.
Super Seeds is funded through donations, corporate sponsors and grants.