Supportive District, Vigilant Judge Make for Model

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New Castle, Ind.

In his afternoon woodworking class at the Henry County juvenile detention center here, Jeremy, a teenager charged with drug dealing, is using a table saw to carve a Tasmanian devil mask.

There's a cornucopia of potential weapons in this classroom for the 16-year-old and his fellow inmates to get their hands on: wooden planks, sanders, drill presses. But Jim Nipp, Jeremy's teacher, isn't worried.

"I know they're here for serious things, but I've never felt threatened," said Mr. Nipp, looking over his class of accused burglars, drug peddlers, and car thieves. "They appreciate that we're trying to help."

In this rural town about 50 miles east of Indianapolis, young people are getting a good education behind bars while awaiting trial.

Nearly half of the nation's detention and correctional facilities lack adequate education programs, according to a U.S. Department of Justice report.

Even in other parts of Indiana, detention centers and correctional institutions have had a difficult time drumming up public and school district support for high-quality education programs for incarcerated youths, according to David Nickerson, the detention inspector for the Indiana corrections department.

But with its supportive school system and a vigilant local judge, this small town lockup stands out as a model, juvenile-justice experts say.

A 'Good Investment'

Though the residents of the Henry County Youth Center stay only three to four weeks on average before they go to trial, they are kept on a tight schedule. When they arrive, the youths--mostly adolescent boys--are evaluated and assigned to classes based on their age, skill level, and interests. Each weekday, from 8:20 a.m. to 3:20 p.m., they take classes in core subjects, including math, English, science, history, and geography. After lunch, they can choose from such elective classes as problem-solving, architectural drafting, taxes, and citizenship.

In the summer, many students like to enroll in the horticulture class. On a recent afternoon, a few residents harvested the tomatoes, cucumbers, and purple peppers they'd planted in the center's fenced-in garden, while their teacher explained the intricacies of organic composting.

During the year, volunteers from the New Castle community visit the school periodically to advise the students--many of whom have dropped out of their regular public schools--on everything from interviewing for jobs to parenting skills. Earlier this year, two state supreme court judges were guests at a mock trial run by the civics class. The center's school is the only detention facility in Indiana that allows students to transfer credits to their regular schools when they leave.

"My philosophy is that these kids may have done some scary, vicious things, but they can change," said Carolyn H. Bunch, the executive director of the 50-bed facility, now in its third year. "Somebody has got to open the door for them."

A few years ago, Henry County Circuit Court Judge John L. Kellam set out to do just that. At the time, there was a shortage of juvenile detention facilities in the area.

Indiana, along with every other state, had been ordered by the Justice Department to remove minors awaiting trial in adult jails and place them in separate facilities. But few new jails were being built to house them. A champion of rehabilitative programming, Judge Kellam wanted to build a new facility that would do more than just house young people accused of crimes.

And in 1991, after months of regional meetings with community, education, and business leaders, Henry County officials issued a $5.9 million bond to build the facility.

Soon after, the local school district agreed to hire eight teachers, three full time and five part time, to work in the school even though many of the center's students came from different school districts.

"It's a good investment," said Raymond Pavey, the assistant superintendent of the 4,000-student New Castle schools. If you invest in educating these young people now, he argued, you'll save the price of incarcerating them down the line.

A Disciplined Approach

The center's employees enforce strict rules in and out of the classroom. In addition to following specific discipline rules in class, the youths must line up in single file, clasp their hands behind their backs, and be counted before heading to their next class. Their movements are monitored at all times by surveillance cameras; the doors to the school are electronically controlled by guards posted at a command center in the main hall.

If the students obey these procedures, they earn privileges. If they defy the rules, they could lose some of their liberties. The center takes dropout prevention seriously: If a juvenile refuses to go to class, he could be put in "lock down" in his cell. His bedding would be stripped and removed from the room, and he'd be required to stay in isolation for up to 24 hours.

When students fight, they are often put in restraints.

Ms. Bunch said those lessons in discipline are as important as any unit in geometry or American history. "We teach that when you play by the rules, good things are going to happen," she said. "This is an ideal place to begin that education."

Vol. 16, Issue 05

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