Sergeants' tough love helps to reform troubled teens

This is the fifth in a series of reports on the Youth Challenge Academy program and the cadets trying to turn their lives around. CBS News will follow their progress, giving frequent updates through December. The first segment: National Guard program puts dropouts on a new track; second: From high school dropouts to cadets; third: Tears and hugs for once-troubled teens at National Guard camp; and fourth: Troubled teens in National Guard camp face toughest challenge yet


LOS ALAMITOS, Calif. -- For school dropouts-turned-cadets at Sunburst Youth Challenge academy, their chances of succeeding are only as good as the sergeants responsible for their reform. Luckily for the kids, the sergeants are top of the line. For months they have groomed the cadets through hard work, determination and tough love.

1st Sgt. Michael Scott

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First Sergeant Michael Scott
CBS News

First Sergeant Michael Scott is the Sunburst Commandant. He's in charge of the cadre -- the 28 sergeants who've made it their life's mission to turn these at-risk students' lives around.

"Let's remember why we are here," said Sgt. Scott to the cadre. "To intervene and reclaim these 16 to 18-year-old dropout lives."

From day one Scott demanded discipline and structure. He told his sergeants that even though they will be intense, they should always be appropriate.

"You will keep in mind, that they were your own children," Sgt. Scott told his cadre.

Scott encourages his sergeants to see the potential in the cadets and to help them unlock it.

"People often say 'oh you work with the bad kids' and I say no, these are just kids who need second chances," said Sgt. Scott.


Sgt. Timothy Edwards

"I'm trying to set you up for success," barked Sergeant Timothy Edwards to a cadet.

The 47-year-old sergeant spent a year in Iraq before coming to Sunburst. He's a no-nonsense, hard-nose army veteran. He lost his mother when he was a child and he understands what these young rebels need.

"I am not here to be mean, but you will listen to me and my cadre, do you understand?" shouted Sgt. Edwards to the cadets. "Everybody makes mistakes. There is not a perfect human being on the planet. But when you make a mistake you look in the mirror and you own it."

That's exactly what he's tried to teach Cadet Marissa Stowe. He knew she was going to be a challenge from day one. When Stowe was seen without her socks, Sgt. Edwards gave her an earful.

"You tell me why you don't have your socks on?" asked Sgt. Edwards.

"Stuck," answered Stowe. Her excuse didn't sit well.

"Your socks were stuck so everybody's going to pay. Jumping jacks, go!" shouted Sgt. Edwards.

At first Sgt. Edwards thought Cadet Stowe had an apathetic attitude. He told us that when she showed up to the academy, she stood in an 'I don't care, I don't give a damn' way. Stowe's attitude has since shown signs of a course correction.

"He talked to me so many times," Stowe told us. "He motives me."

Part of his motivation comes in the form of a saying - one he frequently asks the cadets to repeat.

"All you have to do is what?" shouted Sgt. Edwards.

"Breath, Sergeant, breath!" answered the cadets.

"All you have to do is breath. I will control everything within your environment until you get back on track."

Sgt. Edwards told us that although the sergeants are portrayed as the "hard core, screaming military" types - they do have a softer side.

"Look, tears will come," he said. "I have cried. We get to know these kids on a personal level and we truly care about their success."

Sgt. 1st Class Peter Gutierrez

34-year-old Platoon Sergeant Peter Gutierrez came to Sunburst after a tragedy in his own family.

"Five years ago, I lost my brother to gun violence in the streets, when that happened I knew I had to change other people's lives," said Gutierrez. "I see a lot of myself in these kids."

Gutierrez understands the sergeants can't change the world the cadets live in, but reminds them: "we can change what goes on with you."

While working at Sunburst is their full time job, 74 percent of the sergeants are active duty and can be called up to go to places like Afghanistan at any moment. There is one month to go in the program.


In the next installment of this series, CBS News will show how these high school dropouts go from getting F's to A's and B's.
  • Michelle Miller

    Michelle Miller is an award-winning CBS News correspondent based in New York, reporting for all CBS News broadcasts and platforms. Her work regularly appears on the "CBS Evening News with Scott Pelley", "CBS This Morning" and "CBS Sunday Morning with Charles Osgood". She joined CBS News in 2004.