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A Lesson in Life : Youth-at-Risk Program Helps Get Truants Back on Track

October 08, 1994|CHING-CHING NI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Catherine MacWillie is every misbehaving teen-ager's nightmare.

"Mom, see those bangs," MacWillie says, pointing to 13-year-old Janet's steel-claw-like gang hairdo. "That's bad.

"See the shirt and the makeup under her eyes," she lectures, ordering the girl to stand up. "That's bad, too.

"Her T-shirt's too big. Her bangs should not be rolled. And she shouldn't wear those eyeliners."

MacWillie turns directly to the culprit, who has been yelling at her mother, running away from home and ditching school to hang out with gang members.

"Janet, you've been bad," MacWillie tells her. "I'm going to assign you 100 hours of community service."

Then, sitting in a detective's cell-like interview room in the LAPD's Northeast Division police station, Officer MacWillie drops the bomb.

"If you still don't behave, I'm going to send you away from home. Home is a privilege. You're going to have to earn it."

In fact, Janet was lucky. She got to stay home. A week later, MacWillie told Jose, 14, who ditched most of eighth grade last year, to go straight to Options House, a local shelter, or she would put him in jail for truancy.

MacWillie's actions may sound harsh, but parents and school administrators throughout the area call her a savior. Her Youth-at-Risk program, which she created and runs out of the Northeast station, tackles truancy with the combined power of parents, school and police. She cruises the patchwork of neighborhoods that make up the Northeast Division--Highland Park, Silver Lake, Los Feliz, Eagle Rock, Glassell Park--talking to parents and teachers and always on the lookout for children out on the streets.

Kitty Dustin, vice principal at Eagle Rock Junior and Senior High School, says today's parents do not know what to do if their children defy them. That is where MacWillie "draws the line."

"Cathy's into direct action," Dustin said. "She takes the phone away. She takes away their $200 sneakers and gives them $2.99 sneakers. She helps kids understand about choices. With good choices, the consequences are positive. With bad choices, the consequences are negative."

In just two years, MacWillie has made her innovative, bootstrap approach a household name in the Northeast area, touching about 600 youths in 30 schools.

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Her Northeast station colleagues admire her for her dedication to the youngsters, but even more for rejecting what they term the Band-Aid approach to law enforcement and, instead, attacking the source of juvenile crime on the family level.

"Cathy's program is on the cutting edge of law enforcement," Lt. Raul Vega said. "She looks at the cause of the problems and reaches far beyond what law enforcement normally does."

While society decries the loss of traditional family values, supporters say, MacWillie's program tries hard to find them again.

Her reputation for success is apparent. Parents and teachers call her 24 hours a day. She and her team of 20 volunteers respond like a hospital emergency room staff. On any given day she is interviewing new cases, monitoring old ones, accepting walk-ins, taking phone calls from frantic parents, making referrals to counseling services, and soliciting community service and improvement reward possibilities from the business community.

"There are 300,000 youths on the streets every day in the LAPD (area) alone," she said. "The more children miss school, the more chances they have to join gangs. Everybody follows the same pattern. They miss school, run away from home, join gangs, do drugs and commit crimes."

One of the rewards for girls who show improvement is a make-over at a Beverly Hills hair salon, one of the many businesses that donate things to help MacWillie's program.

"The girls go in looking like gang members and come out looking like the Catholic schoolgirls from the corner," MacWillie said. "If you change the way they look, you go half way to changing the way they feel and the way they think."

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Some question whether there is a way to straighten out youths without taking on their fashion identity. Staff members at El Centro del Pueblo, an Echo Park community center that also works with problem youths, say they do not care how youths dress. They say they concentrate on instilling pride and self-worth. Yet they agree that MacWillie's overall program is humane, constructive and desperately needed.

It does not work for everyone; some parents refuse MacWillie's help.

Maria's mother wants her out of the program. She is giving her permission to marry an older boy who police suspect has gang ties. "She's 16, pregnant and has no credits after ninth grade," MacWillie said with disappointment. "She'll be lucky if she becomes a housewife."

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