Criminal Justice Update
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Criminal Justice Update

A License and a Leg Up

While serving as police chief in Canton, Jack Angelo recognized a problem he was determined to do something about: Too many kids were being caught driving without a license.

Sometimes that was the extent of the trouble; other times, it was the start of something more troubling.

“I’ve seen so many kids who don’t have a license because they can’t afford the classes,” Angelo said. “I’m talking about good kids who end up driving without a license, commit a minor violation and, the next thing you know, they run from the police. We chase them, they get arrested and now they have a criminal record. Then they’re in this hole before they even get started. I just wanted to find a way to give these kids a leg up.”

Although it was once publicly funded as a staple of high school education, driver’s ed is now the domain of private companies, and it isn’t cheap — all told, at least $400 per student. For families struggling to make ends meet, it might as well be $4,000. Too often, it’s an expense they just can’t afford.

The lack of a license is more than an inconvenience. It seriously limits job opportunities, which can leave teens with too much time on their hands, which can lead to trouble.

The lament is one that Chief Angelo had heard from parents over the years. Eventually, he worked out a pilot program with Canton City Schools and a local driving school to provide driver’s ed for 20 low-income students. He was determined that they wouldn’t pay a cent — not for the temporary permit, not for the classes or lessons, not for the license. As part of the arrangement, he contracted with a deputy registrar in the area who agreed to provide students with their temps and licenses and to bill the police department for the cost.

Next, he asked guidance counselors from McKinley High School to recommend 20 students from a pool of applicants. To be eligible, students had to be at least 16, be in good academic standing and demonstrate a financial need.

There was another stipulation: Students had to attend a two-hour driver-safety class taught by the police department before completing their coursework and on-road lessons.

“Our goal is to keep these kids out of trouble and give them a good foundation to start driving,” Angelo said. “So we want to teach them what to do if they get pulled over, what to do if they get into a crash, what to do if they’re a victim of road rage — and what not to do.”

The idea for the program was clear, but how to come up with roughly $10,000 to pay for it was less obvious.

Chief Angelo first went after federal grant money; with his May retirement date nearing, though, he chose another option.

“I felt this was important,” he said. “I knew we had some drug-seizure money that we could use for community interaction, so I tapped into that.”

After a long gestation, including a two-year delay caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, the pilot program for the Drive Legal and Drive Safe program was born this year. On June 25, the department hosted its inaugural group of 20 students for the two-hour course, the first step toward getting their licenses.

As luck would have it, Rodney Reasonover of the Stark County Community Action Agency was there, too. He had read about the program’s impending launch and immediately contacted Capt. Lisa Brouckner, who had taken over the program from Angelo when he retired the previous month.

“When I saw the article in the newspaper, I said to myself, ‘Why didn’t we think of this?’ ” Reasonover said.

Like community action agencies nationwide, the Stark County CAA is a state- and federally- funded nonprofit that promotes self-sufficiency among low-income Americans. Forty-eight community action agencies exist in Ohio and more than a thousand in the nation.

Reasonover saw the driver’s ed program as a logical complement to the workforce development programs offered by the Stark County CAA. So, on July 8, the agency signed an agreement with the Canton Police Department to co-sponsor and help pay for Drive Legal and Drive Safe beginning with a new group of students tentatively planned for autumn.

The agency will use its community services block grant to help fund the program. Discussions already are in the works to expand the program to low-income students in other Stark County school districts.

“It’s good for our area and good for our youths,” Reasonover said. “The driver’s ed program provides access to employment opportunities for these kids and puts them on the right track. I hope it becomes a model for other police departments and CAAs around the state and nation.”