Making Choices Cooley professor teams with father in drug education program for youth

By Debra Talcott

Legal News

Monica Nuckolls, an assistant professor at Cooley Law School, is someone who knows she has chosen the career path that is exactly right for her.

"Teaching law is more than a profession to me-it's a calling," says Nuckolls, who joined the Auburn Hills faculty in 2004. "There is no better joy than to help a student understand, appreciate, and challenge the law all at the same time."

Her primary teaching responsibilities include Torts I, which students take in their first term; Torts II, a second term class; and Equity and Remedies, an elective course that students take toward the end of their law school career.

"Knowing that I have a role in helping shape our future lawyers, judges, and lawmakers is a wonderful feeling and an awesome responsibility," says Nuckolls.

Nuckolls also enjoys her role as faculty advisor for students enrolled in the General Practice Externship program, where they work with practicing lawyers and/or judges for a specified number of hours each week. While students do not receive pay for their work, they do earn credit hours toward graduation. The classroom component of the externship program is where students discuss ways in which their lawyering skills have improved as a result of their field work.

"It helps further the students' development as professionals with an emphasis on ethics, civility, professionalism, and reputation," explains Nuckolls.

A 2000 graduate of University of Michigan Law School, Nuckolls spent the next four years in private practice, handling complex commercial litigation matters including product liability, labor and employment, breach of contract, property, environmental, asbestos, and business disputes.

"Every case I worked on was equally gratifying because I knew I was helping someone obtain justice," says Nuckolls.

Nuckolls comes by her interest and aptitude in the law quite naturally. The daughter of Ivory Thompson and Judge M.T. Thompson Jr., Nuckolls says she left home to pursue her undergraduate degree at Michigan State University thinking she would eventually study medicine.

"But after taking classes in both areas, I quickly discovered where my passion was. It was one of the best choices I've ever made, and I haven't looked back."

Judge Thompson was a practicing attorney while Nuckolls was growing up in Saginaw. Now the father-daughter duo collaborates on a drug education and crime prevention program called "Making Choices and Facing Consequences." Their evidence-based and field-tested program takes a three-pronged approach to helping young people improve their lives: promoting the development of self-management skills, teaching what constitutes unlawful and risky behavior, and promoting responsible citizenship and appropriate behavior standards.

"Drug education and character training are delivered through a set of real-life stories about children and young adults," says Nuckolls. "The characters in the stories come from the same type of neighborhoods, share similar backgrounds, and face the same problems, pressures, and temptations as the young adults we are trying to reach. Some of the stories involve 'difficult' children trying to cope with bad environments, and some of the stories involve 'good' children who made bad choices and then had to face the consequences of those choices."

The curriculum has been endorsed by superintendents from the Saginaw, Bridgeport, and Carrollton Public Schools and the Saginaw Police Chiefs' Association. The program has been used successfully in the Saginaw Public Schools' 21st Century Program, in the Bridgeport-Spaulding Schools, the Carrollton Public Schools, Buena Vista Public Schools, the Saginaw County Juvenile Detention Center, and the Saginaw Community Foundation's Youth First Program.

Students in the program discuss stories that deal with contemporary issues such as gangs, bullies, violent crime, alcohol, and other drugs.

"Each story builds to a point of importance then presents the character(s) with one or more critical choices," explains Nuckolls. "Working through these real life situations improves the young adult's decision making skills. It also develops a what-are-my-choices, what-are-my-consequences approach to decision making."

Nuckolls explains that the program's curriculum has been used in both rural and urban communities and that it has been particularly effective in distressed communities that have a youth crime problem. One of their pilot projects, called the "Boyz-2-Men Manhood Training Program," was designed to address the crisis among young African American men who are at risk of becoming prison statistics.

Nuckolls and Judge Thompson organized a series of Saturday morning training sessions for more than 100 boys and young men between the ages of 8 and 18. The sessions were held over a five-month period in 2008 at Central Middle School in Saginaw. Parents of the participants were invited to separate classes to learn how to reinforce what their sons were learning. The program taught participants how to be young men of character, how to choose positive role models, and how to seek other positive influences.

"We employed Professional Psychological and Psychiatric Services III (PPPS) to conduct pre- and post-tests to gage the effectiveness of our program, and the results were amazing," says Nuckolls. "For example, 72 percent of the boys and young men who participated in Boyz-2-Men reported having a better understanding of the consequences of gang membership as a result of our program. Furthermore, while 24.5 percent of the participants did not consider alcohol a drug before going through the program, only 2.5 percent felt that way after completing the program."

Over the past several years, Nuckolls and her father have seen their program implemented in a variety of settings. In 2008, Judge Thompson, Nuckolls, and Oakland University Professor Gwendolyn McMillon were hired by the police departments of Hopewell and Petersburg, Va. to train their officers and community volunteers to implement the program and teach the material.

In 2006, Nuckolls trained teachers to use the curriculum at the 21st Century Community Learning Center, an after-school program through the Saginaw Public School District. That same year she trained instructors at the Family Youth Initiative, which operates under the Saginaw County Public Health Department Substance Abuse Program.

Nuckolls has also served as a guest speaker for events such as Law Day during the Success on Saturdays program at the former Pontiac Northern High School, where she and Judge Thompson presented information on the consequences of gang membership. Most recently, Nuckolls spoke about the urgent need to end teen violence at the Town Hall Meeting on Teen Violence sponsored by the American Bar Association's Coalition on Racial and Ethnic Justice.

"Since Boyz-2-Men was such a resounding success and because our goal is to change the lives of as many children as possible, we conducted another community-wide training program called Project Future, which took place on Saturdays between January and May of this year at Ruben Daniels Middle School in Saginaw," says Nuckolls. "This time, our program included 100 young men and 100 young women with separate classes for adults."

Transportation was provided for participants who needed help getting to the program, and breakfast and mid-morning snacks were also provided. Special outings to a Pistons game, the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, and a bowling alley were provided at no charge for program participants.

Sponsors for those activities included Dow Corning Corp., Saginaw County Community Foundation, Saginaw County Mental Health Authority, Delta College, Saginaw Public School District, the City of Saginaw, and local churches.

"I am very proud to announce that Project Future was a huge success," says Nuckolls. "I am extremely excited about the progress we have made over the last several years with our program, and I look forward to helping even more children in the future."

A resident of West Bloomfield, Nuckolls and her husband Korey, a social studies teacher at Novi High School, have three young sons, Korey Jr., Noah, and Luke. Her husband and sons are four of the important men in the professor's life. The fifth is, of course, Judge Thompson.

"It is very rewarding to work with my father as an adult. Being able to spend so much time with him and work on something that we are both so passionate about is truly an indescribable blessing. Ten years from now, my goal is that 'Making Choices and Facing Consequences' will be used in school districts all across the state of Michigan and that our teen violence and drug problems will have decreased dramatically."

Published: Thu, Jun 3, 2010