EL PASO, Texas (AP) — The U.S. Border Patrol in West Texas is reaching out to at-risk high school students with a mentoring program that teaches the importance of making sound life decisions.
Twelve teenagers referred by truancy court graduated Friday from the five-week REAL program in which Border Patrol agents mentor them through physical training, community service and presentations at other local institutions like a jail tour.
The program, created in the Border Patrol's Laredo sector in 2010, has graduated 23 groups of teens in the El Paso sector since it was implemented in 2012.
Friday's ceremony was attended by the division chief for the El Paso sector, Michael Przybyl, and state Sen. Jose Rodriguez.
"Whatever mistakes you made are just that, a mistake. You've been given a second opportunity," said Rodriguez addressing the students.
Justice of the Peace Brian Haggerty said that out of 16 youths he referred to the program, two did not attend and two dropped out of it. One of them was back in court Friday, he had to pay the fine of about $590.
"He told me he did not go (to the program) because he wanted to go to a quinceanera, (keen-sehn-YEHR'-uh)" party, said Haggerty.
For those who completed the program, such as Jaritza Ramirez, the military-style discipline seems to have paid off. She said she is doing better in school now and has not skipped classes.
"They can be strict," Ramirez said about the instructors who made them march like at boot camp. "But they also go out of their way to show you they care. You can call them any time if you have a problem."
Matthew Smith, a 17-year-old high school junior who ended up before the judge because he skipped class to go to a concert, said that during the first week, after the visit to the local jail, it seemed that being in a version of "scared straight for ditching class a couple of times" was a bit too much. But then "it got really fun and made some friends."
The program is part of Border Patrol outreach efforts that include Operation Detour, an initiative aimed at showing students the dangers of being hired by drug cartels as smugglers.