By Jen Lawson <firstname.lastname@example.org>
LAS VEGAS SUN
Wearing paper shower caps, face masks, plastic gowns, gloves and booties over their shoes, a group of teens files into the "cooler" -- a back room at the Clark County coroner's office where unidentified bodies are stored.
One girl hesitates at the threshhold. Just her eyes are visible above her mask, and they show her fear. In a muffled voice she says, "I can't," puts her gloved hand over her mouth and gags.
But at the gentle urging of a probation officer she stepped into the room, where frigid air is blowing, and a thick metal door slid shut behind her.
She stares at one of the dead bodies on a table -- it's covered, but seeing the waxy-looking, discolored hands and feet are enough.
"With what you guys are doing, you guys could end up here," Roy Chandler, a retired Metro Police homicide detective, told the group of nine handcuffed and shackled teens who are being held at the juvenile detention center for crimes ranging from robbery and home invasion to prostitution.
Chandler and Ron Moracco, a driver education teacher with the school district, coordinate the Clark County Coroner's Visitation Program, now in its third year. It was expanded in January to include those involved with gangs.
The point of the program is to make the teens think about their actions and how it affects their futures and their families, and to lead them to decide that they need to change, Chandler said.
This isn't a "Scared Straight" program, he pointed out. "Scared Straight" deterrence programs emerged in the 1970s and involved inmates serving life sentences giving juvenile delinquents a look at prison life, including descriptions of rape and murder.
A landmark 1982 study concluded that aversive therapies such as "Scared Straight" programs are mostly ineffective, and in some cases increased the chance of kids going to prison.
Chandler said although the county's program does have a shock value component because of the subject matter, its aim is educating the kids.
During the three-hour session they are given a mini-course on the functions of the coroner's office and the science of death. They're taught, for example, how medical examiners conduct autopsies, the difference between a cause and manner of death, and how John and Jane Does are identified.
It includes case studies presented in a Power Point format involving locals, mainly teenagers, who have died as a result of murder or accidents, as well as a discussion on criminal law.
To drive home their point, the course concludes with a walk through two rooms of the coroner's office where covered corpses are stored.
And Chandler said the numbers show the program is having a positive effect: Out of the 1,650 teens who have completed the course, only 12.6 percent have been re-arrested.
But Randall Shelden, a criminal justice professor at UNLV who specializes in juvenile delinquency, has doubts about the program.
While he said it seems well-intended and he doesn't necessarily object to it, he said it sounds too similar to "Scared Straight."
"It's a variation on the theme," Shelden said. "I'd be very skeptical."
The recidivism rate isn't valid, he continued, because there is no control group. It could be that the teens don't re-enter the juvenile justice system because of "maturation reform" -- just growing up, he said.
But Chandler's passion for the program overrides the numbers.
"Even if the recidivism rate is 99 percent, it would still be worth it because it means that one kid stayed out of trouble," he said.
The program was launched in 2002 by Sen. Dennis Nolan, R-Las Vegas, when he was an assemblyman. He formed a steering committee consisting of former coroner Ron Flud and representatives of Family Court, the department of juvenile justice and the department of youth and family services.
Chandler, who retired from Metro in 2001 after more than 30 years of service -- including nine years investigating homicides -- was recruited to develop the curriculum.
He accepted, he said, "because I saw the number of kids getting killed and I saw the number of kids going to prison for killing kids."
At the time the program was open only to teenagers who were on probation or parole, but it was expanded and accepted referrals from the school district, Las Vegas Justice Court and District Court.
It's also open to the general public, and parents could opt to send their children there. The fee is $45 and the courses -- one for violent offenders and another for reckless offenders accused of things like drag racing and drug offenses -- are held weekly.
Late last year, the Clark County Gang Task Force hooked into the program. In January, a third, gang-focused version of the course was developed for juveniles who are being held in the detention center for suspected gang-related offenses.
Four of the seven boys and two girls who went through the course Wednesday night said they were in gangs. Some were on the fence in terms of gang involvement, Jerry Simon of the Clark County Gang Task Force said, and the course will hopefully ensure they won't get involved.
"They could be future presidents, police officers or doctors," Simon said.
Gathered in a room at the juvenile detention center before heading to the coroner's office, Moracco asked the group what they considered their parents' worst nightmare.
"Getting that phone call," one of the boys replied.
Notifying parents of their child's death is heartbreaking, Moracco said.
"Parents say this can't possibly be my son. My son or daughter is asleep back there in the bedroom. And they open the door and you're not there," he said.
Later, in an examination room at the coroner's office, one teen asked if rapper Tupac Shakur, murdered in Las Vegas nine years ago, was examined there. He was.
Another asked, "Who does the makeup?" and Chandler explained that it's done by the mortuary in preparation for the funeral. He fielded questions about rigor mortis, and whether or not hair and nails continue growing after death. (Chandler told them that they don't to any noticeable degree.)
Chandler showed them the entrance where relatives come and the room where they are shown pictures to identify their dead loved ones.
"It's nothing like TV, is it?" Chandler said. "Look at what you're running the risk of, what you could be putting your parents through."
Back at the detention center, sitting in a circle, Simon leads a discussion on what they saw and felt. They were somber and some appeared shaken. One of the girls, accused in a drive-by shooting, refused to speak at all.
The ones that did speak expressed a desire to change, something Simon encouraged, and something he wanted to hear.
One boy, accused of battery, said seeing the bodies hit home.
"On the streets someone could kill you just to kill you. I was seeing my grandma, and she was saying, 'I told him not to roam the street. I told him,' " he said. "The path we're taking is going to take us to that table, right? I want to have a good life. I want to live till I'm 80 or 90."
A small, thin 14-year-old, charged with robbery and home invasion, said in a voice that hadn't yet deepened, "I pictured me and my big brother on the table, and I don't want that to happen."
Shaking his head and looking own at his handcuffs, he added, "I'm going to get my life together."