By Margie Wuebker
Nine juveniles arrested in an undercover drug operation at Celina High School are now enrolled in summer school in keeping with sentences handed down in Mercer County Juvenile Court.
The investigation, which involved a collaborative effort between the Mercer County Sheriff's Office and the Mercer County Prosecutor's Office, targeted drug traffickers in the school. The 14 arrest warrants served April 12 involved 13 current or former students and the stepfather of a student.
Judge Mary Pat Zitter told The Daily Standard on Tuesday that disposition of the cases is now complete, with defendants receiving probation as well as detention time.
Three of the young people -- two boys ages 16 and 17 and a 16-year-old girl -- faced multiple drug charges ranging from third- to fifth-degree felonies. Their combined 17 counts represent more than half the 31 offenses the undercover operation yielded.
Juveniles, ranging in age from 15 through 17 at the time of the investigation, initially spent time at the West Central Ohio Juvenile Detention Center near Troy. The length of detention ranged from five to 30 days. Following release, they were placed on house arrest with the cost of electronic monitoring assumed by the parents. Zitter remanded the most serious offenders to the custody of the Ohio Department of Youth Services for periods ranging from six months at the minimum to their 21st birthdays on the other end of the scale. She then suspended those sentences on the condition they violate no terms of court-ordered probation.
"Commitments to the Department of Youth Services represent a very serious penalty," the judge added. "Any violation of probation could have very serious repercussions in these cases."
Some juveniles convicted of lesser charges have been removed from house arrest but still face sanctions including curfews, prohibited telephone usage and random drug/alcohol tests. All nine were ordered to complete counseling at Gateway Outreach Center.
"The sentences were designed to not only punish the offenders but to help them make right choices in the future," Zitter said. "We have more leeway here in juvenile court to address issues and to tailor disposition to each individual case."
Celina schools Superintendent Fred Wiswell praised the court for its handling of the cases and issuing orders for offenders to make up missed classes through summer school.
"Judge Zitter and the school worked together to ensure the penalties were strict but fair and proactive," Wiswell said. "The balanced approach provided an opportunity for sanctions not only in the school system but in the community."
The nine juveniles and their parents attended expulsion hearings with Wiswell, high school Principal Curt Shellabarger and administrative secretary Paula Klosterman, who compiles the official transcript of the proceeding. Families were permitted to bring legal counsel if they wished and Jackie Landry, director of special education, attended sessions involving students with Individualized Education Plans (IEPs).
All were expelled for the remainder of the recently completed school year because their offenses represented a breach of the school's code of conduct.
In accordance to the judge's directives regarding education, the students have enrolled in the six-week summer school currently under way and they or their families are picking up the cost at the rate of $132 per semester credit. Those successfully completing the program will be readmitted to school this fall.
"I need to point out that all of the students and their parents have been cooperative and understanding throughout the process," Wiswell said.
Three 18-year-old men, current Celina High School students, are among five adults whose cases are pending in Mercer County Common Pleas Court. One senior reportedly walked with classmates during commencement exercises, having completed all graduation requirements with the exception of one credit. Wiswell explained his participation was permitted in accordance with board policy. However, his diploma has been held until successful completion of summer school. The cases of the other two remain on hold until they plead guilty or are found guilty. Neither has been permitted to attend classes since the arrests.
Sentencing for Brandon Barker, 18, 1805 E. Livingston St., Celina, had been scheduled for Tuesday afternoon but the matter was continued until 10 a.m. Friday. He is charged with trafficking in drugs, a fifth-degree felony.
Other adults still involved in court proceedings are Mike Wilson, 18, 45 W. Main St., Montezuma; T.J. Thitoff, 18, 6688 Ohio 219, Montezuma; Dustin Wendel, 18, 425 Johnson Ave., Celina; and Steve Kable, 28, 322 W. Fayette St., Celina.