Learning Disorder

The Arizona Department of Juvenile Corrections fails the state's worst kids

Representative John Loredo, a Phoenix Democrat who once worked at Adobe Mountain School as a counselor, says he's willing to try.

Loredo contends that current ADJC officials don't take education seriously. "I don't see them as seeing that this is a serious primary function of the institution."

But Loredo says a quality education is even more important for a kid like Kirsten than for the average Arizona public school kid.

Dan Huff
Students at Eagle Point School team up on algebra problems.
Dan Huff
Students at Eagle Point School team up on algebra problems.


For the past year, New Times has been investigating conditions within the Arizona Department of Juvenile Corrections -- a state agency that, despite its name, has a mandate to rehabilitate, rather than punish, troubled kids. Earlier stories revealed that the department no longer follows the practices put into place by a federal court order in 1993 that were designed to ensure that proper conditions are maintained for youth in detention. Among the newspaper"s findings:

• Children are routinely put in solitary confinement in specialized "separation units" for days or weeks, sometimes even months.

• Children are locked in their cells for days at a time.

• ADJC provides substandard mental health services.

• Staff members often use violence to control kids when it is not necessary.

• Staff members have sexual relations with kids.

• Corrections officers and teachers are put at risk because of staffing shortages and because department policies are not followed.

• In many cases, children detained in Arizona are treated more harshly than their adult counterparts in the state. Kids serve time for petty offenses, receive longer sentences and are denied luxuries -- like radios and televisions in their cells -- that adult prisoners take for granted.

Link to "Slammed" for more stories.

"Understand, you're talking about transitional students, and the issue is how much you can do for them in a short period of time. . . . This is an opportunity to get them back into education."

For many, the last opportunity.

Eight months ago, Larry Mazin left the Arizona Department of Corrections after three years as superintendent of schools. On his way out the door, Mazin dropped a small bomb in the form of a memo titled "Education in ADJC."

Mazin declined an interview, but New Times obtained a copy of the memo.

"For the past three years, I have brought to the attention of the central administration of the Arizona Department of Juvenile Corrections and other appropriate state officials the possibility that ADJC may be in violation of federal and state statutes, rules and regulations as well as the Arizona Constitution," Mazin wrote.

Mazin complained that ADJC's schools are not providing instruction in music or drama or visual arts. The schools do not have psychologists or guidance counselors. They don't offer physical therapy, occupational therapy or speech therapy. They do not teach foreign languages. ADJC's recreation instructors are not certified as physical education instructors.

He wrote that English as a second language services are not adequate, particularly given that ADJC has an overrepresentation of minorities.

All of these things, Mazin explained, are basic requirements for a public school in Arizona.

Mazin also argued that the total square footage allowed for classrooms at ADJC's schools should be three times what it is currently -- and that if ADJC followed state law, it might have a chance to receive funding from Students First to add buildings.

Services for special education students are being provided based on staffing needs, rather than student needs, Mazin concluded after an "in-depth assessment" of ADJC's special education programs demonstrated that the student-teacher ratio in special education far exceeded the normal ADJC ratio of 14 students per teacher. Mazin found that the ratio of special ed students to teachers ranged from 12 to 1 at Black Canyon School to 55 to 1 at Catalina Mountain School in Tucson. Further, he wrote, almost all special education students were receiving instruction in more than half of their classes from regular teachers, instead of special education teachers.

And, he pointed out, "As parents of youth with disabilities have become more knowledgeable concerning the rights of their children, the number of due process complaints related to the delivery of special education services has increased."

Mazin called on ADJC Director David Gaspar to act. Gaspar -- for lack of anyone else -- serves as county school superintendent and ADJC's governing board.

The departing schools chief also put in a call to Peter Leone. Leone, a professor at the University of Maryland and director of the National Center on Education, Disabilities and Juvenile Justice, was in charge of monitoring education during the federal court order that ran from 1993 to 1998.

He hasn't looked at Arizona's system in several years; Leone says Mazin called him as he was preparing to leave the superintendent's job and asked if he'd be willing to come out to Arizona and do an updated evaluation of ADJC's schools.

Leone agreed, but never heard back after that.

Like Mazin, Leone says ADJC should be offering education services equal to those given to other public school students in Arizona. And if the department doesn't, he adds, they're likely violating not only the Arizona Constitution but also the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which guarantees equal protection under the law.

ADJC spokesman Steve Meissner would not address the specifics in Mazin's memo, but didn't deny any of his contentions, except to say that Arizona's education law needs to be clarified.

Kathleen Karol, Larry Mazin's replacement, started her new job in October. Last week she said the soonest she'll be prepared to attempt to fix the law is 2003.

But meanwhile, there are kids to educate.

Over the past several years, ADJC has scraped together money to buy computers. Well-groomed, blue-jeaned boys in white sneakers sit before glowing screens in a narrow classroom on a recent rainy day at Eagle Point School in Buckeye. The computers aren't wired for the Internet. Students First cabled every classroom in the state, but not ADJC's classrooms, although spokesman Meissner is quick to point out that it doesn't matter because security concerns prohibit the kids from using the Web. Instead, the boys use specially designed learning programs for two to three hours a day.

In another classroom, teacher Rosie McGehee instructs five boys who have already earned their high school GEDs and are taking college-level courses. The boys quietly work algebra problems on a dry-erase board.

"We talk about goals and majors and minors and . . . the main thing is to help them be successful," McGehee says.

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