Reform School

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Carrie Salas isn't thrilled to be back at Washington Opportunity School. On the other hand, her grades have improved since she was transferred.

Carrie Salas is a repeat offender. Now in 8th grade, she was a 6th grader when she was first sent to Washington. "I vandalized a teacher's car," she says matter-of-factly. "I messed up the paint job, let the air out of the tires." A tall 14-year-old wearing baggy black pants and a green flannel shirt, Carrie has an angry look on her face. Indeed, controlling her anger seems to be her biggest problem. Asked what she did to get sent back to Washington, she says, "Numerous things. First, I had a lighter and had it lit in the school cafeteria. And then my dean ticked me off, so I kind of threatened to kill her. I said, 'I'm going to kill you and everybody who works for you, too.' Kind of like, 'I'm going to get you and your little dog, too.'" She adds, "I'm a violent person when it comes right down to it. But until then, I'm just a strong, silent type. A loner."

Carrie isn't thrilled to be back at Washington. "If it ever burns down," she says, "you won't see me crying." On the other hand, her grades have improved since she was transferred, and she's now getting mostly A's and B's. "Probably because I'm away from my friends," she says, "so I don't have reason to goof around." She also credits a math teacher at her home school for getting her back on track academically just before she was sent to Washington. "She inspired me to start doing better. Because she told me I could do it. Before, I never tried because I didn't think I could." For a moment, the tough-girl posture disappears, and Carrie confesses that she can't wait to get back to her old school "to see my math teacher who inspired me."

When he became principal of Washington three years ago, Matthew Lusk printed a brief informational pamphlet for parents. In it, he wrote, "There is no singularly more influential aspect in the success of a child in school than that of a parent....This person need not be educated, need not be wealthy, and has no requirement for being successful. All they really need to be is there."

The brochure encourages parents to meet with Lusk "if you have any discontent with the school process." But many parents are afraid to come talk to him. Some were troublemakers themselves, and the principal's office is all-too-familiar territory. "They fear school," he says. So when parents do come see him, Lusk goes out of his way to make them feel welcome. "Sometimes, however, they've got a bone to pick with the district, and we're the target. And I won't tolerate that."

Today, a father has come to defend his son, Raymond, an 8th grader who was sent to Washington just seven days ago after being caught with a razor blade at his home school. Yesterday, he was sent home following an altercation with one of his teachers. "I like to see parents here," Lusk says, "because a lot of the kids don't have anyone who will come to their aid."

The principal ushers the father, a lanky man wearing a white Planet Hollywood T-shirt and University of Nevada-Las Vegas cap, into the office of counselor Karin Huffer, where his son is waiting, looking scared. The teacher, Rod Schaer, comes in and takes a seat. Lusk begins the meeting by saying that he supports his teachers and staff "100 percent."

"I understand that," the father says.

Lusk asks Schaer to explain what happened. "Yesterday in class," he says, "Raymond was sitting over by the door, and he wasn't really doing anything. I suspect I said, 'Let's get back on task, let's get back to work.' And I got a response from Ray. As far as I'm concerned, that's insubordination." Schaer told the boy to go to the office, and on his way out, he "mumbled some profanities."

"OK, your shot, Raymond," the father says.

The boy, dressed in black jeans, a blue T-shirt, and blue and white sneakers, admits that the first part is true. But he insists that he never swore. "That was someone else in the room," he says.

The father believes his son is telling the truth. "Ray has never uttered a profanity in his life," he says. "Not even so much as a damn, much less anything that someone would get irate about. And I will stand behind that 1,000 percent." His voice is trembling.

Huffer tactfully redirects the conversation. "OK, let's look at your grades," she says. "You came in here with almost all F's. Let's focus on that. I've never known Mr. Schaer to have poor hearing before. Whenever he's told me something, it's been pretty accurate. But I think our time is better spent on getting those F's out of there. What are you going to do?"

'This has been more than a rude awakening.'

The parent of a student
at Washington Opportunity School

Raymond agrees to "do whatever I have to do" to improve his grades. His father, apparently satisfied that he was given the opportunity to speak on behalf of his son, says, "I agree with you folks. He has to make his own decisions. He's getting far too old to let Dad make his decisions for him. I told him, 'I don't care if they make you so mad that you want to scream, Ray. Just bite your lip and do whatever they tell you without making a sound.'"

Lusk says he will reinstate the boy today. He reminds the father that students are required to stay at opportunity school for a minimum of 15 days. "Your son came here on the 16th day before the end of the quarter," he says. "So we have to be real careful if he wants to go back to his home school after next week. Because regardless of how he does here, the situation still is that he brought a razor blade to that school. So when he goes back, they're going to look at him as the kid with the razor blade. They're going to want to know, 'How many days was he there? Did he have any problems?'"

In other words, if Raymond doesn't improve his behavior and his grades, he'll have to stay at Washington for another quarter.

The father and son both get the message. "This has been more than a rude awakening," the father says.

After the father leaves, Lusk says, "I wanted him to see that I believe my staff members. Now, did his son really swear? I think he probably did. But am I going to convince the dad today that his son swore? No. That's a losing battle. The dad's adamant that the kid never swears. I have never met a child in my life who has never sworn. But that's OK. It doesn't make any difference. What I want to do is get the kid back in school and get him to be successful. My teacher's happy because he got a chance to state his case. I supported him, and my counselor supported him. But if the dad had started acting like a jerk, it would have been a totally different situation."

Lusk is standing on a ramp that leads to his school's special education building, where there are three full-time teachers and three full-time aides. (Washington has about 30 special ed students.) Outside, in the courtyard, a handful of kids sit quietly in detention, one per picnic table. Lusk points to a boy with his hands on his head and says, "See that kid? His mother lives in a homeless shelter down the street. He's overweight, and he's got a real high voice, and the kids tease him unmercifully. So he reacts by hitting them." He shakes his head. "What else could you land on an adolescent? He's poor, overweight, and he has a high voice. I mean, it's understandable that he's going to be upset."

Many, but not all, of the students who end up at the opportunity schools come from poor families. Most parents work—unemployment is virtually nonexistent in Las Vegas these days—but chances are they hold one of the city's many low-paying casino jobs. And since Vegas is a 24-hour town, it's not unusual for at least one parent to work the graveyard shift. As a result, children often go unsupervised for long periods of time.

Las Vegas is a boom town. It seems like every other person just came in from Los Angeles or San Bernardino or Palmdale. The Strip resembles one large construction site. Nearing completion is the 3,000-room Bellagio, a megaresort that will bring 5,000 new jobs.

"Yes," Lusk says, "it's going to have 500 good-paying jobs and 4,500 $35 shifts, where you sweep up cigarette butts, or you cook the meals, or you wait on tables. That's the reality of it.

'The poverty of some of these kids almost guarantees that they're going to have problems.'

Matthew Lusk principal,
Washington Opportunity School

"A lot of people are still foolish to come here and think they're going to make it big. So they sell the house, or they quit their job, and they've got a 'system,' or they're going to deal cards and make a million dollars. They don't know that card dealers don't make a million dollars. So they blow what they've got left, and they move on. It's a big transient town. And it really affects the schools.

"The poverty of some of these kids almost guarantees that they're going to have problems, unfortunately. You get a parent who works all week, he comes home, and by the time he takes everything out of his check to pay the bills and feed his family, all he's got is enough money for a 12-pack, and so he sits down and he drinks it on a Friday night and gets mad at himself and mad at the world and he starts beating on the wife and kids. And the kids learn that type of behavior. And they learn that the best way to get something is to scam people and to lie, steal, and hit. And that's how they get through life."

As he's talking, the mother of Josh, the boy who was caught this morning with cigarettes and matches, comes over. She's just picked up her son from the school office. At the moment, Josh looks a bit like a deer caught in headlights.

"Where'd he get those Marlboros?" Lusk asks the mother.

"I don't know," she says. "I smoke, but I don't smoke those."

"He can come back Monday morning," Lusk says.

"I happened to be home this morning when someone called from your office," she says. "Normally, I work until 11 o'clock in the morning. If something happens on a day when I'm at work, I want you to put Josh on the Las Vegas Strip bus and send him to my work."

"Not a problem," Lusk says. "Does he know where to get off?"

"I work at the Excalibur," she says.

"He's scheduled to get out of here next week," Lusk says. "If he comes back on Monday and keeps his nose clean, I'll pop him out of here. Do you understand?" He turns to the boy and adds, "You make me that deal, and I'll get you out of here. If you screw around one more time, I'll keep you for another nine weeks. Fair enough? Hopefully we won't have to have another conversation."

Josh nods his head. He seems anxious to get going. His mother says, "I hope not either." Then she asks her son to go sit at one of the picnic tables and wait for her to finish talking with the principal.

"I'm worried about what's going to happen when he gets back to his old school," she says.

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