Amanda is confident she won't slip. As she speaks about her future outside the classroom, she turns around and points to a boy sitting in the back of a sheriff's squad car. The teen used to be one of her friends. He is going back to Juvenile Hall because he physically threatened one of the female teachers and no longer wanted to be part of the program.
"This program works if you let it," Amanda said. "I figure you have to get your life together while you are still young."
The Sheriff's Department started VIDA three years ago in East Los Angeles. Although statistics show that juvenile crime has dropped steadily nationwide during the past few years, youth violence has become more brazen and is occurring at younger ages, according to law enforcement officials. Branded a success by Sheriff Lee Baca, VIDA is the latest in an arsenal of projects to combat youth crime.
So far, sheriff's officials believe the program is working, but say they don't yet have enough statistical evidence to prove the point, said Sheriff's Sgt. Arlene Berne, who helps run VIDA.
Baca mandated the program at a dozen of the department's stations this year. More than 650 youths have graduated from the program since its inception, including 23 teens who will graduate in the Palmdale area today.
For some of the youths, the program is a last attempt at salvation, before they are lost in the labyrinth of the criminal justice system.
"The common denominator with all of these kids is behavior problems," Elliott said. "They are self-centered and thinking only about themselves. We give them the skills that won't just get them through their teenage years, but through their entire life, so they can become successful."
Not all of the activity occurs at the boot camp. There are field trips to places such as the county morgue in Antelope Valley, where youths may see the body of a gunshot victim.
Investing in the Future
The cadets return twice during the week. In order to survive the physical regimen, they must endure another two hours of grueling exercise every Tuesday. On Thursdays, they return with their parents and meet with a counselor to talk about problems at home. The sessions are not only beneficial for the youths, but for their parents as well, who learn more about their children's behavior.
"A lot of parents don't know how to handle their kids," Elliott said. "Every parent who has enrolled their kid into the program is tired. They've tried already, but their kids don't show any respect. It's a lack of discipline in the home environment."
Many of the youths don't see the program's value during the first few weeks. They have a tough outer shell and brag to friends they won't be broken. But looking back, 14-year-old Colleen said ditching the bad attitude was vitally important for her.
"I have a lot of confidence and respect for others," said Colleen, who graduated last month. She admits the terrible temper that landed her in the program hasn't entirely disappeared, but she is better equipped to handle it now. "These are the things I can carry with me the rest of my life."
No one is more proud of the group than Elliott, who acts like a mother bear watching over her cubs. At first, the youths call her names behind her back, but toward the end, some have called her a best friend.
She remembers one 16-year-old girl who asked her once, "Why do you care about me?" Elliott didn't hesitate to answer.
"I told her she is my future," said Elliott, who has two children of her own. "She could be a nurse someday who cares for my children when they are sick. There isn't one single bad kid in here. They just have made bad decisions."