Saturday, August 28, 1999

Troubled teen turns life around

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        FRANKLIN — The alarm sounds and Justin Cherry instinctively glances at the clock. Then he smiles to himself, because the proof is right there on the dresser in a black frame with gold trim.

        “I can look at it every morning, because I accomplished something,” said Justin, 19.

        That something was getting his high school equivalency diploma, which arrived in the mail Aug. 1.

        Two days later, he was off probation for first time since he was 13 years old.

        Justin was kept on probation until he passed his General Educational Development (GED) test, a last-ditch effort by the Warren County Juvenile Court system to try to help him finish high school.

        There was no pomp and circumstance for Justin — just a teen nervously tearing open the envelope that he noticed looked an awful lot like a check.

        There were no hugs from classmates, just celebratory cheers as he called his aunt, grandmother, father and, finally, his probation officer, Kevin Stevens, to announce he had passed — by 2 points.

        Justin just didn't function well in the classroom, said Mr. Stevens, the juvenile court's chief probation officer.

        That's putting it mildly if you listen to Justin's account. He figures he was bounced to the principal's office about 100 times, went before the juvenile judge at least 20 times and spent a total of about six months in juvenile detention.

        His most serious offense was for theft, but he typically appeared in court after being suspended from school for acting up in class — things like throwing spitballs andclowning around.

        “I could never sit down. I always had to give everybody problems in school,” Justin said.

        He was diagnosed with attention deficit disorder as a child and was put on medication, said his father, Don Cherry of Franklin.

        Mr. Cherry raised Justin and his fraternal twin, Jason, alone after his wife died when the boys were 5.

        “He's a good kid who had possibilities,” Mr. Stevens said. “He's somebody who underestimates his abilities. I see a bright future for Justin if he continues to make the (right) choices for himself.”

        While Jason was progressing through school, Justin at age 17 had earned just eight or nine credits and was another two years from graduating high school.

        So Mr. Stevens recommended Judge Mark Clark of Warren County Juvenile Court withdraw Justin from school and continue his probation until he got his GED. Franklin school officials gave their approval. Justin also attended classes in the Warren County Career Center and the Mary Haven Rehabilitation Center in Lebanon.

        “I had recommended the GED (program) and the judge is very hesitant to that overall. The only reason why he agreed to it was the fact his credits were so low and Justin was getting older,” Mr. Stevens said.

        Justin's future suddenly became very clear: Get your diploma or go to jail.

        “I was getting close to 18 and the word "county' (jail) was sticking out in my mind,” he said. “I said, "Man, if I don't straighten up, I'm going to lose everything and be in jail the rest of my life.'”

        It also meant fewer sleepless nights for his father, who repeatedly sat bewildered in court hearings for his son.

        “It was heartbreaking. It was like, "What do I do? What the heck do I do to turn this around?'” Mr. Cherry said.

        Said Justin: “I've turned myself around. A lot more people respect me now for who I am. ... I go to people's houses and they say what a good-mannered kid I was, stuff like that.”

        Justin, a wiry, dark-haired teen with a gravelly voice, said he's now trying to regain his father's trust “after many years of letdowns.”

        “I'm lucky to get as many chances as I did,” Justin said. “A lot of that was my dad being there. ... I'm trying now. It's all you can do.”


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