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."

"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.

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Amy Silverman is a two-time winner of the Arizona Press Club’s Journalist of the Year award. Her work has appeared on the radio show This American Life and in the New York Times, the Washington Post, Lenny Letter, and Brain, Child. She’s the co-curator of the live reading series Bar Flies, and a commentator for KJZZ, the NPR affiliate in Phoenix. Silverman is the author of the book My Heart Can’t Even Believe It: A Story of Science, Love, and Down Syndrome (Woodbine House 2016). Follow her on Instagram (@amysilverman), Twitter (@amysilvermanaz), and at amy-silverman.com.