Idaho: Juvenile lockup school helps young offenders; Strict structure and rigid rules help students feel secure

By Kristin Rodine

The Idaho Statesman

CALDWELL, Idaho (AP) -- "They're the best-behaved kids I've had in 30 years," Jan Adams said of her students at Caldwell's Pat Andersen School.

That statement might surprise many, considering that these kids are charged with a wide array of felony or misdemeanor offenses and live in the facility that houses the school: the Southwest Idaho Juvenile Detention Center.

"These kids are focused," said Adams, who has taught math at the school for the past five years. "They come in and sit down and they stay on focus for an hour and 25 minutes."

Of course, that focus is assisted by the environment. A trained detention center guard stands at the ready in each classroom, making sure students keep their eyes on their work and their teacher, not each other. There are rules for everything, from when to hand in your pencil after class to keeping your hands behind your back as you move through the hall.

But somehow, amid the regimentation, the school manages to capture the imagination of this captive audience, inspiring a wealth of creative writing and an upswing in academic success for many.

All the structure and rigid rules also help the students feel secure, which frees them to learn and explore ideas, language arts teacher Janet Smith said.

"There's a certain safety for them, not just from them," Smith said.

The Pat Andersen School, named for the beloved Caldwell teacher who pioneered the school when the detention center opened in 1992, goes beyond the core curriculum. It regularly participates in the Cabin's Writers in the Schools program to inspire young offenders' inner poets and, most recently, secured a $2,000 grant to create a garden that will provide hands-on tasks for the students and fresh veggies for local community groups.

The school planned a public celebration of the garden project Thursday. On Tuesday, three girls carefully put the finishing touches on a colorful sign that uses vines, vegetables and honeybees to form the letters in "School Garden."

Two of the young artists talked to a reporter about the school, and are identified here only by their first initials. S. is an Emmett 14-year-old who has been in and out of the detention center on a variety of misdemeanor charges. Nampa resident E., also 14, awaits court action on felony drug charges.

The pair expected what E. called "torture, meanness," but instead they found nice adults and good teachers.

Their only complaints, the girls said, are the food and the wardrobe -- striped inmate pants and T-shirts color-coded to match the level of trust and privilege they have earned. Both girls wear gray shirts signaling that they have reached the highest level, 4.

Levels 1 through 3 sport shirts of orange, green and black,

Asked how she's doing at the Pat Andersen School compared to her middle school at home, S. proclaimed, "way better. I'm a year ahead in math, almost a year ahead in everything."

E. concurred, noting proudly, "I finished a whole book in here."

Both girls have been in the detention center for several months and hope to get out in a week or so, depending on what the judge in their case says.

"They always think they're getting out on their next court date," Adams said.

One of the challenges for teachers is that they're never sure how long students will be around. Kids are placed in the detention center while they await legal resolution in the court system. Once they are sentenced, they will likely be placed on probation or put in the state juvenile corrections system.

The average stay is less than two weeks, Director Steve Jett said, but some stay for a year or more, depending on how long it takes their case to make its way through the courts.

Another challenge is the sheer variety of students. Students range in age from 10 to 17, and most are functioning well below grade level. Smith recalls one 15-year-old who came in at about kindergarten level.

Many have emotional or mental health issues and serious stresses at home.

The school operates on "the one-room schoolhouse" approach, Jett said. Actually, there are two groups of students who move between three classrooms -- math, language arts and the PLATO computer-based learning network. The students aren't divided by age but by factors such as size, vulnerability and gender, he said. Special care is taken to keep kids from rival gangs separate.

Effective screening is essential to determine each child's individual needs and abilities, Jett said. The two teachers provided by the Caldwell School District excel at that.

"It's such a pleasure to deal with a kid at his individual level and see him move up, rather than trying to fit him into a grade level because of his age," Smith said.

Some unique aspects of the school help the students find success, Smith and Adams said.

The school operates year-round, which keeps kids on task no matter when they're sent to the detention center.

And it's pretty certain students will be happy to come to class, because the alternative is to sit alone in their cells -- stark spaces 6 feet wide and furnished only with a cot, an open shelf and a small metal toilet and sink. Most were recently repainted in warm beige and brown tones, but one wing retains the Pepto-Bismol pink that once adorned the entire complex. The hue inspired one student to write a poem last year titled "A Letter From This Strange Pink Castle."

Students at the Pat Andersen School must learn a long list of do's and don'ts -- mostly don'ts.

Students are expected to focus and stay on task while in class, looking only at their work and their teachers. Even during a game of kickball in the grassy exercise yard, students must stay a set distance apart. They are supervised at all times.

Any student caught flashing a gang sign must don a lime-green jumpsuit -- a sufficiently dreaded punishment that the only green jumpsuits on view during a recent visit to the center were folded neatly on a shelf. Judges know what that jumpsuit means, Jett said, so the kids don't want to be wearing one in court.

Students aren't allowed to use scissors or staplers. Each student gets a pencil at the beginning of class and must hand it back at the end of the day. If the lead is missing, a search ensues.

All of the rules are geared toward safety, Jett said. Pencil lead and staples can be used to scrawl or scratch graffiti, including gang tags. And anything sharp could be used to harm the student or someone else.

In the one wing of cells that hasn't been repainted recently, Jett pointed to a cell door nearly blanketed with scratchings: "That's what a staple can do."

In addition to rigid rules, the school atmosphere offers fun and affection, Adams said.

She, Smith and paraprofessional Iris Chavez all say they find the work unusually rewarding.

Smith said the teachers "spread the TLC like peanut butter" to help one particularly troubled 15-year-old who's been in and out of the detention center since he was 10.

Jett said the teachers routinely invest their caring and energy into each student's progress.

"We have such high hopes for them when they leave," Adams said. "And when they come back to us, it's a little heartbreaking."

Published: Tue, May 24, 2011