Samantha Weigel/Daily Journal
San Mateo police Detective Laura Sharp, right, talks to Jasmine Diaz, a recent graduate of the Police Activities League Juvenile Diversion Program, about upcoming PAL events at the city’s police station.
For San Mateo police Detective Laura Sharp, second chances are key to keeping kids from a life of crime.
Sharp has steered nearly 40 middle and high school-aged youth into the San Mateo Police Department Juvenile Diversion Program — a collaborative effort she began with the help of the city’s Police Activities League, the county’s Human Services Agency, YMCA Youth Services Bureau of San Mateo and local school districts.
Responsible for reviewing all juvenile-involved police cases, Sharp said the six-month program targets non-violent first-time offenders or school-recommended students whose lives can change for the better through counseling, education and community service.
“Kids still need consequences, but I didn’t want it to be just a consequence, I wanted it to be an opportunity to really teach them some skills to make better decisions,” Sharp said. “Also, we know once kids start getting entered into the juvenile justice system, the likelihood they’ll continue increases. … Not only in the juvenile justice system, but also into the adult justice system.”
Jasmine Diaz, a 13-year-old Borel Middle School student, graduated from the program last year and not only avoided a criminal record for shoplifting, but established life skills as well.
Sharp and Diaz’s mother, Maria Rivera, said they’ve noticed a big improvement in the young girl’s behavior, attitude and commitment to school.
Once the kids and their families commit to the program, participants must attend bi-weekly diversion classes, complete 30 hours of community service and attend 10 counseling sessions — three of which involve the whole family, Sharp said.
“We’re trying to build not just on working with youth, but also building on the whole family unit. It’s difficult to tell a child they’re supposed to be doing this and this, then send them back to a family environment that’s not on the same page,” Sharp said.
Such interventions may also highlight the need to connect youth with other services whether it is housing assistance, professional counseling or access to medical care, Sharp said.
Rivera said while her daughter entered the program after getting into trouble with law enforcement, she’s thrilled to recommend it to others. A busy working mom, Rivera said it was a relief to know her daughter was participating in an engaging program run by police.
“Some people feel like because she got into trouble, it’s just for her. But I don’t think so. It gives kids something to do. Because a lot of people, they just put the kids watching TV or playing with the phone because they don’t bother them. But this is a different activity, they can go out and do something different, [instead of] doing something they’re not supposed to,” Rivera said.
Diaz said she’s now more focused on school, enjoyed the goal-setting class and helping with a variety of community service projects from working at the local food bank to participating in the annual downtown cleanup. But Diaz said her most impressionable experience was the “Throw Like a Girl” event.
Aiming to empower young women, the sleepover at the police station provides an opportunity for the girls to share their feelings and bond with strong female role models, Diaz and Sharp said.
After attending a national diversion program roundtable event hosted by Georgetown University, Sharp said she’s hoping to expand San Mateo’s efforts into a regional model that can be replicated throughout the county.
With the help of the YMCA, the program will soon have a dedicated social worker to act as a full-time case manager while continuing to draw on the support from San Mateo’s Police Activities League, Sharp said.
The nonprofit PAL is a collaborative effort between San Mateo’s Police and Parks and Recreation departments that offers a broad range of programs to help provide youth with opportunities for personal growth, as well as plain old fun.
PAL also runs the middle school Gang Resistance Education and Training Program as well as the Cadet Program for those interested in community service and what it takes to work in law enforcement. There’s also numerous activities from rock climbing to river rafting and even offering kids the chance to play on the Junior Giants ball league.
PAL holds frequent events to help raise funds for its community programs. On Wednesday, Aug. 12, cadets and police will be helping at the Whole Foods Market at 1010 Park Place, which has committed 5 percent of the day’s revenue to the nonprofit. A classic police patrol car, children’s fingerprint station, youth bike inspection and helmet trade-in as well as San Mateo’s K-9s.
Sharp said it’s the dedication of PAL staff as well as volunteers, Mayor Maureen Freschet and county behavioral health professionals that have helped youth like Diaz.
“We want to keep our youth out of jail, staying in school and on track to a successful adulthood,” Sharp said.
Since graduating, Sharp said Diaz is “starting to mature and it’s really cool to hear that her favorite class was the goal setting class. Because that’s really what we’re trying to teach our kids — if they have positive goals that they’re working toward, than they’re on the right track.”
Many of PAL’s activities are open to children throughout the county. Visit sanmateopal.org for more information about PAL and the San Mateo Police Department Juvenile Diversion Program.
(650) 344-5200 ext. 106