Judge Pushes Teens From Truancy to Triumph

Texas Judge David Cobos uses special methods to change lives.

December 22, 2008, 4:26 PM

Dec. 22, 2008— -- Every day hundreds of thousands of students fail to show up to school, often for no good reason. But in Midland, Texas, one judge has come up with some creative ways to make a difference -- so much so that cities across that state are following his lead.

In Midland, about 3,500 students, or 10 percent of the student population, regularly skip school -- and truancy is often a step toward dropping out altogether. For those who habitually miss class, they'll see more than the principal -- they'll end up in front of Judge David Cobos.

Cobos is known as one of the toughest, most creative judges in Texas.

"I'm itching to put you in jail," he tells one truant. He browbeats another, dressing down a truant who claims he missed school to care for his grandmother -- but the dates of her illness and his absences don't exactly match up.

"So using your poor grandmother and her illness is a bunch of crap. … You haven't been to school all year," Cobos tells him.

He fines students and requires them -- not their parents -- to pay.

"Do you have $585 you want to pay me right now?" That's just one question Cobos had for Brandon Ormbsy, 15, who admitted to the judge and his mother that he had been skipping school and using drugs before his court date.

Ormsby's mother, Denise Molinar, is frustrated. "If I tell him not to do it, he's going to do it anyway," she said of his tendency to leave home without her permission. Of getting him to school, she said, "have to take him and he doesn't care, it's like no big deal."

The judge is fed up. "You don't care about yourself, your parent, your siblings. So what's it going to take to get your attention?" Cobos asks.

Instead of imposing new fines, Cobos arranges for Ormsby to be fitted with a GPS monitor.

"You are going to get a monitor today. And I guarantee you better do what I'm telling you to do. You are ordered to go to school. No unexcused absences or tardies, no behavior problems -- you better be an angel," Cobos warns.

The monitor will track Ormsby's movements, 24-7.

James Henry, program director of the Justice Court Alternative Sentencing Program, fitted Ormsby with his ankle bracelet monitor.

"[It's] very compact, very durable," he tells the teen. "If you mess this thing up, it's because you were trying to mess it up. You understand? You can shower in it, you can take a bath. Whatever the case may be. Run, and do everything you would normally do. Ok. It's just that you are going to have this thing strapped to your ankle."

Before he leaves, Ormsby tells ABC News that he thinks the device will "help me with going to school and staying out of trouble." He said he was surprised that the court has the technology available. As for Cobos, the teen says, "He's pretty harsh but I guess it's what I deserve."

Cobos was the first in the state to use the GPS technology. In the last year, he has placed the electronic leash on 20 teenagers, at a cost to the county of $10,000 annually. Word is spreading like a Texas brush fire. And it's acting as a dramatic deterrent.

"I'll be going to court this afternoon with 20 of my students. And they've all asked me, 'Am I going to get the monitor?'" said Premier High School principal Molly Jasso.

It's helping one of her students, Joey Salazar. He says he used to skip school "to hang out with friends and be stupid."

"I'm doing better," he tells ABC News. Asked what changed, he pulls up his pant leg to reveal the device and says, "this ankle monitor. … It keeps me from going to places that I can't be. Keeps me in school, keeps me at home."

His grandmother, Becky McWhirter, was relieved when he received the monitor, and says she has seen a big change.

"Like last night we got to bake cookies together. It's been forever since we'd done anything like that together. Because he was there."

"Snickerdoodles. Me and my girlfriend were making them," Salazar says.

"I think it's helping my grandma a lot too," he said of the program. "Just that she knows where I'm at and everything. Hopefully, when I get off this, she'll still know where I am. We'll just communicate a little bit more, and I think that's a good thing."

The Bara sisters are also grateful for the intervention.

"We wouldn't be here now. Something bad would have happened," said Samantha Bara, 14. "It just changed us completely," added her 16-year-old sister, Sabrina.

The judge ordered both girls to wear the ankle monitors. At first, they thought he just doing it to be mean. But they've changed their outlook.

"We realized that we don't want to go, we don't want to take the wrong path and have that so other people can watch this. We want to show people that we can be better than that, and that we can make a difference," said Samantha.

She said she and her sister look at Cobos differently, too. "Yes sir, he means business. But he really just wants … he cares about everyone. He wants to help."

But even though there have been great success stories, Cobos admits that he simply can't help about 20 percent of the students that walk into his court.

"Well, my authority ends at some place, some point. And so I have to in essence, let them go to focus on the 80 percent that are coming in the front door, maybe for the first time," he said. "Some I see only one time and don't have any other problems. But some I continually see. And I can lock them up. And I can put monitors on them and I can go visit them at home every day and visit them at school every day, and that's still not enough."

Although the judge's GPS program has been embraced in Midland, the American Civil Liberties Union has criticized similar programs that it views as an invasion of privacy.

But Cobos doesn't think the measures are too tough.

"Come sit in my robe for a while. What if it was your child?" he asks.

The efforts appear to be paying off. School attendance is up 5 percent this year, and the county juvenile detention rate has been cut in half.

"It's kind of personal to me. I want to do everything humanly possible," he said. For example, if children are missing school because of issues arising from poverty, Cobos raises private funds to pay for food and clothing.

One student wouldn't go to school, and was always getting into fights. But after pressing the boy, Cobos learned that he was embarrassed because he had to wear his sister's hand-me-down shoes. And they were pink, and kids gave him a hard time, so he skipped school to avoid the fights. "Kids are cruel," Cobos said. But donors provided the money for a new pair. "His own pair of tennis shoes, not a hand-me-down."

"And I simply told him, you don't need to thank me," Cobos said. "The way you can thank me is to let those shoes take you to school and take you to a brighter future. That's all the thanks I want. Go to school. And when you get a job, you can go buy somebody a pair of tennis shoes and help them."

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