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Steering teens the right way
Court offering gets results, rave reviews
Ashley Williams, left, waits to talk with Rebecca Rusk, who facilitates the first offender program. - photo by Jennifer Sami

Jenna Thompson was making a left turn out of a shopping center.

Another driver was traveling along the curved road. Though Thompson saw him with enough time to continue her turn, she hesitated.

It was a rookie mistake. Instead of completing her turn, she stopped in the road and was struck by the other driver.

Fortunately, no one was seriously injured. But at only 15 years old, Thompson’s confidence behind the wheel was shot. The citation she received for failure to yield carries a three-point penalty against her license.

For an adult, that’s a slap on the wrist and a possible insurance hike. For anyone under 18, however, it puts them only one point from a suspended license.

Thompson’s scenario is all too familiar in Forsyth County Juvenile Court, which is why Judge Russell “Rusty” Jackson decided there needed to be alternatives for young drivers guilty of relatively minor infractions.

The result was the First Offender Traffic Diversion Program started by Jackson in 2005.

“I had the idea based on my experiences with traffic offenses, traffic offenders, and based on training we get as judges. The teen deaths we were having in the county, the starting of the L.E.A.D.E.R. program, all impacted me,” Jackson said.

“I came to the conclusion that it made a lot more sense to offer training to young people for driving offenses rather than to handle in the traditional way, such as having them pay a fine or having points on their record.”

From Jackson’s perspective, being more proactive in addressing core driving issues with mandated training and learning experiences pays more dividends than just a lecture from a judge and a fine.

“We make the requirements more onerous than just paying a fine and getting points, but in exchange they get to keep a clean record,” said Jackson, who has been the county’s full-time juvenile judge since 1999.

Jackson said the program serves 200 to 300 or more juvenile drivers a year, and that a key to its success has been the work of Rebecca Rusk as program facilitator.

“We’ve had an extremely positive reaction from parents, in large part due to the facilitator. Rebecca does a wonderful job of getting their attention and engaging them in a way that is meaningful to them,” Jackson said.

For her part, Rusk is a big believer in the program targeted toward making better drivers out of youthful drivers facing first-time traffic citations.

“We give them some things to do that are all geared toward making them a more experienced and better driver,” Rusk said. “If they complete those items that we give them within a specified period of time, we in essence dismiss their ticket.

“We have had excellent, excellent results from this and rave reviews from the parents and teens that we’ve dealt with.”

Every 15- and 16-year-old pulled over for a traffic violation receives a court date. For about 25 percent of them, it’s not their first violation.

These drivers end up in front of Jackson.

But many of the remaining 75 percent ticketed for the first time will spend a day in court with Rusk, accompanied by at least one parent.

Rusk handles about 30 informal adjustments on the third Wednesday of every month. During April’s traffic court session, Thompson and her mother, Carol, joined other nervous teens, many of whom had never been in a courtroom.

Rusk’s welcoming face appeared to relieve some of the anxiety, though her words were carefully selected to hit home with the teens.

“We all must abide by the same rule book or someone is going to end up dead,” she said. “Could be you, could be your best friend or it could be someone that you don’t know.

“The roads of Forsyth County, as in other counties, are not what they were when your parents were [learning to drive] ... they’re a lot more congested, they’re a lot more confusing and we understand that. And that’s another reason why you’re being given this opportunity.”

After an introduction, Rusk called up each teenager individually, taking as much time as needed to review each accident or traffic violation.

One driver hit the car in front of her, was hit from behind and hit the car in front of her a second time. Another had two violations — traveling 75 mph in a 35-mph zone and following too closely — within two months.

As she discussed each violation, Rusk asked for the teens’ side of the story, what mistakes they made, what the traffic conditions were like and what was running through their mind as the incident occurred.

But the conversation didn’t stop there. Rusk asked about their jobs, school work, extracurricular activities, hobbies and future goals.

“She tries to make it very personal — one-on-one — that you’re not just another person coming through,” Carol Thompson said. “She tries to look at each case individually and talk to you. You’re not just a number going through. She’s trying to teach them something and I think that’s great.”

Thompson was in the car with her daughter when the accident occurred.

“She’s been driving a lot with her parents, and so she was getting more confident,” Thompson said. “But then all of a sudden she was put in that situation and the panic from that experience set in. It’s one of those situations you tell them about but until they’re in it, they don’t really know.”

Rusk was going to require Jenna Thompson to complete a hands-on driving safety course, but instead accepted the one in which her mother had already enrolled her.

By June 30, some of the teenagers must spend 10 hours driving with a parent and write a 650-word essay explaining what they did wrong and how they will correct it.

The essays must be taken seriously, Rusk warned the teens.

“I’ve been known to send them back,” she said.

The well-written ones, especially those involving improvements that can be made to an intersection or road where an accident occurred, are forwarded to county commissioners and the state’s transportation department.

Sometimes taking a driving course, writing an essay or practicing with parents isn’t enough, Rusk said. In the past, she has organized tours of Ingram’s Funeral Home to drive home the point.

“You’re going to find out what your parents would be going through if one day you did not come back home and they got that dreaded phone call or knock at the door that you weren’t coming home,” she said. “You’ll have to write your own obituary.

“Perhaps this will give you an opportunity to think about what you may be putting your parents through if that day comes and you’re not being responsible while driving and you don’t come home.”

Teen traffic violators can choose to pay their fines and receive points against their license. They can also deny the charges and request a court date with Judge Jackson. But Rusk said the majority opt for the first offenders program.

Teens failing to complete their assignments, however, must appear before Jackson. They then face the original fine and points, plus the possibility of a suspended license.

With parental involvement, though, it’s not often that a teenager fails to uphold their end of the deal.

Jackson said parental involvement is vital to the success of the program.

“We hope to make parents taken ownership and be more responsible,” he said.

No matter what course of action they choose, attending traffic court is not a choice. Three teenagers found that out the hard way when their licenses were suspended after skipping court in April.

Ashley Williams was not one of them, though she wasn’t thrilled to spend the day in court. She received a ticket for following too closely after hydroplaning into another vehicle as a result of poor weather, low visibility and lack of experience.

“It was kind of raining out and I went around a curb,” she said. “I didn’t know there was a car in front of me. I did everything I could. I was really mad about my car being messed up.”

Williams was told by Rusk to take a defensive driving course.

Williams described the first offenders program as “OK.” Her mother, Cheryl, had a stronger opinion.

“She doesn’t understand how lucky she is to be able to get into the program,” she said. “[She] would have had points and the insurance would have gone way up.”

After 20 years with juvenile court, Rusk knows not every teenager she talks to will continue to have a clean record. Through the first offenders program, however, teens have the opportunity to learn from their mistakes and emerge with a clean slate.

“You may not understand it, but as a juvenile, these points will still follow you up into adulthood. They don’t just drop off when you turn 18,” she said in court. “This is a fresh opportunity to keep your driver’s license clean.

“When you grab those keys and you run out that door, your parents take a huge deep breath. And they don’t let it out again until you walk back in the door because they know you are a new driver and they know what’s out there ... we want you to be safe. We want you to be a better driver.”

Jackson is a strong proponent of finding alternatives to traditional juvenile court sentencing options in a variety of different arenas other than just those involving first driving offenses.

He has implemented a number of programs geared toward providing meaningful punishment likely to have a positive impact on juvenile offenders — such as mandated community service or work on a horse rescue farm as a means of earning money to pay restitution for an offense.

Among Jackson’s special initiatives is a truancy court and one for substance abusers, as well as the first offender traffic program. Jackson’s efforts have been recognized in a national juvenile court publication.

“What we try to do is be proactive, create diversion programs that will have some kind of meaningful impact on many levels,” he said.

E-mail Jennifer Sami at