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Many districts are setting up so-called alternative schools for violent and disruptive students. Critics call them dumping grounds; defenders call them an idea whose time has come.

"Let me see that shirt," says the principal of Washington Opportunity School.

It's 7:15 a.m. in North Las Vegas, far from the Strip, and Matthew Lusk is doing what he does every weekday morning: inspecting students as they get off their buses and enter the campus through a large, chain-link metal gate.

The school, part of the Clark County School District, serves about 160 students in grades 6, 7, and 8. It is in a low-income neighborhood just north of downtown Las Vegas. The students have been assigned to Washington because they have gotten into trouble at their regular schools. Some have assaulted their teachers. Others have been caught with drugs or weapons. They are the bad apples, the chronically disruptive students, and they are here to get their act together. If they do, they will be allowed to return to their home schools.

The approach is not new. In fact, Washington has been around for about 25 years. But an increasing number of school districts have concluded that the best way to deal with violent and disruptive students is to pull them out of the general school population and place them in separate educational facilities. Critics call these alternative schools dumping grounds; defenders call them an idea whose time has come.

"Come here," Lusk barks to a Hispanic boy with close-cropped hair. "Let me see that shirt."

The boy ambles over to where Lusk, holding a Motorola walkie-talkie and a large cup of 7-11 coffee, is standing. The principal checks the label on the boy's oversized, black-and-white pinstripe work shirt and quickly renders his judgment. "Go to the office," he tells the boy, who doesn't utter a word as he disappears around the corner of a portable classroom. Lusk gets on the walkie-talkie and says to his secretary, "Marie, I'm sending a young man to the office with a Ben Davis shirt."

"Ten four," comes the reply.

The brand, Lusk explains, is popular among gang members. Because Ben Davis clothes are loose-fitting, some kids wear them to hide things, he says. "So we've just outlawed them here."

Lusk, 48, is a large man who dresses casually but with style. Today, he's wearing brown tassel loafers, olive-colored khaki pants, a green dress shirt with gold tie, and a black bomber jacket. Dozens of keys dangle from a metal ring attached to his trousers. On his wrist is a large Rolex watch with a silver and gold band. A pair of aviator-style sunglasses provides the finishing touch.

One by one, more boys and girls file by the principal, who is accompanied by two of his teachers. "Tuck that shirt in," he tells one boy. "Let me see that belt," he commands another.

Lusk knows that his students find him intimidating. "My voice has a lot to do with it," he says. "It's very projective." Then again, maybe it's that Lusk, who played high school football until he broke his neck in a diving accident, weighs 250 pounds and stands six feet tall. But he doesn't like to throw his weight around. "It would be very easy to do that, but they get enough of that at home and on the streets. That's dumb stuff."

A bus driver walks over to Lusk and hands him a discipline report. It seems that one of his passengers, a boy wearing an Orlando Magic jacket, was lighting matches on the way to school. Lusk reads the report carefully and then frisks the student until he finds a pack of Marlboros and a box of matches. Throwing the offending objects to the ground, Lusk asks, "What are you doing with these?" The boy, a 7th grader, mumbles something.

Lusk puts his walkie-talkie to his mouth and says, "One to base. Josh to the office. He had cigarettes and matches on him. Could you start the paperwork and call the parents?"

"Ten four."

Lusk takes a sip of coffee and shakes his head. "You see some goofy stuff," he says.

Three years ago, Albert Shanker, the longtime president of the American Federation of Teachers, decided it was time to wage war on violent and chronically disruptive students. Shanker, who died in 1997, launched a campaign called "Lessons for Life: Responsibility, Respect, Results," which advocated a get-tough approach to student discipline. In his New York Times column, "Where We Stand," Shanker wrote: "What kind of teaching and learning can take place in classrooms where teachers have to spend their time dealing with students who are violent or who constantly disrupt the class by shouting obscenities and threatening other students?"

Shanker called for school districts to adopt strict discipline codes and to establish alternative educational placements for persistent troublemakers. "This would allow the vast majority of students to learn and the few disruptive students to get special help," he argued.

When Albert Shanker endorsed alternative schools for disruptive students, one prominent critic accused him of launching 'a national campaign of exclusion.'

Teachers, who have long placed discipline at the top of their list of concerns, cheered Shanker's tough talk. But not everyone applauded. When the union leader gave a speech to members of the Council of the Great City Schools, which represents 50 of the nation's largest urban districts, Michael Casserly, the organization's executive director, fired off a letter to Shanker denouncing the "philosophical underpinnings" of the speech. He accused Shanker of failing to address how to serve students who have been placed in alternative settings and of leaving "the clear impression that your interests extend only to children who do not present teachers any problems." He called "Lessons for Life" a "national campaign of exclusion" that has "the classic ring of 'blaming the victim.'"

Shanker, in typical fashion, went on the offensive. He even devoted an entire "Where We Stand" column to the matter. Casserly and other critics, he wrote, were distorting his views. "They say that disruptive behavior is something that doesn't 'occur often'—even though parents see it, together with its magnification through bullying and peer pressure, as problem number one," the union leader wrote. "They present themselves as good guys who want to educate all the children and accuse us of being bad guys who only want to educate the easy ones. But are they educating all the children? In most classes with a disruptive child, none of the children are being educated."

A growing number of districts have decided that alternative placements, despite their high cost, offer the best solution for dealing with violent and disruptive students. In fact, some state legislatures now mandate such schools. In Virginia, for example, local school districts are required to provide "alternative education for certain students," namely those who have committed offenses relating to weapons, alcohol, or drugs and have been suspended or expelled for a semester. Since 1993, every school district in Mississippi has been required to establish an alternative school for violent and disruptive students.

But educators continue to debate their effectiveness. Jerry Mintz, director of the Alternative Education Resource Organization in Roslyn, New York, calls them "soft jails." "Let's face it," he says. "They exist just to get these kids out of the regular schools. They're like bandaids—they treat the symptoms, but they don't deal with the underlying problem." Indeed, Mintz, a proponent of the learner-centered alternative schools developed in the 1970s, believes this new model "has pretty much wrecked the definition of 'alternative school.'" Such schools, he says, were designed for alienated and at-risk students, not necessarily for troublemakers. They offer smaller classes, a more-relaxed atmosphere, and self-directed learning. They are for students who want to be there, not for students who have been sent there.

In Clark County, which has one of the most extensive alternative education programs in the country, both models exist. There are four high schools exclusively for students at risk of dropping out. Another program, Sunset High School, offers afternoon and evening classes. "Basically, we offer a full continuum of services for nontraditional students," says Donald McHenry, superintendent of the district's alternative education division.

'We offer a full continuum of services for nontraditional students.'

Donald McHenry,
of Clark County's
alternative education division.

And that includes the opportunity schools. Washington first opened in the early 1970s, when the Clark County School District served only about 50,000 students. Since then, two more such schools—Jefferson and Biltmore—have opened, and the district's enrollment has mushroomed to 190,000, making it the 10th-largest and fastest-growing school system in the United States. The district's three opportunity schools now serve about 1,000 students in grades 6-12 during a given school year. They are considered model programs, and educators from across the country have traveled to Las Vegas to look at them.

The schools, McHenry says, have always targeted students with habitual discipline problems. But they are not, he insists, dumping grounds. "This is not a way for schools to simply get rid of kids they are having problems with," he explains. "They know that one of the conditions is that those students will return to their home schools." Nonetheless, the home school gets a break—even if it's only for 15 days, the minimum length of stay for opportunity-school students. In fact, most stay longer, usually seven to nine weeks, and some—the worst offenders—are assigned to the schools on a long-term basis.

The students have committed various offenses, including fighting, insubordination, possession of drugs, vandalism, sexual assault, battery, and the like. Some have caused major disruptions at their home schools. Others have been caught on campus with knives or razor blades. But most have been banished for "continual disregard of rules."

"A lot of these kids are pains in the rear," Lusk says. "They're chronic."

A few were expelled from their home schools for more serious crimes, such as arson or gun possession. They've already spent time at the district's continuation school, the first stop for expelled students, and now they must successfully complete at least one quarter at the opportunity school before they can return to a regular school.

The opportunity schools aren't exactly boot camps, but they're no picnic either. "It's a very structured, controlled environment," McHenry says. Classes are 37 minutes long, with one-minute passing periods. There's a 10-minute "nutrition" break late in the morning, but students must sit at assigned tables in an outdoor courtyard, and they are not allowed to talk to friends at other tables. School ends at 11:40 a.m., and then the kids go home for the day. The school day is somewhat shorter than at the regular schools, in part because of the abbreviated passing periods and the lack of a lunch period.

"We take away all the extraneous things," Lusk says.

The students are under constant supervision. At Washington, a campus monitor patrols the grounds. At Jefferson, which is for 10th, 11th, and 12th graders, a full-time police officer maintains a highly visible presence, mostly as a deterrent. (He also inspects students every morning with a hand-held metal detector.) Rule-breaking is simply not tolerated. Shirts must be tucked in at all times. Baggy pants are forbidden. Hats and jewelry are not allowed. Belt buckles with cut-out monograms—popular among gang members—are confiscated. "Basically, it's like a prison," complains senior Matthew Davis, "because you have no rights."

The schools certainly look like prisons. All three are former elementary schools that have been supplemented with portable classrooms, strategically placed to form a central courtyard. Students are not allowed to leave campus, and they're given very little opportunity to socialize, except during the closely monitored nutrition break. The buildings have few windows, and each campus is surrounded by a tall chain-link fence. "That's as much to keep other kids out as it is to keep our kids in," Lusk says. A shiny new McDonald's sits directly across the street from Jefferson, but it's strictly off-limits. "I think they put it over there just to tease us," says Leah Rice, a 10th grader who was arrested for possession of methamphetamine at her home school. "I feel like I'm in jail here, like I'm locked up."

"They don't like it here," admits Thurban Warrick, Jefferson's principal. "That's why they want to get out."

To get back to their home schools, students must stay out of trouble, improve their grades, and attend classes regularly. They also must keep away from their old schools. At the end of each nine-week quarter, staff members meet to determine which students can return to their regular schools and which must stay for another quarter. "Most of the students tend to be pretty successful," McHenry says. "And most of them are returned to their home schools."

But some will be back. "The recidivism rate is higher than we would like," Lusk admits. "I would guess that we get about 30 to 35 percent of these kids back." Paul Burek, the counselor at Jefferson, puts a more positive spin on his school's similar statistics. "I think we've got about a 33 percent recidivism rate here at Jefferson," he says. "We'll see some of these kids again. But that means 67 percent have done well. They won't come back here."

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