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Educators Accept Challenge of Teaching in Detention Center

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FAIRFAX, VA.--At first glance, Bretton Spar's classroom here looks not unlike those in many American schools.

There are desks lined in neat rows, shelves filled with textbooks and novels, and walls papered with colorful drawings, collages, and creative writing.

But first looks can be deceiving.

Materials like scissors, staplers, and compasses are nowhere to be found, and pencils are accounted for on a peg board on the teacher's desk.

In the far corner of the room, students' biographical poems reveal telltale signs of violence, substance abuse, and neglect. A few of the writings are defiant in tone; others express a mixture of hope and despair.

"Brown hair, brown eyes, silly, smart,'' one student wrote on a paper decorated with only a small bunch of balloons. "I feel lonely, lost, and confused. I fear death, [the Juvenile Detention Center], and sharks. I would like to go home.''

Like other children who attend Mr. Spar's class, housed here at the Fairfax County Juvenile Detention Center, the writer is a juvenile offender awaiting placement by the county court system.

Most of the youngsters here--who range in age from 7 to 17--spend an average of 21 days in the school program, which is run by the Fairfax County school district. Many are repeat offenders who might find that the 55-bed facility is "better than home,'' says Teresa Zutter, who launched the school program alone in 1982 and now supervises the center's five teachers and art therapist.

"We heal with our unconditional acceptance for these kids,'' remarks Ms. Zutter, who was a finalist for state teacher of the year in 1988. "We treat them with dignity and respect. Our job is not to judge their innocence or guilt, but prepare them.''

'Drop and Switch'

But the unpredictability of teaching in the detention center requires a certain kind of teacher, Ms. Zutter adds.

"They have to love learning, they have to love kids, and they have to love these kinds of kids,'' she says.

In addition, teachers "have to have a wide knowledge base'' to juggle the 27 subjects the school offers for grades 3 through 12, she points out. Moreover, at any given time, as many as 70 percent of the children in a class could be learning disabled or students for whom English is a second language.

Many of the youngsters, who have been brought in on a variety of charges, including theft, assault, prostitution, rape, and murder, also have been addicted to drugs. Still others are emotionally disabled or come from families with a history of physical or psychological abuse.

"Teachers get to know the kids inside and out,'' Ms. Zutter says. "We know when they've had a bad visit, when they have a court date coming up. So we can match the curriculum to the student.''

This "drop and switch'' approach, as Ms. Zutter calls it, "gives [the teachers] freedom to do some creative things,'' she says.

"The material is the same,'' she adds, "but the delivery can be very different.''

"This is a rich environment for fine-tuning your teaching skills,'' Ms. Zutter observes.

Though the detention center's school program follows the county's curriculum guidelines, says Joan Lederbur, the coordinator for alternative schools in Fairfax County, teachers here have a great deal of autonomy.

Armed with in-service training and input from social-service agencies in the county, the teachers "use their strengths to decide what a program will focus on,'' Ms. Lederbur adds.

Ms. Zutter orders county-approved schoolbooks that have been adapted to include bolder text, more questions interspersed with readings, and more photographs or visual aids. She and the staff also contact the youngsters' base schools, consulting with their teachers on how to keep the students up to date with assignments.

"We don't have time to waste,'' she explains. "We have to jump right in with the kids. There is no transition; some of the kids could have just been picked up off the street.''

The Hook

Genevieve Sequinot's job is to get the students hooked into learning right away.

Ms. Sequinot's classroom here is filled with children from "intake,'' the area of the center where juvenile offenders are questioned, searched, and counseled after being arrested and charged with committing crimes within the county limits.

These youngsters are "fresh, hostile, angry, and emotional,'' Ms. Zutter says.

"Since my kids come and go quickly,'' Ms. Sequinot says, "I want to get into their heads.''

In one assignment, she asked students to identify the one thing they would change in their lives. Several children said they would have had stronger relationships with their parents.

"My mom would have disciplined me more than she did,'' one student said. Another student wrote, "My father would still be here.''

As Melissa Maxwell, another teacher here, points out, many youngsters in the center have been affected by a "lack of consistency'' in their lives.

"They're going to try to manipulate, like they did at home,'' adds Margaret Bonifant, who, with Ms. Maxwell, team-teaches some of the more motivated students in the program. "I had to learn to be consistent with them.''

All of the classes are organized around the five living units in the center. Children are grouped by age, by when they arrived at the center, and by sex.

In all of the classes, teachers seem to design activities that are therapeutic, building the students' self-esteem and encouraging communications among them.

Like the biographies in Mr. Spar's classroom, many of the writings awake in the students some feelings they may have suppressed.

In the art room, for instance, the part-time art therapist has decorated the room with the students' symbolic drawings of passageways and bridges. In one corner, life masks the children have made overlap each other on what appears to be a long door.

Two of the classes are coeducational, enrolling the 19 girls who are currently at the facility.

"We wanted to do this because there are so many issues surrounding'' the relationship between the sexes, Ms. Zutter says, adding that "some of the children have been victimized by the opposite sex.''

The center's school, which received an award for excellence from the National Association of Counties in 1989, also offers courses in sex education, AIDS prevention, and parenting. More and more of the students coming in, Ms. Zutter says, are young fathers or expectant mothers. A significant number are also H.I.V.-positive.

With little or no contact with their families and friends, many of the students look to the teachers as role models, Ms. Bonifant says.

"You have a chance to be something bright and good'' for the youths, she explains. "They look, they watch. I have to be aware of that all the time.''

'Difficult Place To Work'

But that sense of responsibility can also create a tremendous burden, Ms. Maxwell adds.

"This is a difficult place to work,'' she says. "It's very wearing. You're with the same kids all day; they know which buttons to push.''

"I think the benefits far outweigh the disadvantages,'' Ms. Maxwell continues, "but these things come into play.''

Steve Ondrof, who teaches older boys whose offenses are generally more serious, also notes that the security in the facility is a double-edged sword. Although "the school wing is a haven,'' he says, the restrictions can be limiting for teachers.

Teachers can never take their students outside the detention center, a moderate-security facility, he points out. And materials used for drawing, measuring, or cutting, which could be used as weapons, are banished from the classroom.

To discipline the children, teachers use a point system, which "sanctions'' children for using profanity or committing other classroom infractions, Mr. Ondrof says.

But the rewards for showing initiative in the school can be great, Ms. Zutter says.

"We had gotten into the habit of passing notes to judges about kids' academic performance,'' she explains. "This has now actually become obligatory.''

"The feeling the judges have is, if they can't be successful here, they probably can't be successful in a less structured environment, either,'' she adds.

'A Safe Deterrent'

In fact, more than 10 percent of the students eventually return to the detention center.

Though teachers work with kids on anger and conflict management, and show them how to organize and articulate their thoughts, for some the center seems to be "addictive.''

"We don't want this to be home,'' she says. "This is supposed to be a deterrent, but a safe deterrent.''

The center's cells, narrow blocks with a gray mattress and toilet, house about 1,000 young people a year. And the center will probably be expanded soon, Ms. Zutter says.

One of the students in Mr. Spar's class, a 16-year-old who has been in detention 10 times, says he hopes to go south to be with his father when he is released. But other boys in this class, most of them in middle school, shrug when asked what they would do if they are not transferred to another facility.

"These kids are in a constant state of stress, even if they don't realize it,'' Mr. Spar says. And many "don't have any bonds or relationships.''

"Getting them to communicate with an adult in a responsible way is the battle,'' he adds.

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