Inside the Buffalo Alternative High School, the tiled walls are dated, but spotless. The floors are gleaming. It's one of the first signs of hope in the building, where the Buffalo School District's most challenging students are sent to learn.
The other most obvious sign of hope comes from the dedicated staff that, despite the daily struggle, shows pride in helping these troubled teens in grades 7-12.
Now, the Erie County District Attorney's Office is jumping into the fray. For the first time in the history of the office, it is adopting this school on South Park Avenue to help turn around kids who may have already had run-ins with the legal system.
"We want these young people to see that prosecutors are not just the people who send you away to prison," acting District Attorney Michael J. Flaherty Jr. said. "It takes a village to change lives for the better, and my office is committed to anything that encourages these students to make smart decisions and have some hope for the future. When we prevent people from turning to crime, we all are safer."
Several assistant district attorneys and members of the DA's confidential criminal investigators have made monthly visits to the school to talk to the kids about staying on the straight and narrow.
Christopher Gresham, an assistant district attorney in DA Flaherty's vehicular crimes bureau, told a class of high school students how his high marks earned him academic scholarships that allowed him to earn his law degree free of charge.
Under the "Say Yes" program at the school, these students are also eligible for a free college education, but they have to graduate.
Easier said than done.
Wil Green, family support specialist for "Say Yes," works to help students at the Buffalo Alternative School increase attendance, improve their behavior and get their grades up.
"There is always a benefit to having people outside of the community come in and work with students, because a lot of times they don't get that interaction," Green said. He explained these high-risk kids are often left out of the many opportunities given to better-adjusted students.
That's why Assistant District Attorney Ashley Lowry said she wanted to be a part of this pilot project at the DA's office.
She has visited the school four times, hoping to help break down the barriers between law enforcement and the community.
"We want to hear from the kids themselves what is going on in their world and how we can improve relations," Lowry said. "It helps me better understand the challenges they face."
The students are cautiously curious about these visits. They said they want to know how many cases prosecutors lost, and the longest prison term defendants have received. They ask investigators if they like being a cop, if they have ever shot anyone and, if so, if they were white or black.
"No one wants to shoot anybody, let alone target people," said confidential criminal investigator Bobby Yeates, a 29-year veteran of the Buffalo Police Department. Yeates was involved in the fatal shooting of a knife-wielding woman four years ago.
"With the current climate between law enforcement and the community, it's important for students to understand that these are real people that we can communicate with, and who are willing to work together to resolve issues," Green said.
"It's all about understanding each other," Assistant District Attorney David Heraty said. "We want them to know that, at the end of the day, we all want to go home to our families and be safe."
The DA's office will continue building the relationship and trust of these students as the school year goes on, surrounding them with hope for a brighter future.
"We are all a part of the same community, and everyone deserves a voice," Lowry said. "This project allows us to share our knowledge and experience with the students, and prove to them that there's a great, big world, of which they are a part."