Martise Washington, a sophomore at Niles High School, has gone from spending his days at the Berrien County Juvenile Center to a respected student and friend, with hopes of one day becoming a case manager and youth specialist and helping kids who might find themselves in trouble. (Daily Star photo/JESSICA SIEFF)
Martise Washington, a sophomore at Niles High School, has gone from spending his days at the Berrien County Juvenile Center to a respected student and friend, with hopes of one day becoming a case manager and youth specialist and helping kids who might find themselves in trouble. (Daily Star photo/JESSICA SIEFF)

Archived Story

Waiting on a second chance

Published 11:05pm Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Niles Daily Star

Niles High School sophomore Martise Washington is facing the end of the school year on a high note.

For the 17-year-old, grades are good, friends are many and hopes are that soon he’ll be able to fill some of his hours with a summer job.

Though the last thing any student wants to do at the end of the year is think about the start of school the following year, Washington is being forced to do just that as he awaits a decision on whether or not he’ll be able to return to Niles High School next year.

Washington started school at Niles in September 2009 just one day after being released from his second stint at the Berrien County Juvenile Center and a little more than a year after he was taken in.

He found placement in a foster home in Niles and after a rough start to the year, has brought up his grades, become a friend and a role model to many kids at school and caught the attention of many of his teachers.

Now, he waits to find out if he’ll be able to stay in Niles or if a judge in Benton Harbor will bring him back to the environment he says led him to anger and trouble and ultimately, incarceration.

“When he came here in September, we kind of knew a little bit of his background – we knew (he) had been in ‘juvie’ for a while,” said Ryan Bieglow, one of Washington’s teachers this year.

“He came in, he had the mentality – and understandably from the social climate he had come from – where it’s dog-eat-dog,” Bigelow said. “He came in and he tried to establish his alpha status right away here with other students.”

Washington remembers the start of the year well.

“The day I got released was Sept. 10, 2009, it was on a Thursday because that next day, that Friday, was my first day here at school,” he said. “Before I came, I was thinking I had never been in NIles before. I was thinking this is a real lame place. I don’t want to talk to anybody here.

“I saw all these kids with different personalities and they’re way different from what I came from,” he said, adding he had no desire to talk to any of them.

“Any dude I saw, I didn’t like him,” he said.

Washington – who Principal Jim Knoll called a “bright and sharp kid” – had found himself serving his second visit to the juvenile center after violating his probation.

Back in Benton Harbor, by August 2008, he said he was living with his grandmother and “used to hang around with the wrong crowd all the time.”

“Me and my grandma got into it a lot,” he said. “We had a bad relationship most of the time.”

Washington said he’d often leave his grandmother’s house for a while and just not come back after fights.

“I was into drugs,” he said. “I used to smoke (marijuana) a lot and hang out real late.”

Hanging out “real late” is what got him in trouble. Washington violated his probation by being out past his curfew.

“I attempted to sell drugs,” he said, among other charges.

His grandmother contacted his probation officer, who told her that Washington would have to be locked up at the center.

But Washington said the understanding was it wouldn’t be for very long.

He went in on the detention side, “that’s where they put you in a room and your door would be locked,” he said.

But a few months later, the court ordered him transferred to the residential portion of the center.

“I knew that meant you were going to be there a long time,” Washington said.

Washington didn’t take the news well, acted out in court, had to be restrained and escorted out.

He was locked in a room, he said, until he calmed down.

Once back at the juvenile center, Washington’s behavior went up and down.

“I was still having a lot of problems. I was getting in a lot of trouble,” he said, including a couple of fist fights and threats to the staff.

Time and time again, Washington said his behavior would improve, only to break back down.

“I don’t know what it was but I just started going down hill again and just started acting up again,” he said.

He was put into lock-down, unable to join his designated group for time at the center’s gym or cafeteria.

Eventually, after his behavior continued to go up and down, Washington evened out enough to face being let out of the juvenile center.

“I had come to the decision that I didn’t want to go back to my grandma’s home in Benton Harbor,” he said. So he remained “patient,” waiting for placement in foster care, which he found in Niles.

Now, following bumpy start in which Bigelow said Washington had to be watched and dealt with for his behavior, Washington has done a noticeable turnaround.

“Many people have commented about how Martise at first did not fit into the culture of our building,” Knoll said. “(He) has adapted to it very well.”

Though he struggled in the beginning, Knoll said Washington has come to understand the schools expectations. And it seems, he’s set some expectations for himself as well.

“I knew that if I want to have the privilege to stay here in NIles and do good and not go back to Benton Harbor, I had to prove that I could handle it – that I could handle staying here in NIles,” Washington said.

Bigelow said he’s become a student who no longer engages in disruptive situations but diffuses them and serves as an example to others.

“They really do look up to him,” Bigelow said. “And it’s not out of fear anymore. It’s out of Martise being a genuinely nice guy.”

And that ability to lead is something Washington hopes he turn into a career. Asked whether or not he had any future goals, the young man, once hanging out with the wrong crowd, said he wants to go to college, become a case manager and  youth specialist and help those who going through some of the same experiences he’s had himself.

“I want to be able to help kids to stay away from stuff like that to be good in the community,” he said.

His experiences and his perspective on those times will give him a chance to relate to kids who need someone to relate to, he said.

“Since I’ve been there I feel like, since I’ve experienced it already, I’d be a good person to talk to kids about (it) and let them know that I understand how they feel and I can help them.”

Washington is hoping the judge will let him stay in Niles so he can finish out his high school career at Niles High School.

“It’s just really hard on a kid,” being pulled from one school and put into another, and might not be conducive to the student’s education, Knoll said.

“No matter which kid it is, because they’ll always be starting behind a little bit,” he said.
In addition, some kids might find increased insecurity in an environment that is not necessarily safe or encouraging to that student.

In the restricted halls of that juvenile detention center from where he came, Washington learned a manner of survival among other youth who’d gotten caught up in bad influences.
In the hallways of Niles High School, maybe those lessons of survival are being felt once gain – for better reasons.

Going back to Benton Harbor, Washington said, “is just going to put me back in the same community that I came from.”

One that “leads you back to trouble,” he said.

Washington’s foster mother could not be reached for comment.

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