Mississippi

Chronically absent: Is quality education possible in juvenile detention in Mississippi?

One Mississippi youth court judge says he wants to be bored – like the Maytag man

Jelin McChristian, 19, is pursuing his GED since leaving Jim Hill High School. He wants to be a therapist when he gets older.

Jelin “Jay” McChristian, 19, said he gets excited when he is around a lot of people. Not like nervous, just that he’s social, he says. He’s tall and serious and thoughtful, but quick to smile. He is a self-described extrovert.

McChristian went to school in the Jim Hill feeder pattern in Jackson Public Schools, like most all kids in Jackson’s Washington Addition neighborhood, where school is close enough to walk to. He liked school but said it bored him.

As a 17-year-old ninth grader, he was held back once in middle school and spent long periods out of school while staying in different behavioral institutions around the metro area. He says he could communicate but not empathize with his younger classmates. They weren’t on his level, he said.

Coursework didn’t challenge him. He had joined the band and learned to play the trombone, but he hardly ever got to play it anywhere.

“Too many discipline issues,” he told the Jackson Free Press during an interview at his house in the Washington Addition in June 2016.

So one day at school two years ago, McChristian, bored, found a box cutter in the hallway as he was changing classes; maintenance had left their supplies unattended. With his new gadget, he ambled down the hallway, leaving a trail of balloons popped with the box cutter in his wake. By the time he had made it to class, that teacher had already seen him and alerted the front office. He was hardly in the door, he said, when he learned the principal wanted to see him.

Related: Pipeline to Prison: How the juvenile justice system fails special education students

Three policemen, who were waiting for him in the principal’s office, arrested McChristian for possession of a weapon on school grounds. When asked for comment, Jackson Public Schools officials said that although they cannot publicly comment on or confirm a student’s discipline, the handbook considers box cutters weapons, and forbids students from having one in their personal possession on campus for non-instructional purposes.

McChristian said when he got to the office he thought momentarily about running, but knew it would be fruitless; popping balloons wasn’t a big deal to him, but possession of a weapon was the straw on the camel’s back already weighed down by his earlier arrests for possession of marijuana and auto burglary.

“I was trying to explain it to them, that I didn’t bring it to school, I’d found it, but they weren’t trying to hear none of that,” he said. “When we went outside, they had a whole bunch of squad cars in the parking lot. Like I’d killed somebody.”

McChristian says Jim Hill kicked him out. He spent 47 days at Henley-Young Juvenile Justice Center where, he says, he did not get a hearing for 21 days—before the consent decree placed on Henley-Young for alleged abuse against detainees.When he finally got out, it was summertime. He had missed a month and a half of regular classroom instruction, and it was already his second time through the 9th grade.

Detention almost always has a negative impact on the education of young people. A 2006 Justice Policy Institute report, “The Dangers of Detention: The Impact of Incarcerating Youth in Detention and Other Secure Facilities,” says 43 percent of incarcerated youth nationally receiving remedial education services in detention did not go back to school once they got out, and another 16 percent went back to school, but dropped out after five months.

The report also found that two-thirds to three-fourths of 9th graders who did return to school after incarceration withdraw within a year. Less than 15 percent of detained 9th graders finished high school.

And the future is grim for their adult lives; a 2016 BOTEC study on crime in Jackson and JPS says “those who have failed a grade, dropped out, or been chronically absent from school are more likely than others to become criminally active” and that “those involved in the juvenile-justice system are more likely to be criminally active as adults.”

Detention, like it was for McChristian, is a main contributor to chronic absenteeism in students. And when students miss school, they do worse there—marking a cycle of continuous involvement with crime.

But many years of work to improve juvenile-detention centers in Mississippi, in some cases as a result of lawsuits, may curb recidivism rates by increasing the quality of life in detention. Despite those efforts, however, Mississippi’s juvenile-detention centers might still be unable to give detained students what they need the most—a quality education.

In-school detention

The Rankin County Youth Detention Center sits down a stretch of country road in Pelahatchie, Miss. A curving drive welcomes visitors to the front of the building; from the entrance, you can see saplings neatly pressed into the lawn like toothpicks in appetizers.

Inside, the center’s administrative offices are modern and polished, but the stone floors leading to where they detain kids are an unfriendly gray, the blue-painted walls interrupted only by laminated posters reminding the children of the center’s expectations for behavior.

But then, Clifford, a big red dog adopted via the detention center’s dog foster program, springs up to be petted at the first sign of attention.

Judge Thomas H. Broome is the youth-court judge for Rankin County.

To the right of the computerized door allowing access to the classrooms and living spaces for the students, a sign adorned with a cute Easter duck reads “hello!” It’s just like any other school hallway except segregated by gender: a couple of girls watch a movie in their brightly decorated class loaded with textbooks and musical instruments. The boys do schoolwork in a noticeably more crowded classroom.

In a December 2014 “Dear Colleague” letter from the Departments of Justice and Education, then-Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and then-Attorney General Eric Holder wrote to state superintendents and attorney generals across the nation, asking them to continue their investment in correctional education. The letter acknowledged the inordinate numbers of incarcerated black, Latino and Native American youth, and the economic and social impacts of youth incarceration on society. It further explained that providing an education for detained young people is necessary to support communities and the kids’ future success. Or maybe preventing their detainment altogether.

“For youth who are confined in juvenile-justice facilities, providing high-quality correctional education that is comparable to offerings in traditional public schools is one of the most powerful-and cost-effective levers we have to ensure that youth are successful once released and are able to avoid future contact with the justice system,” the letter reads.

Related: Why do disparities by race and disability persist despite a sharp drop in school suspensions?

Rankin County Youth Court Judge Thomas Broome told the Jackson Free Press with some pain that before 2006, juvenile-detention centers in the state didn’t have to have school. With few organized efforts to educate detained children, they missed days or weeks of school at a time.

This was problematic to Broome, because kids get in trouble the most during the school year. “[K]ids have more eyes on them during the school year,” Broome said. “A lot of these kids who have challenging behaviors have difficulty in regular classroom settings.”

McChristian, who was also detained for a night in Rankin County before spending the bulk of his sentence at Henley-Young, says school in detention was easy.

“Basically, they hand you some worksheets and tell you to get to work, but mostly they just leave you alone,” McChristian said. “If you ask them for help, they’ll help you. Otherwise, they don’t really ‘teach’ unless they want to.”

Selina Merrell, education consultant in the Rankin County School District and for the county’s juvenile-detention center, says positive behavior intervention and support, or PBIS, starts with the right behavior from adults.

Selina Merrell, education consultant in the Rankin County School District and for the county’s juvenile-detention center, says positive behavior intervention and support, or PBIS, starts with the right behavior from adults.

In Mississippi, when a student enters juvenile detention, the center acquires that student’s educational file from the child’s school district. The juvenile-detention center does state Department of Education-established assessments that show whether or not a student is on track or behind with Mississippi’s benchmarks, and that determines their coursework for their stay.

If a student has an Individualized Education Program (a document outlining an education plan for students with special needs), like McChristian did, the center is supposed to have exceptional-education teachers to provide services for them as well. McChristian says he got special counseling at Jim Hill for ADHD, but did not get any special services at Henley-Young. JPS says it has two exceptional-education teachers assigned to the center, and that they do work with students’ IEPs.

Usually, boys and girls are taught separately, and because students in juvenile detention can be anywhere from 10 to 17 years old, different grade levels are represented in each classroom. Jackson Public Schools serves Henley-Young’s education complex, which in turn detains students from all over Hinds County.

The Rankin County School District serves that county’s detention center, which serves kids not only in Rankin County but also from other areas, as every county does not have its own place to keep incarcerated young people.

Selina Merrell, an education consultant who works with the Rankin County Youth Detention Center, says that facility sees success with students detained through its positive behavior interventions and supports system, which is known as PBIS.

PBIS focuses more on rewarding students for their successes rather than punishing them when they misbehave, with the goal of fostering a structured and compassionate classroom environment. School districts all over the state use the system. Experts say it can cut down on discipline problems when it is used with high fidelity.

“First we started with education component, but it really didn’t work, because the detention officers didn’t understand the process that the schools were using, and it made us really realize we needed to implement it facility-wide,” she said.

“Really what it was about was looking at their discipline systems and what data they were using to make decisions facility-wide in response to youth behavior.”

At the Rankin County Youth Detention Center, PBIS is a wraparound service. That means PBIS policies are in place at the regular public schools and even at the alternative school in the Rankin County School District, and students are taught what to expect, behavior-wise, at every education facility in that district. So for some students, who might end up in both juvenile detention and the alternative school, there is a set standard of behavior.

“If you go to a job, you want to know what your job is, and their job while they’re here is to improve their behavior,” Broome said.

Related: Mississippi leads south in black student suspensions

Broome says though PBIS works with kids, it really benefits the adults in places that implement the system, because, like in regular schools, it focuses on how they respond to children’s behavior.

Toni Kersh, bureau director for compulsory school attendance enforcement, alternative education and GED option for the Mississippi Department of Education, says the biggest challenge for facility-wide changes in the beginning was training guards, some of whom come from adult detention centers, to be sensitive to adolescent behavior.

“We forget how we grew up as teenagers,” she said. “The biggest shift for adults was going back and understanding children’s brain development. We’re dealing with children who are impulsive and making rash decisions. Sometimes you have to move the adults who are not willing to make those changes,” she said.

Kersh says she hopes that the Rankin County center’s discipline program can not only serve as a model site for the state, but also that the state can go on to become a model for the rest of the nation to emulate.

A 2016 BOTEC study on crime in the city of Jackson and JPS, however, reported that underfunding means schools have difficulty implementing PBIS with district-wide fidelity. Teachers have been critical of the system, with some, the report shows, expressing nostalgia for days of zero-tolerance policies, a highly punitive system that typically results in even more kids in the school-to-prison pipeline.

Henley-Young itself has seen controversy in the past due to allegations of abuse against detainees and providing inadequate care. Since the original onslaught of lawsuits, a state-mandated court monitor does annual reports assessing how effectively the facility upholds the standards of the consent decree.

Conditions have improved at Henley-Young, but the facility still fails to meet 26 of 71 compliance standards; Henley-Young is non-compliant with mental and psychiatric health-care standards and is just beginning compliance with creating structured educational, rehabilitative or recreational programming. The Juvenile Detention Licensing Act passed this session will create higher accountability standards for all juvenile-detention facilities in the state in order to ensure the health and safety of detained students.

Interrupted Lives

Cassio Batteast, director of M.A.N. U.P., a Jackson nonprofit serving young men and boys of color, volunteers often at Henley-Young, and previously worked at the Rankin County center. He says though the classroom model at detention centers is straightforward, the reality is that no place operates perfectly.

Because there are students in different grades in the same class at the same time, classrooms can be crowded, and students might not have the opportunity to get one-on-one time with the teacher. And despite assessments of students’ academic level when they enter detention, it is difficult for students to play catch-up if they were already behind in school in the first place—if they were even attending school at the time of arrest.

Batteast says discipline plays a role in whether or not detained students have a good day at school; if they’re ordered back to their cells for discipline problems, they miss yet another day of classroom instruction.

Dr. Calvin Lockett, director of special programs for Jackson Public Schools, says the school district serves the detention center on a voluntary basis, providing subject-area and exceptional-education teachers. Lockett says a large majority of students detained at Henley-Young at any given point are JPS students, but that state law mandates that detained students must receive educational services 12 months out of the year, meaning they get summer-school instruction as well.

Lockett calls the educational services offered at Henley-Young an intervention process. He says they make the most of the limited amount of time students spend there.

“We have a new program called Reengaging Students for Academic Progress. It’s a fast-track program in which we try to catch them up from the 9th grade and get them back to their cohort of students,” Lockett said. “We focus on them leaving. We know they have a strong possibility of dropping out of school once they leave there.”

Lockett says the detention center uses its transition coordinator and its principal in order to help facilitate a healthy transition back to students’ regular academic lives. Staff members meet with the student’s parents and home-school administrators and counselors in order to craft an individual plan that helps ease the student back to school. They work as close to that plan as possible, no matter how long the student was in detention, he added.

“You give a child hope when they get there and give them promise when they leave, (and) recidivism goes down,” he said.

“But if you just run them through it, put them back out and say ‘go for it’— of course they didn’t end up there by success. How do you expect them to leave there by success? You have to provide that avenue and that approach for them. I think that’s what we’re good at in JPS as a whole, inclusive of our detention center.”

McChristian says he believed he got a good education during his times at Henley-Young. He says every time he was there, he felt like he could pay attention, something he attributes to the small class sizes. He didn’t have the same distractions had in his regular classes before.

But, he said, it still wasn’t enough to prepare him to go back to Jim Hill.

Related: Dropouts try to find their way back to school

After a month and a half of juvenile detention, McChristian tried school one last time. He re-enrolled in Jim Hill that fall, with the promise from his then-principal Bobby Brown that if he could behave himself, he would advance him to the 11th grade—where he was supposed to be.

But McChristian says things didn’t work out; his first and only day of 11th grade, he says, the principal saw him with his shirt untucked and made good on his promise. McChristian found himself back in ninth grade for another day, but the thought of doing it for a third year in a row was too much.

Brown says he has no recollection of this set of events with McChristian; he says though he worked closely with McChristian in order to help him stay on the right track, no administrative power exists that would arbitrarily allow him to promote or demote a student to different grade levels.

McChristian dropped out. Now he is in the process of getting his GED.

“I never made it out of 9th grade,” McChristian said.

Like the Maytag Man

The U.S. Department of Education calls access to high-quality education during the confinement of young people a “vitally important and cost-effective strategy’ for making sure they become productive community members after incarceration. DOE reports that the average cost to confine juveniles is $88,000 a year, with 55 percent of young people rearrested within a year of release.

The Justice Policy Institute reported that in 2014 the state of Mississippi paid $153,300 a year on average to confine a juvenile.

Broome says that though juvenile-detention centers may intervene depending on the severity of the infraction, juvenile detention isn’t his first choice for students.

“Detention is the last option. It is not the first tool in the toolkit we use. We try to empower the family and the child to seek community-based solutions first, such as counseling or drug and alcohol assessment, or some type of community involvement either through parochial involvement, church, mentors, Big Brother or Big Sister,” he said.

McChristian says after he gets his GED, he wants to go to college to become a therapist. He would probably go to Mississippi State, he says. “I want to be a therapist because I want to be able to be there for people and show them that I know where they’re coming from,” he said.

Broome, a Mississippi State graduate with a rubber Bully the Bulldog mask under his court bench, says he hopes one day that there will be no need for his job.

“My goal is to be like the Maytag man,” Broome said. “Bored.”

Sierra Mannie is an education reporting fellow for the Jackson Free Press and The Hechinger Report.

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Sierra Mannie

Sierra Mannie is the education reporting fellow for the Hechinger Report and the Jackson Free Press and a 2016 graduate of the University of Mississippi… See Archive