Learning Disorder
Janet Hamlin

Learning Disorder

When Kirsten turned 16, a counselor at Black Canyon -- the state's detention school for girls -- asked her to make a list of all the things that had happened in her life.

"3 or 4 years old -- Uncle molesting me."

"4 years old -- Mommy was murdered."


Slammed Series

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.

"9 years old -- House burning down, and sisters dying in fire."

Child Protective Services took her away when she was 11. She moved from shelter to shelter, then to detention facilities as her rap sheet for running away and other minor offenses grew. By 13, the court had committed her to Black Canyon.

Kirsten's list ends:

"Today is my 16th birthday, and again it's another one here in Black Canyon School."

Kirsten is remarkably articulate for a sixth-grade dropout. And if anyone needs a last chance at a good education -- widely considered a juvenile delinquent's best tool for climbing out of the spiral of crime and abuse and dysfunction -- it's a kid like her. But because kids like Kirsten are forced to get their schooling from the Arizona Department of Juvenile Corrections, they're not getting a good education.

On a typical day, ADJC is responsible for educating about 1,000 kids in its custody at five facilities around the state. Even though the schools are run by a state agency, they're not operated like public schools. They get little public money and they routinely violate state education law.

ADJC schools don't get to tap the state's highly publicized billion-dollar capital improvement fund, Students First. They lose millions of dollars each year because they don't get property tax revenues that other public schools get. And teachers aren't getting the same pay increases, under Proposition 301, as their counterparts at regular public schools -- or other raises that have been promised for the past five years.

As a result, ADJC's schools are woefully underfunded, its classrooms substandard, its teacher turnover rate almost 50 percent. At Eagle Point School in Buckeye, one special education teacher is responsible for 60 students. At Adobe Mountain School in Phoenix, teachers complain of moldy, smelly, cramped classrooms; in fact, ADJC's total classroom square footage is one-third the size it should be. ADJC doesn't offer its students music classes or speech therapy or foreign language instruction.

ADJC does not follow so many of the laws designed to provide oversight of our public education system that it's hard to tell what the real effect is on its students. Students are not given the AIMS or Stanford 9 tests required at other public schools. The outside auditing of special education services that does take place is considered inadequate by experts. And when oversight for English as a second language is put in place soon at Arizona's public schools, ADJC will not be included.

For much of the past decade, ADJC was under a federal court order that monitored everything from mechanical restraints to educational services. The order was lifted in 1998. The following year, the Arizona Legislature eliminated an advisory board that brought public input into the workings of the ADJC schools.

Today, ADJC operates its schools with relative autonomy, complaining that the law is unclear when any of its practices are challenged by critics.

ADJC officials are correct -- the law is unclear. The agency is governed by two sets of state laws -- one dictating education standards, the other outlining responsibilities of the Department of Juvenile Corrections. The statutes often contradict one another and have left ADJC largely unregulated. So far, no one has been willing to untangle the mess.

State Schools Superintendent Jaime Molera declined an interview for this story. His office referred inquiries regarding education law to the Attorney General's Office. First assistant AG Dennis Burke acknowledged his office isn't certain which provisions of the law apply to ADJC, and which do not.

Attorney Tim Hogan says the law is quite simple -- as simple as one line in the Arizona Constitution. Hogan, who runs the Arizona Center for Law in the Public Interest, points to a constitutional provision that requires the Legislature to pass laws that create and maintain "a general and uniform public school system."

Hogan is an expert in this provision. He used it to successfully sue the state in the Students First case, forcing the state to bring public school facilities up to minimum standards. And he's considering using it to fix inequities at ADJC.

"It looks to me like they're just violating every education law from top to bottom," Hogan says.

In preparing this piece, New Times interviewed current and former ADJC administrators and teachers, as well as local and national education experts. The current ADJC employees all requested that their names not be used, for fear they would be fired. Internal ADJC documents were reviewed, as well as material gathered under public records law from ADJC and the Arizona Department of Education.

The information all points in the same direction: Even where ADJC officials and teachers are well-intentioned, they are doomed because of a lack of funds.

Tim Hogan could sue. The federal government could come in again, and demand that Arizona fix its problems. Or the Arizona Legislature could reform the system and provide a better education for the state's most troubled 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.

"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.

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.

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.

To make matters worse, unlike regular public school teachers, who get long breaks for holidays and summers, ADJC teachers work year-round. When the students are on break, the teachers are still working. Crunch the numbers, and the hourly pay for an ADJC teacher falls far below that of another public school teacher.

The federal court order contained specific provisions designed to fill in those inequities for the year-round teacher. But today, the average public school teacher starts at $32,000, while an ADJC teacher comes in at $35,000 -- not much more compensation for three months' more work. And most ADJC teachers haven't gotten a raise in five years.

The teachers interviewed say they stay at ADJC because they love the kids. They're seldom afraid, even though the rooms are cramped and there's rarely a corrections officer present in the classroom, as required by ADJC policy.

At least these kids aren't stoned or drunk when they come to class, the teachers say. And they almost always show up.

But the kids don't always do as well as ADJC says they do, the teachers contend.

"We were kidding that you could come out of ADJC with an associate's degree," Naifeh says -- that's how easy it is to earn credits. The current teachers scoff at the statistics the department brags about, claiming that a kid improves 1.7 grades for every month he's institutionalized.

"We just cracked up. Actually, I think we were too mad to laugh," one of the current teachers says. "If that was the case, we'd have Einsteins leaving there."

Superintendent Kathleen Karol acknowledges that the TABE (Test of Adult Basic Education) that ADJC gives to kids once a month doesn't accurately reflect a student's progress. A student can cram for the TABE test and do well initially, she says, but a year later won't recall much of what he knew -- she calls it a "halo effect."

In March, the Arizona Department of Education wrote to ADJC, requiring that the department administer the AIMS and Stanford 9 tests to its students, or risk losing federal funding. To date, only a handful of the kids eligible have taken the AIMS test (the Department of Education refused to release the scores, stating privacy concerns because so few results are available), and none has taken the Stanford 9.

The Department of Education caught up with ADJC on the testing issue, but often problems go unnoticed because no one outside ADJC is watching. Arlene Duston sat on ADJC's school board until 2000, when the Legislature eliminated it. The board wasn't like a regular school board; it had no power at all, but it did allow for some public input into education at ADJC. And it gave Duston a platform from which to argue for the creation of a full-fledged school board.

Parents line up for their kids' graduation ceremonies at Adobe Mountain and ADJC's other schools, but they're seldom involved in the day-to-day workings of the schools the way other public school parents are, says Duston, a former member of the Deer Valley School Board.

"They're using public funds, taxpayers' money [to operate ADJC's schools], and I felt that it was important to have public representatives making decisions, not just a state employee making a decision," she says.

That's crucial, says Peter Leone, because often in a bureaucracy like ADJC, hiring more corrections officers or paying for more beds will take priority over buying new textbooks.

Exactly, says the current Eagle Point teacher, who maintains that the department puts everything over education.

"ADJC would not have a single teacher out there if they could figure out a way to get the state money without us. We are overpriced and we cost too much and they don't really need teachers, they just need youth corrections officers. So if there was any way they could find to get the education money without having certified teachers, they'd get rid of us."

The teachers were disheartened when Larry Mazin was replaced by interim superintendent Peggy Eggemeyer, a bureaucrat with no real experience in education. In the past several months, ADJC risked losing hundreds of thousands of dollars of grant money simply because Eggemeyer hadn't spent it.

But Kathleen Karol took over in October, got the grant money and began to win confidence with her strong background in secure-care education and promises to reform the system.

The first boost could come later this month, if the Legislature and governor approve a measure that would give ADJC teachers their Prop. 301 raises, and make it retroactive. David Mendoza, executive director for the state employees' union, says almost every ADJC teacher has rallied to fight for that pay increase, and he expects it will go through.

Karol promises that all eligible ADJC students will take the AIMS and Stanford 9 tests this coming spring. She's working to create school-based advisory boards that would take the place of the sunsetted ADJC school board. And she says she'll approach the Legislature to finally clarify the law with regard to ADJC education.

If she doesn't -- or if the answers Karol gets don't satisfy Tim Hogan -- Hogan might head to court. But he admits it would be a tough case. Hogan hasn't found any interested parents to serve as plaintiffs, and ADJC certainly hasn't asked for his help. That lack of cooperation would make gathering data for a lawsuit difficult.

State Representative John Loredo says his staff has been researching the issue of ADJC's education practices. "They've got to follow Title 15," Loredo says, referring to Arizona's education laws, and he intends to find out if they are. To that end, Loredo is going to ask the Arizona Attorney General's Office for a formal opinion as to which education laws apply to ADJC. He is also in the process of setting up a meeting with legislative staff, the Arizona Center for Disability Law and ADJC officials, "trying to figure out what the department is doing and what they're not, and what they're supposed to be doing. . . . Lining up the pieces and then kicking the doors in."

If efforts on the state level fail, the federal government could step back in. Peter Leone, the former court monitor, says he knows juvenile delinquents like Kirsten -- the sixth-grade dropout runaway with the horrible family life -- aren't necessarily Arizona's top priority. But they should be, he says, for a couple of reasons.

Improved literacy is one of the best ways to reduce a kid's chances of committing more crimes once she's out of ADJC's care.

"If you can read, if you can compete for a job, if you can hold a job down, crime and delinquent behavior are less attractive," Leone says.

And if that's not enough motivation, he adds, Arizonans should remember the millions of dollars in lawyers fees the state paid the last time it was sued over care for juvenile detainees. He's not an attorney, Leone admits, but he's certain that the state and federal constitutions guarantee these kids an equal education.

"Nowhere does it say you surrender your rights to an educational service by virtue of the fact that you're getting locked up."


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