Not Your Average Schoolhouse: Inside Ga.’s Largest Detention Center

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Students considered a high security risk must wear bright orange jumpsuits.

In many ways it looks like a typical school building – the non-descript tan brick exterior, the packed parking lot and the flagpole with the American and Georgia state flags thrashing in the wind out front. The majestic arched fence topped by a mass of coiled barbed wire is the first tipoff.  And the fact that you have to step inside and a guard must view you on a surveillance camera, before buzzing you into the fenced-in walkway confirms it. Clearly this isn’t your average schoolhouse.

Photography by Clay Duda.

Welcome to the Metro Atlanta Regional Youth Detention Center, a 200-bed facility (maximum capacity of 150 boys and 50 girls) where Georgia youth who are in trouble with the law live and learn while they navigate the criminal justice system.  On this day, the population is down, 132 students are onsite. Depending on their charges, they may stay here, or at one of Georgia’s other 22 RYDCs or six Youth Development Centers (YDCs), for as few as a couple of days to a maximum of five years. Most kids never remain at "Metro," as it’s called by those in Department of Juvenile Justice circles, past two years.  VIEW OUR METRO PHOTO GALLERY HERE

Tucked along a winding tree-lined road in DeKalb County, this alternative to alternative school, if you will, is the largest facility of its kind in the state. According to literature provided by the staff, it is designed to “help youth modify their behavior and help them become productive, law abiding citizens.”  Charged and convicted children receive counseling, medical services and recreation here. Clothing, meals, medical and emergency dental care are also part of the basic offerings.

“In many ways we’re like surrogate parents to them,” says Regional Principal Rufus Johnson, of DJJ facilities. “We feed them, we clothe them, we provide a curfew, we educate them, we provide medical care– just like a parent would do or at least should do.”

Many people are familiar with the rehabilitative focus of juvenile detention centers, but the fact that all of the state’s facilities have accredited schools within their walls is a lesser-known fact. As one of 28 schools in Georgia’s Department of Juvenile Justice School District, Metro primarily serves students in grades 5-12.

“Our kids may be in a difficult situation, but they can learn and they do achieve,” contends DJJ Schools Associate Superintendent Jack Catrett. “This (school system) is about educating these kids.”

Metro’s Director Debbie Alexander agrees.

“The best part is seeing some of them turn their lives around,” says Alexander, who oversees all operations. “That’s my joy, seeing them make changes in their lives and getting a quality education. We try to help them become more productive when they get out.”

We aren’t allowed to speak to any students during our visit, but the staff is happy to share their perspective and the details of their work with us.

“A lot of students actually function better here, because it’s a smaller and more structured environment than they’re accustomed to,” insists Metro’s Education Supervisor Chalita Germany. “Here education is not an option. Here they have to come to school.”

Students work independently on Curriculum Activity Packets (CAPs). Teachers answer questions and guide.

Its billing as a bona fide school is evident the moment we get buzzed through the blue door with the words “Education Department” emblazoned on the front. Throughout the maze of hallways there are typical school features – glossy floors, bulletin boards, desks and instructors.  Much like the facility’s exterior though, the differences from traditional schools are apparent. Juvenile Correctional Officers, or JCOs, roam about and from a control room atop a raised platform, security officers control all gates and oversee all inside movement. “It’s like the air traffic control room for the facility,” quips Associate Security Director Delbert Montgomery.

Instead of the typical polo shirt and slacks public school uniform, students here don navy blue jumpsuits  (neon orange if they’re considered a high security risk) with the words “METRO RYDC” plastered across the back in bold white letters. The students are required to line up with both hands behind their backs any time they’re walking from one area to another.

“A lot of people ask me if I’m scared to work here and I say 'no',” explains Muriel “MeMe” Horne, who splits Regional Principal responsibilities for Metro with her duties as the system’s Director of Special Education. “At a public school there are two thousand students. Here the max is 200 and there are officers everywhere. If something happens, all you have to do is step out of the way. At a public school they might have a weapon. Here we know that they don’t!”

In The Classroom

The day-to-day at DJJ schools are pretty routine. Instruction lasts from 8 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. five days a week. There are three 55-minute classes each in the morning and three in the afternoon. Because students are typically grouped together by age range instead of grades, they work independently on Curriculum Activity Packets (CAPs), which cover common school subjects. Teachers are on hand to answer questions, offer guidance and to motivate.

“We have an extra challenge here because we’re trying to get something out of these children that in many cases has never been gotten out them before,” says math teacher Robert Black. “It is not uncommon for us to get 16 and 17 year-olds who don’t have any high school credits at all. We try to encourage them to at least get their GED. What happens depends a lot on their mindset. A lot of them have a lot on their minds. They’re not focused because they’re worried about their court case.”

DJJ Commissioner Garland Hunt says that many kids end up in the DJJ school system because they have been kicked out of alternative schools. “When they come to us, things change,” he says. “A lot of their parents tell us that their children actually do better with us than in the public school where they came from."

Students considered a high security risk must wear bright orange jumpsuits.

Administrator Catrett echoes a similar sentiment.

“It may be unfortunate circumstances that bring them to us, but many students say they like that that they get to work at their own pace,” he says. “The pressure’s not on to compete with the other students. At our schools they only move forward when they feel comfortable with the material.”

Distinct Differences

There are other differences that make DJJ schools unique. For example, at Metro disruptive students are moved to the Alternative Education Placement Model (AEPM) room, the DJJ schools version of in-school suspension. The JCOs oversee the students who are relegated to the secluded enclave that features a dry-erase board and individual workstations. Photos of President Obama, Fulton County Superior Court Judge Marvin Arrington and famed opera singer Marion Anderson cover a far wall. Although AEPM room time comes with a long list of rules including, “sit in my desk appropriately,” “keep all four chair legs on the floor,” and “face forward at all times.”  Metro’s Principal Bobby Jordan insists that it’s not punitive. The purpose is to give a student a chance to calm down and reflect on his or her behavior before rejoining the rest of the class.

“The problem here is that most of the kids who come to us are already behind,” says Jordan, a more than 20-year veteran of the DeKalb County school system. “The beauty of our curriculum is that we operate year round so that they get the opportunity to catch up. The flip side is that many of them have not been in school for so long that they can’t read or write. We provide after-school tutoring to our students as well.”

Principal Bobby Jordan is a DeKalb County Schools veteran.

Through the Behavior Management System, all students have the opportunity to earn points that can be accumulated for perks such as snacks, an extended curfew, video game time and movie nights. “They’re rewarded for not getting into trouble,” adds Jordan.

The reward system is quite effective, Horne says.

"They can earn up to five credits per class period and they can also be fined,” she says. “A lot of them will say that they don’t care about the points, but they do.”

Plenty of strong messages line the Metro center’s walls, an obvious attempt to keep students thinking at all times.  “What’s wrong with saying please, thank you and you’re welcome,” “anger is just one letter short of danger” and “attitude is a little thing that makes a BIG difference” are just a few of the signs posted around. An especially humorous one outside the medical department reads: “No BET (Black Entertainment Television), music videos or talk shows,” in reference to the television viewing rules in the waiting area.

The Best of Times, The Worst of Times

This year has been bittersweet for Metro and DJJ’s school district overall. The bitter is Governor Sonny Perdue’s recent order that DJJ and other state agencies amend their 2011 budget proposals with plans for four, six and eight percent cuts. Those cuts are on the heels of the $76 million dollars in cuts implemented in Fiscal Year 2010. The governor says the latest cuts are necessary due to massive state budget shortfalls.  Perdue is expected to make some budget recommendations before leaving office in December, but whoever wins this year’s gubernatorial race will make the final decision.

The cuts will inevitably pose some problems for DJJ, including the potential closure of four detention centers (that would result in the loss of more than 250 beds), fewer community programs and services for detained juveniles and a class size increase from 15 to 20. In light of the cuts, later this month two Metro teachers will receive pink slips. A third vacant position won’t be filled.

“I’m not going to say that I’m not concerned about it from an operational standpoint,” says Alexander. “But we’re going to operate at the highest level, despite the task before us. Whenever there are budget cuts, you just have to get more creative and roll with the flow.”

Principal Jordan says times are tough all around, but Metro will adjust. “These cuts should not interrupt the delivery of services to these kids,” he says. “We won’t allow that to happen.”

Students must walk with their hands behind their backs.

The sweet is that as of last week, DJJ’s school district has officially been recommended for accreditation from both the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) and the Correctional Education Association. The prestigious victory is no small feat for a school district that until 2003, had been under U.S. Department of Justice supervision (the whole agency was released in 2009). The recommendations announced a week ago today followed an intensive four-day visit from representatives from both accrediting bodies.

“This was a major milestone and we are very proud of that accomplishment,” says Amy Howell, deputy commissioner of the division of programs and support services.. “Our staff is committed and dedicated to seeing our children succeed. The accreditation was a nice reinforcement of what we’re trying to accomplish in this system.”

Critics of the governor’s budget cut mandates say they’re concerned that facility closings could eventually cause the same overcrowding problems that contributed to the DOJ monitoring. Commissioner Hunt emphatically insists says it won’t.

The SACS endorsement did come with some suggestions for DJJ that are also echoed by CEA, including implementing an upgraded technology instruction plan for students and incorporating more critical thinking into the CAPS system. Johnson says both initiatives have been underway for some time.

Getting Physical

It’s physical education class time in the cavernous Metro gymnasium. Today the sound of trash talking common on most any basketball court is competing with the continuous thud of bouncing balls. A lone white boy observes from the sidelines, while a group of black boys dressed in white T-shirts and navy blue shorts run and shoot up and down the court. The scene is indicative of the center’s racial representation (and that of correctional facilities across the country for that matter). A large percentage of Metro students are male and black. Facility leaders say they always aim to influence students to never to return.

“We try to do the best we can with them and show them another way, but sometimes you do see kids coming back eight or nine times for the same offenses,” says Johnson. “It’s really heartbreaking when that happens. It’s the success stories that really keep you going.”

The RYDC school day also includes physical education.

Recreation Supervisor Sam Brown says a typical P.E. class begins with roll call, a moment of silence and a quick assessment of any issues or concerns.

“We have to find out if anyone is injured or if any of the girls are pregnant,” he says.  “We do a period of exercises that include everything from flag football and volleyball to kick baseball and soccer. We also try to teach them sportsmanship and team building.”

Beyond The Books

The staff and administration at Metro agree that many of the students end up there due to a lack of structure and support at home. In light of that, they try to supplement formal education with opportunities for students to also learn important life skills. Such efforts are Vivian “Mama” Hughes’ forte. Along with her duties as unit manager, she regularly rounds up the kids for creative lessons that she hopes will stick with them for life.

During one favorite exercise she sets up a makeshift restaurant scene and has the boys and girls take turns role-playing like they’re out on a date. “I even get a real restaurant menu and have them practice ordering,” she says. “Nobody’s ever really sat down with them and explained some of these basic life skills. They’ve never been taught how to conduct themselves in different situations.” Another favorite activity encourages the kids to discuss their feelings with the help of a ball that has an array of emotions printed all over it.

The Metro RYDC is where kids in trouble with the law live and learn while they navigate the juvenile justice system.

“I love these kids to death and I stay on them,” says Hughes. “There needs to be more treatment and prevention programs to help them even after they get out. A lot of times we’re just sending them back out to the environment that brought them here in the first place.”

Hughes is not alone in her beliefs. Adds teacher Black: “Sometimes we just talk about life with them,” he says. “A lot of them have never had anyone do that with them before.”

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Got a juvenile justice story idea? Contact JJIE.org staff writer Chandra R. Thomas at cthom141@kennesaw.edu. Thomas, a former Rosalynn Carter Mental Health Journalism Fellow and Kiplinger Public Affairs Journalism Fellow, is an award-winning multimedia journalist who has worked for Fox 5 News in Atlanta and Atlanta, People and Essence magazines.

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