Teen Court searching for new home as county’s lease expires
Faith Huffman | News-Telegram News Editor

Dec. 22, 2006 - December has been a busy month for several county departments due to the move from the old Houston School facility by the end of the month when the county's contract with Sulphur Springs Independent School District expires.

The county clerk's office closed one week this month to move equipment, files and furniture to their new location on Davis Street.

The county fire department's administrative offices will soon be relocated, along with the department's equipment, to the new Intermodal Facility on Texas Street.  Once the county fire department has vacated the Weaver Drive location, the environmental quality office will move into that building.

Those aren't the only people affected by the relocation.

The Teen Court program, for example, is scrambling to find a new location to house the many local teens who participate in the program, according to June Lucky, a member of the Teen Court Board of Directors.

"The Teen Court no longer has a home — in fact, we are not able to have court in January due to not having a place to hold it," Lucky said. "The school district decided we could no longer use the Houston School facility, now that it has been taken back."

The county's lease on the property expires at the end of this year. Teen Court's agreement for use of the facility was made with the county and also expires with the contract.

Sulphur Springs Independent School District Superintendent Patsy Bolton said school officials and the SSISD board decided the older section of the Houston school building was in "bad condition." Also, SSISD will assume liability for any activities held in the facility. 

"There is asbestos in areas in the floor," Bolton said. "There are big areas with holes in the ceiling where it has fallen in. For those reasons, it is not safe to use."

Even the district's special education classes, also located within the older section of Houston school, will soon be relocated. As soon as the addition at Early Childhood Learning Center is complete, the Beginnings Learning Center classes will move to the new addition, leaving their current rooms behind the SSISD administration building  for the special education offices. The alternative education programs at Houston will remain at the facility in the newer wing, which the district has "kept up."

The Teen Court board, meanwhile is "diligently looking for an alternate location."

One option that has already been explored and dismissed was the library. Another was the court room at the rear of the county attorney's offices.

"The problem ... is space," Lucky said. "We are often dealing with 86 to 100 people on any given night of court, and we need two court rooms."

The program includes a "large base" of Merit club members who can earn scholarships by participating in the Teen Court judicial process, acting as court officials.

"Our program is as much for them as it is for the teen offenders, and we don't wan to let that go. We feel we impact the community as much through them as through what we do for the offenders" Lucky said. "There aren't many other activities in our area that involve as many teens as we do, because we are a cross-section of the teen community — from the honors students, the athletes, the band, the theater to the kids who are not involved in anything else.  That is important to us."

A third option is getting permission to use the district courtroom or other court facilities at the courthouse. Teen Court officials have talked to the local judges and been placed on the Wednesday, Dec. 27, Hopkins County Commissioners Court agenda to plea their case.

All of the judges agree that Teen Court has been a very valuable and beneficial program for teen offenders as well as the many other teens involved in the judicial process.

"Teen Court is one of the best things that's happened to us," said Hopkins County Court-At-Law Judge Amy Smith. "We need to make the best decision for the young people and the courthouse.

"Teen Court is a great program," said 8th Judicial District Judge Robert Newsom. "We must find a location for these young people to meet."

Millsap also added his support that the "very worthwhile" program continue to benefit area teens, but noted a few concerns would have to be addressed, such as security and supervision of teens, and availability of and maintaining the court facilities for other court sessions.

Millsap said there was one previous incident in which the pizza, donated by local businesses for the teens before each meeting, had been stuffed into a soft drink machine and toilet, with some food particles smeared on a wall.

�He also said the courtrooms are currently already scheduled beyond the capacity of the normal work day they are required to accommodate. And he said the district courtroom already deals daily with acoustical problems, which would require additional work to set up again to accommodate the next day's court session and would add wear and tear to the struggling system.

Millsap also said security would be an issue, requiring at least two additional officers who would stay during the session, then be responsible for locking down the entire courthouse when the Teen Court session concludes. He said the officers would be needed to oversee order in the courtroom, and would be an added presence to ensure only those who are supposed to be at the session — offenders, student and adult court personnel, Teen Court officials and board members, and parents — are admitted.

"This is a historic building, recently restored. We want people to be able to use and enjoy it, but must preserve it as well," the county judge said. "These are mostly good kids, some as good as the attorneys. Those that go before them are not. I'm real concerned about there being a problem with kids being unsupervised. Things happen.”

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