Learning Disorder

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

Meissner mentions that one student actually took his college entrance exams at ADJC and is now pre-med at a university in San Diego.

That kid is literally one in a thousand. But the kids at the upper end of the academic spectrum aren't the problem, ADJC teachers say. It's the ones who come in reading at kindergarten level -- or below.

"If they don't come in with a natural ability, they're not going to get it," says one current ADJC teacher, adding that the department's idea of curriculum is to ask teachers to write down what they happen to be teaching.

Arlene Duston sat on ADJC's school board until 2000, when the Legislature eliminated it.
Dan Huff
Arlene Duston sat on ADJC's school board until 2000, when the Legislature eliminated it.
State Representative John Loredo says ADJC's schools should be reformed.
State Representative John Loredo says ADJC's schools should be reformed.

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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.

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Down the hall from McGehee is Ron Gonshak's classroom. Gonshak is the only special education teacher at Eagle Point, even though 60 of the school's 150 students have been identified with special needs. Gonshak only takes 20 of the special ed kids at a time, working with them on everything from reading to social skills. That's as many students as he can handle, since he only teaches mornings; the rest of his day is consumed by paperwork. (The special ed kids spend the rest of the time in regular classrooms.)

"I would love to have more special ed teachers, like every other school in the state," principal Stephen Myers says, brushing past the question of whether special ed staffing is adequate.

Gonshak is more direct. "We need a full-time special ed instructor," he says. "I'll be very honest with you. We need personnel here. . . . Most of our students need special help."

Pam Naifeh, who taught special ed at ADJC facilities including Eagle Point from February 1999 to April 2000 before leaving to teach at a Department of Corrections prison, says it was difficult to get the resources necessary to evaluate a kid for special education placement in the first place, let alone give him services once he was identified as needy. Naifeh has a long history as a special education teacher; she also spent time as a consultant monitoring state and federal special education funding programs for 16 school districts in Iowa.

In October, the Arizona Department of Education audited special education services at Adobe Mountain and Black Canyon schools, as well as at Encanto, ADJC's mental health unit. ADJC was generally in compliance with federal law, although the department fell behind when it came to getting parental approval and surrogate approval for kids' education programs. But the random sampling used in such audits is not completely reliable, says Jerri Katzerman, a staff attorney with the Arizona Center for Disability Law.

"We do not think it's a particularly effective method," Katzerman says of the random sampling method, adding that it examines too few student files. "We support a wholesale revamping of the monitoring process."

Many people would also like to see ADJC's physical setting revamped. Space in the classroom is not a luxury in this situation, says state Representative John Loredo.

"Dealing with those kids sometimes can be very dangerous for the educators. The issue of too many kids in a classroom is one thing when you're talking about their ability to learn. It's another thing when you're talking about the safety of the teachers," he says.

Pam Naifeh and other current and former Eagle Point teachers say the student/teacher ratio in many classrooms is often more like 25 to 1 than 14 to 1, on a daily basis.

One current Eagle Point teacher says he regularly teaches 25 kids at a time. Because the classes are often divided according to living quarters, rather than education level, a teacher can end up with a one-room schoolhouse from hell.

"With 25 juvenile delinquents ranging in ages from 12 to 18, with ability levels from first grade through high school, not to mention a couple of kids who probably have their GEDs, you have to have 25 individualized lessons," the teacher says, adding it's a "miracle" to get them all to walk in a line. "Imagine getting them to learn, which they don't want to do. . . . It's kindergarten all over."

There are successes, the teacher contends, but he'd like to see a vocational education program to help kids who won't pursue academics past high school. And he complains that there's no art taught at all, other than when he hangs posters on his walls and talks about them with the kids.

The teachers say they are forced to substitute-teach during their planning hours, with no additional compensation. Naifeh says she taught in a classroom in a building designed as a warehouse -- with horrible acoustics, a concrete floor and exposed pipes the kids could have burned themselves or each other on. No window, no phone, no bathroom. The rooms were so small the teachers joked about calling the fire marshal.

The current teachers describe a similar situation at Eagle Point and other schools.

At Adobe Mountain School in north Phoenix, teachers don't like working in portable buildings; they complain that the classrooms smell moldy, that there are animals living under them. Meissner says he's never heard of such complaints, although he does acknowledge that Catalina Mountain School has a problem with feral cats.

Such conditions are a "formula for disaster" in recruiting teachers, Loredo says. And that's compounded by salary inequities. Teachers say they were promised pay raises over the past several years that haven't panned out, and on top of that, they want their Prop. 301 raises like the rest of Arizona's teachers.

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