CRESTVIEW — Damanta Murphy, Shomari Coles, Keith Jackson Jr., Goldie Rogers and Derrick Steele are inmates in the Okaloosa County Jail Adjudicated Youth Facility.
However, school officials expressed hope that newly attained diplomas will positively affect their lives.
The five were part of a graduating class of 11 students who pursued high school diplomas and GED certificates while serving time. The other six had already left the jail.
Hopes and dreams
"I am proud of him," Shomari's mother, Christina Oregon, said. "It's a situation that was bad, but he made it an accomplishment."
Shomari hopes to enter the military when he leaves jail — "hopefully next month” — he said.
Derrick said he wants to become a chef.
"I like to cook," he said. "It runs in the family."
Keith wants to join the military, and Damanta — who worked hard to earn his diploma as a birthday present — plans to play college basketball while he studies graphic design.
Goldie was just excited to display her GED certificate.
"It was hard," she said. "This was my second time taking the test. But Mr. (Andy) Simmons is an awesome teacher. If it wasn't for him, I wouldn't have done it. He had faith in me, because I sure didn't."
Nick Kootsouradis, Okaloosa Schools assistant superintendent of operations, and Billy Mikel, director of Department of Juvenile Justice Education, offered encouraging words during a May 24 ceremony.
"You've taken the first step in a successful life by getting your diploma," Kootsouradis said. "The rest of your life is in your hands. Do what's right; not what's easy."
"You're going to have to be the meanest, toughest person you've ever been," Mikel said. "That doesn't mean you have to fight. It means you have to have courage" to avoid trouble.
Embraces and back slaps after the ceremony marked the first time most of the students had touched family members since incarceration.
"This is the first time they've seen their loved ones when they're not behind bulletproof glass" in the visiting room, Simmons said.
Under the program, jail officials provide a classroom; student-produced instructional displays line the walls. However, challenges abound, including students’ early release before the academic year’s end, or being unable to attend class when confined in "The Hole," the basement discipline unit. Some return to the program after being arrested on another charge.
The program is voluntary. No statistics indicate whether those who graduate are more likely to succeed when released back into society.
Still, Simmons said having attained their GED certificates offers students hope, opportunity and a sense of self-confidence.
"The wrong choices that brought these graduates to jail have provided them the opportunity to make the right choices about furthering their education and changing their lives," he said.
"... You can't take this accomplishment away from them. They earned this."
Contact News Bulletin Staff Writer Brian Hughes at 850-682-6524 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @cnbBrian.