The boy stroked his chin and gazed at the floor as his mother spoke. He challenges our decisions and talks back to his teachers, she told a police officer. He's a good kid at heart, she said, but he won't take orders from anyone.

Centers for Disease Control

CDC report on violence prevention

It was the middle of the day, and this 13-year-old should have been at school. A fist fight, however, landed him on suspension and placed him in the sights of Charles Green.

The North Charleston police officer looked the boy up and down. What's going on with you, Green asked. The boy just shook his head. "I don't know," the teen softly said. "I'm working on it."

NCPD reports

Monthly reports from North Charleston police school resource officers tracking youth arrests and diversions to alternative sentencing programs.August 2009-2010September 2009-2010October 2009-2010November 2009-2010

Green's eyes narrowed. Who pays for your clothes, this roof over your head, that Xbox in your room, he asked. What kind of example are you setting for your younger sisters? You say you want to be an engineer? Good for you. The world is at your doorstep, son, but you have work for it, Green told the boy.

"You probably thought we were going to come here with handcuffs to arrest you and take you to jail, but that's not why I'm here. I'm here to get you back and focused," Green said, wagging a finger at the boy.

"I don't know you that well yet, but I believe in you. You've got to believe in yourself too --your goals and your dreams. It's all out there."

In the not too distant past, police likely would have arrested the boy for assault and funneled him into the Family Court system to receive his punishment. That's all changing now with an ambitious new program in North Charleston aimed at curbing violence by attacking its youthful roots.

The idea is to reach kids when they first show signs of problem behavior, such as cutting school, disrupting class or running away from home.

Professionals then can try to pinpoint why these kids are acting out and get them back on track with the aid of counseling, leadership training and other services, North Charleston Police Chief Jon Zumalt said.

The initiative has lots of pieces and a network of partners that includes school officials, prosecutors, juvenile justice workers, churches and social service providers. A youth court diversion program already is in place to deal with non-violent offenders.

Other facets include a mentoring program, eye-opening prison visits, gang-prevention measures and a proposed assessment center where wayward kids could be temporarily housed and evaluated for counseling and other help.

The end goal is to prevent today's young troublemakers from becoming tomorrow's hardened criminals, Zumalt said.

"We want to stop young people from taking that path and creating the next wave of violence down the road," Zumalt said. "We want to get them the help, support and resources they need when they start demonstrating poor behavior before it evolves into violent behavior."

Kids who commit violent crimes aren't eligible for the program, and police still can bring charges against youths who fail to do what is required of them, said Capt. Scott Deckard, who is coordinating the effort. The kids are held accountable but also are offered a second chance, he said.

That makes a lot of sense to 9th Circuit Solicitor Scarlett Wilson. "Prevention is key," she said. "Once they get embedded in our criminal justice system, chances are they are going to stay in our system. Our best hope is to keep them out of there."

A challenging problem

Young adults have been driving violent crime in North Charleston for years. Six of the 10 people slain in the city in 2010 were between the ages of 17 and 25. The youngest suspect in those crimes was a 14-year-old accused of gunning down a fellow student outside Daniel Jenkins Academy in February.

That killing cemented resolve to tackle the problem of youth violence.

The initiative is modeled on a similar program in Minneapolis, Minn., formally launched in 2008. That program, called "Blueprint for Action," has received national accolades and is credited with contributing to a double-digit decline in juvenile violence there.

In April, North Charleston police spent $5,921 to send three employees, a Charleston County school district official and a Family Court prosecutor to Minneapolis to learn how that program's successes could be applied here.

Since then, the group has grown to include representatives from the state Department of Juvenile Justice, the Carolina Youth Development Center, Charleston County Human Services Commission, Communities in Schools and several other organizations.

They meet regularly, and the main players share information and records so everyone knows what they are dealing with when a child is targeted for intervention, Deckard said.

"I think that's what will help catapult the success of this," said Lisa Herring, executive director of student support services for the Charleston County School District. "There is no gap. We are all putting our hands on this child."

Still, the challenge is significant. At the majority of city schools, more than 90 percent of students live in poverty. North Charleston middle schools had student suspension rates of between 25 percent and 51 percent last year.

Only about half of the seniors at Stall High School graduated in 2009, and the number at North Charleston High was even lower. More than 330 students were arrested for crimes during the first half of the school year in 2009.

A new direction

Before the start of this school year, North Charleston's 15 school resource officers underwent training from the University of South Carolina's Children's Law Center that promotes alternatives to arrest for nonviolent crimes.

The result is that, so far, officers have arrested about half as many students this year for lesser offenses such as minor vandalism, small thefts and threats to other, according to police.

The number of cases for disturbing schools plunged nearly 87 percent, while disorderly conduct cases dropped 55 percent. Police are placing far fewer kids in jail and targeting more for help through Youth Court and other alternatives.

This represents a sea change for police, who for years enforced a zero-tolerance approach to school offenses. The problem, Zumalt said, is that this clogs up the juvenile justice system and often pushes borderline kids into a cycle of arrest, suspension and expulsion. In the end, the kids are on the street with nothing to do, few prospects and a host of bad influences, he said.

"You can't just lock them up and make the problem go away," said group member Arnold Anderson, a director at Carolina Youth Development Center. "A lot of times the behavior is a manifestation of other problems in the home. You need to get with those kids and find out what those problems are."

That's where Green comes in. He visits the homes of targeted kids, speaks with them and their families and tries to connect them with mental health counseling, parenting classes, nutritional guidance or others services.

The only problem is that Green is a cop, not a psychologist, and he is currently tracking more than 60 kids.

The hope is that the group can find grant money to renovate and staff a building on Carolina Youth Development Center's Lackawanna Boulevard campus to serve as an evaluation center for troubled kids. Start-up costs are estimated to be about $70,000, Deckard said.

Still, Green said, the response from parents has been quite positive when they discover that he is not there to lock up their child. "They like the fact that we are trying to help rather than incarcerate. A lot of them have been reaching out for help. They just don't know where to go."

Saving the dream

Green met with another young mother last week in the Russeldale neighborhood. Her 14-year-old son also had been suspended for fighting. It wasn't his first scuffle. He has trouble controlling his anger, his mother told Green.

The teen is intelligent and has thrived in a leadership program affiliated with his church. But he also has things eating at him. His ex-con father is in and out of his life. His uncle is in prison. And his mom has been struggling to find a job. It's a lot of pressure on the kid, and his mother isn't sure what to do.

Green told the woman he would schedule the boy for a prison visit and an upcoming leadership program run by the county Human Services Commission. He also plans to have a heart-to-heart talk with the boy to see what else might be needed to get him back on track.

The woman thanked Green for his help and for not arresting her son for the fight. "He really wants to be a lawyer someday, so I don't want anything like that on his record."

Green smiled. "Don't worry. We don't want him to lose out on his dreams either."

How they are doing it

North Charleston police have partnered with school officials, prosecutors, social service agencies and others in an initiative to reduce youth violent crime by trying to correct disruptive behaviors. Among other things, police have:

-- Visited Minneapolis, Minn., to learn the workings of a program credited with driving down youth violence.

-- Worked to develop a youth mentoring program with businesses, churches and other organizations.

-- Diverted non-violent offenders to alternative programs such as North Charleston Youth Court for sentencing and guidance rather than send them to the state juvenile justice system.

-- Trained school resource officers to spot signs of behavior problems and intervene to get kids help.

-- Assigned a diversion officer to visit homes and meet with parents about their children's issues and needs.

-- Organized "Behind the Bars" trips to state prisons to show youths the realities of crime and punishment.

-- Provided training to help officers, school workers and others recognize and react to signs of gang activity.

-- Studied the creation of a referral and evaluation center that would serve as temporary housing for at-risk and homeless youth.

-- Worked to create a program that would bridge gaps and create more understanding between youths and police.