Criminal justice professor gives time for high-risk youth

Kaitlin Bruce

Criminal Justice Professor Ricky Gutierrez has dedicated more than a decade to fighting for at-risk youth in the Sacramento region, doing the work of many to keep his program alive.

The Sac-Mentoring Program, of which Gutierrez is faculty coordinator, is designed to pair Sac State Students with disadvantaged high school students in hopes of mentoring them into a positive learning environment.

“The Sac-Mentoring Program is an experiential learning course that has been a part of the criminal justice curricula for the past 13 years,” Gutierrez said. “This program partners with local high schools in an attempt to provide quality one-on-one mentoring for students who are experiencing academic challenges, have numerous disciplinary referrals, or are frequently absent from class or truant.”

The program was started in 1999 by Criminal Justice Professor Lynette Lee and former psychology professor Bill Lee-Sammonds. The program was handed to Gutierrez in 2002 on his first semester at Sac State.

“We started the program in order to give Sac State students the opportunity to learn more from working with kids in the community to serve as a mentor,” Lee said. “We thought the college student would understand their studies better if they were doing hands-on community service at the same time, a method called service-learning.”

Sac-Mentor is also designed to acquaint college students with the concept of civic responsibility and engagement.

“Drawing heavily upon theories discussed in various academic disciplines, students gain knowledge by integrating classroom theory with real-world problems,” Gutierrez said.

Gutierrez taking over the program has lead to many improvements, including expanding from one high school to three. Rosemont High School counselor John Kroeger has been director of the mentor program there for six years.

“Dr. Gutierrez has been very accommodating for us,” Kroeger said. “He’s a great communicator and facilitator.”

He has also formed partnerships with local nonprofit organization, Youth Connections Unlimited, a program that provides mentoring services for incarcerated youth.

The students meet for a minimum of three hours each week, which Gutierrez said provides the high school students with “a positive role model, assistance with difficult subject matter, socialization experience, and the opportunity to develop a meaningful contact with someone outside their personal and academic communities.”

“This proactive approach is thought to divert youth from becoming involved with crime while encouraging them to consider college as a viable option for their future,” Gutierrez said.

In one success story, a very talented football player experienced a career-ending injury his junior year. He struggled academically so the transition from the gridiron to the classroom was difficult.

“This put him in the precarious position of making a choice between finishing high school or dropping out and joining a gang,” Gutierrez said. “He was referred to the program by a counselor at his school and was then matched with an upper-division criminal justice major. He was mentored for a year and during that time, raised his GPA from a 1.27 to a 2.73”

The program benefits not just the at-risk youth; mentors gain valuable knowledge as well.

“Experiential learning is important to making a connection between some of the issues they study in class and what really goes on in our communities,” Gutierrez said.

“Professorial oversight and guidance allows students to discuss these experiences in a seminar-type setting with their professor and fellow mentors so that the connection between academic discourse and real world experiences can be made.”

Gutierrez said facilitating classroom activity with positive problem-solving efforts can cultivate a more civic and collaborative educational experience with long-lasting effects.

“The end result is an essential link between what is learned during discussions in the classroom, and what student should expect to encounter in the community upon completion of their degree,” Gutierrez said.

Since the Sac-Mentor program was created, 1,456 students have served as mentors, 988 of them being criminal justice majors.

“The mentoring program is all about guiding students towards success, as our Sac State motto, ‘Leadership begins here’ implies, this type of program embodies leadership qualities that transcend their educational experience at Sac State,” Gutierrez said.

The program has been working with no budget for the past five years, leaving Gutierrez doing the work of four people just to keep the program afloat.

“It’s really hurt the program, cutting it virtually in half. We have 11 or 12 mentors right now, instead of the usual 20 to 25. I don’t think they realize budget cuts affect not only Sac State, but also the entire community,” Kroeger said.

Although program administration is time-consuming and the program currently is operating without any financial resources, Gutierrez manages to keep a positive outlook.

“The extra work does pay off as it allows me to further my research agenda,” he said. “The most satisfying outcome of all this work thus far is seeing students make a connection to what they are learning in the classroom and how this information learned there can be used to develop solutions that address real-world problems.”

Kaitlin Bruce can be reached at [email protected]