Theatre offers alternative to community service for juvenile offenders

Mackenzie Mathews

Whenever a minor commits a legal offense, they face few options to fulfill court requirements, which usually involves simple physical labor. WKU faculty and students, after determining this isn’t always effective, decided to give them an alternative that involves more direction: theatre in diversion.

“I’ve always been interested in working with underserved or at-risk youth, and I believe theatre offers many opportunities to engage and challenge them,” theater professor Carol Jordan said.

The juveniles spend half the semester learning basic acting and stage techniques from the theatre students. They then construct their own performances and present them in a showcase at the end of the semester.

Meanwhile, sociology students conduct evaluations and interviews, collecting data in order to observe how the course affects the teens.

“Professor Jordan and I look at it as a really creative way for young people to fulfill their diversion agreements,” sociology professor Jerry Daday said. “They get the benefits of building all these skills, like communication and public speaking.”

Many of the juveniles enter the programs having previous issues communicating with teachers, peers and parents. Daday said they often begin feeling anxious and unsure how to react to the program, but by the end they develop friendships and a confidence to carry them through school and hopefully on to college.

“I’d rather give them something that’s creative and expands their social networks to university students and faculty, than going out and doing something that’s basically manual labor,” he said.

Though it is too soon to figure actual effects of the program, Jordan and Daday said the sociology students’ evaluations show progress for the teens. Many responses from those participating said they experience better relationships with parents, guardians and teachers, with parents and guardians returning the sentiment.

As they improve personal traits, they are also learning theatre fundamentals, giving them the ability to explore their thoughts, interests and possibly their experiences.

“They’re just average, everyday kids that did something stupid, and they got caught for it,” Daday said. “Theatre gives them a way to really act out some of the issues they might be facing.”

The juveniles enter diversion programs through their court designated worker (CDW) who offers various options after an offense is committed such as community service and available programs, such as theatre in diversion. After choosing a program, they are required to see it through.

“Diversion programs are designed to give young offenders an alternative to traditional community service by engaging them in positive activities and teaching them new skills in a pro-social environment,” Jordan said.

Daday works with the sociology students during their evaluations, while Jordan instructs the theatre half on how to teach the teens. The class offers a strong opportunity to WKU students who want to pursue teaching or community service in the future, Jordan said.

Eventually, CDWs hope to see more diversion programs across the community, including at WKU. 

“We’d like to expand this to other departments across campus,” Daday said. “A lot of them could do some really cool stuff with these young people under diversion agreements.”