During the spring 2013 high school speech tournament season in Nebraska a Loup City High School student channeled his passion and personal experience with the state's juvenile justice system into an award-winning oratory. Lee Sanchez didn't end up placing in the state finals, but he made an impression along the way.
Lee Sanchez will be the first person to tell you he screwed up.
When audiences heard the high school junior compete at speech tournaments in Nebraska this year, they had no idea the opening lines of his speech conveyed a deeper, more personal story.
There are decisions to be made each day, repercussions to these choices and, of course, the consequences. If a young man in Nebraska chooses to break the law, he may be facing time at the Youth Rehabilitation and Treatment Center of Kearney. YRTC-K.
If Sanchez was nervous rehearsing with his memorized script, he kept it to himself. Two days before the state tournament he stood in the empty school auditorium at Loup City High School, dead center on the wooden stage, appearing calm and mature in a dark suit, plum colored dress shirt and fashionable thick-framed glasses.
For Sanchez, recent discussion in the state legislature about closing the youth detention centers was more than an abstract debate about measuring outcomes and efficiencies in an annual budget. This was personal. He chose to use his school’s speech team as a platform.
In January, a group of Nebraska state senators proposed closing the two youth detention centers in Nebraska. The center in Kearney houses boys and girls are treated at the Geneva facility. The centers are a place judges can send teenagers in trouble with the law with the hope they will change their bad behavior and get guidance on how to stay out of trouble.
Legislation drafted by State Senator Brad Ashford of Omaha would have shut both facilities by 2015. “Ending up in Kearney is not helping Nebraska and it’s not helping those kids,” Ashford said at the news conference at which he unveiled a package of juvenile justice reforms.
Money used to fund the centers would be reallocated to provide services similar to those made available to the incarcerated young people, but would be provided in local communities. Ashford hoped to reduce the number of kids in confinement and place as many as possible with family members and foster parents.
Lee Sanchez says the existing system worked for him.
He spent eight months of his freshman year locked up at the Youth Treatment Center in Kearney.
“I made a few bad choices and wound up there,” Sanchez said, relaxing after he’d practiced his speech. He’d changed out of the suit and tie and back into something closer to his regular school clothes: jeans and a purple t-shirt displaying a winged skull. His dark hair spilled out from under an Oakland Raiders cap, perched on his head so the bill stood nearly straight up.
The teenager’s fortunes changed dramatically after his arrest for stealing cough medicine at a drug store. He wanted to use it to get high. He landed in front of a county judge familiar with his history.
Sanchez said it was “the same judge that I had since I first started getting in trouble (who) got tired of my bull crap and said, ‘Put him in YRTC. He needs it.’”
What once was called the Detention Center is now the Youth Rehabilitation and Treatment Center. It has been the lock up for young offenders since the late 1800s. A major change in the approach and goals of the center came when management of the facility moved out of the state’s prison system into the control of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). YRTC started focusing more on education and counseling services with the goal of, according the center’s annual report, “affording youth the opportunity to become law-abiding citizens.”
The Kearney facility can house up to 170 teenagers. An average stay lasts five months, according statistics collected by HHS.
The combination of group therapy and individual counseling, in the opinion of Sanchez, was the right mix for dealing with his issues. He had a difficult relationship with his father, who had returned to Puerto Rico. He learned to get past a nagging feeling that he had little to contribute in the world.
He says the alternative wouldn’t be acceptable in his case. “Would you rather be in juvenile prison rather than in a place that has staff that actually gives a crap about you and sits down one on one with you and are willing to help you out?”
He also fondly recalls the “cinnamon rolls the size of your head.”
The eight month Sanchez spent at the center provided the foundation for the speech he would deliver two years later.
One of Sanchez’ teachers, Amy Hostetler, knew the student had spent time at the center and guessed he might be upset with the news some government leaders wanted to see it closed. She shared a newspaper article with him between classes.
Sanchez recalls, “I just went off.”
He said he “was not happy and I started spitting all these reasons about why we should keep it open and the benefits and the stupidity that the legislation was making.”
Realizing he had just called the state senator’s “stupid” he broke out in a shy smile and added, “I probably shouldn’t say that.”
Hostetler had seen a change in Sanchez when he returned to school after his stay at the center. He had enjoyed her public speaking class and started talking about wanting to join the school’s competitive speech team which Hostetler coached. Proud of her award-winning team, she was torn about encouraging him to participate.
“I was afraid he would think he could just wing it,” Hostetler said. “I was nervous he wouldn’t commit to it.”
She kept talking with him about topics when she read the news about the youth center proposal.
“How do you feel about that?” she recalls asking him. His response? “He was very passionate about it.”
After the student’s rant, Hostetler, as Sanchez recalled, “slapped the table, pointed at me, and said you’re doing your speech on this!”
“Damn right I am!” Sanchez replied.
The category that best fit the topic is called “Persuasive Speech” and requires competitors make a strong argument based on research and fact.
From the start, the speech Sanchez wrote and re-wrote wove together his passion with information about the therapeutic approach used at the centers.
Youth participate in exercises to correct one’s thinking errors and express emotions productively. In addition, anger management skills, decision-making skills, and social skills are addressed. Mutual help meetings occur three times a week, in which one expresses himself to the group, allowing members to help, building trust and creating structure. Whatever help one’s group cannot provide, youth counselors are there to assist. Having been exposed to the treatment, I know what YRTC-K has to offer their youth. Still using today what I learned in the time I was there, I have avoided multiple high-risk situations, made better choices, as well as matured, becoming a more responsible young adult and productive member of society.
Even the process of preparing the speech was good discipline, according to Sanchez. “To write it myself and then to memorize it and train with it night and day, it is hard work,” Sanchez said. “People sing in the shower. I do my speech in the shower.”
Not only was he a newcomer on an experienced speech team, but he did not join the group until the season was half over.
Coach Hotstetler not only saw passion for the topic but a young man putting into practice the very behavioral changes he had been encouraged to make at the treatment center.
“He carries himself more upright. He makes eye contact in the hall,” Hostetler said. “I’ve had staff say, ‘Wow, what a different kid from a year ago.’ He’s just really changed.”
Sanchez said he was just pleased he’d made it this far.
“That alone is enough for me,” he said. “I just want other people to take interest in what I am saying. I want other people to be out there and know what they are talking about when it comes to the youth of our state.”
The newly-minted persuasive speaker never got the chance to share his passion with state senators back at the Capitol in Lincoln. They had already reconsidered the proposal. Rather than closing the two YRTCs, their new bill attempts to reduce the number of juveniles locked up at the centers by increasing the number of treatment services closer to home.
Nor did Sanchez take home a medal at the state tournament. His first round did not go well. Better performances later in the day didn’t provide the boost he needed to reach the final round. Nonetheless, the power of the persuasive speech has him looking towards next year’s competition.
His speech coach sees this as a winning season for Lee Sanchez.
“I do think it probably is a turning point. At the end of the day I think it is a turning point for him.”
In a recent study, Nebraska ranked third among the states in incarceration rates for juvenile offenders. Read the report by the Annie E. Casey Foundation here.
Editor's Note: This story is part of our "Best of 2013" Signature Story report. The story originally aired and was published in April.