Young offenders are being put back into public schools, without educators knowing much about what they have done
“If you don’t have any juvenile facilities to put them in, then it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to understand where these kids are going back to. They’re going back to our schools.” Wayne Messina, director of security for the EBR school system
The only evidence that Quinton Adams had a criminal past was the electronic ankle bracelet he wore and the regular visits to Tara High School by a juvenile probation officer checking to see whether the 18-year-old was attending school.
What the probation officer knew, but school officials apparently didn’t, was that Adams was a convicted rapist.
On Feb. 16, Adams was arrested again. That afternoon, he allegedly raped a 14-year-old girl behind the stage curtain in the theater of the Baton Rouge public high school.
Adams is now awaiting trial as an adult on a count of forcible rape, which is punishable by five to 40 years in prison. The family of the 14-year-old girl has sued the school system.
Adams is just one of thousands of children involved in crimes who flow in and out of public schools in Baton Rouge without educators knowing much about what they have done or are accused of doing. It’s a phenomenon compounded by state budget cuts and incomplete reforms in Louisiana’s juvenile justice system.
Citing the litigation, school officials will say little about the Adams case and have rejected an Advocate public-records request seeking a copy of an internal investigation of the rape.
In official statements, the school system has maintained it knew almost nothing about Adams’ prior criminal record while he was at Tara.
Wayne Messina, director of security for the school system, would not talk about the Tara case, but said school leaders generally have a difficult time finding out details about crimes their students committed while under the age of 17.
Messina recalled that a principal at another school told him about trying to learn more about a new student who walked in with an electronic monitoring device like the one Adams had.
“That principal told me, ‘I attempted to find out — dead end, everywhere I went,’” Messina said.
Prosecutors say school leaders can know, at minimum, the charge against a student, as long as it’s a serious crime.
“The position of this office is that the public has a right to know of juveniles who are being prosecuted and convicted of violent crimes,” said Mark Dumaine, chief administrative officer for the East Baton Rouge Parish District Attorney’s Office. “If the public has that right, we would expect schools to exercise that right.”
Thousands of children in Baton Rouge are accused of crimes each year. Last year, about 360 of those cases involved violent crimes, Dumaine said.
Some of these children end up in neighborhood schools — no one appears to know how many. Nevertheless, some local school leaders suspect that changes in how Louisiana handles juvenile offenders are resulting in more of them back in their schools.
Since 2003, the juvenile justice system has shifted away from using juvenile jails in favor of less-restrictive, community-based programs.
Jetson Center for Youth near Baker, for instance, once held more than 500 juveniles. Now, the three remaining state-run juvenile prisons collectively house fewer than 400 juveniles, while Jetson has only about 60. The state houses another 400 juveniles in group homes and other less-restrictive settings. And another 3,000 juveniles statewide are under home supervision.
The shift is unfinished. New community centers, long planned, have yet to replace the old juvenile prisons. A new center in Columbia is slated to open in 2013, and the Office of Juvenile Justice, or OJJ, has a site for another one in Bunkie.
Meanwhile, state budget cuts have chipped away at the community programs that remain; OJJ’s latest $38.7 million budget for contracts with community service agencies is barely half what it was in 2008.
In a Feb. 3 letter to all OJJ employees, Deputy Secretary Mary Livers said the agency is still making headway despite the cuts.
“We have proven that whatever resources we are provided, we use wisely and strategically, with quality results,” Livers wrote. “I think it is safe to say that the size of our budget and the number of our staff do not define the effectiveness of our agency.”
Community-based alternative programs are feeling some of the brunt of state cuts.
One of the largest is Tampa, Fla.-based AMIKids, which operates schools in eight states and has nine facilities in Louisiana. Twice, state officials have tried to cancel the program, only to have it rescued both times by the Legislature.
“If you don’t have any juvenile facilities to put them in, then it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to understand where these kids are going back to,” Messina said. “They’re going back to our schools.”
Neither the state nor the city-parish Department of Juvenile Services, which oversees thousands of more juvenile offenders, report how many juvenile criminals return to public school. Officials say many older juvenile offenders opt to drop out and seek GEDs instead.
It’s also unclear how many juvenile criminals returning to school end up, like Adams, being arrested for new crimes.
Reports by the city-parish Department of Juvenile Services are the most-detailed data available. In 2011, the local agency handled 2,945 juvenile offenders arrested or cited in 4,305 offenses. The offenses ranged in severity from seven purse snatchings to 44 homicides and attempted homicides. The most common offense was theft — 15 percent of all violations. The data, however, do not identify in-school versus out-of-school juvenile crimes.
Public schools don’t keep close tabs on this, either.
Louisiana requires public schools to collect data on student infractions as well as disciplinary actions. Some, such as murder or rape, clearly are crimes, while other infractions, willful disobedience, for instance, are not. Student discipline data are almost never audited by the state and rely on the diligence of school employees entering the information.
Wall of secrecy
The juvenile justice system, by design, gives children chances to turn their lives around before they reach the age of 17, when they can be tried as adults. Dumaine said a key protection in ensuring children’s mistakes don’t follow them into adulthood is strict confidentiality rules.
“There is a wall of secrecy surrounding the juvenile court that originates philosophically with why we have a juvenile court in the first place,” Dumaine said.
It’s a wall with holes.
Dumaine said several current laws allow schools to learn more about the juvenile offenders. He pointed to a section of the Louisiana Children’s Code that makes open to the public juvenile court proceedings involving crimes of violence — state law lists 44 such crimes, from simple robbery to first-degree murder.
“They can call a judge. They can call us. They can call any law-enforcement agency,” Dumaine said.
They apparently can’t call a probation officer — the criminal-justice officials school administrators see the most.
“There is not a mechanism in place that will allow a probation officer to provide that kind of information,” said Gail Grover, director of the city-parish Department of Juvenile Services, whose office oversees about a dozen probation officers.
“Usually the school doesn’t ask,” said Demetrius Joubert, a city-parish probation officer. “I think they’ve learned it’s not worth asking for.”
Dumaine interprets the law differently. He said probation officers are technically law enforcement officers and would be protected if they disclosed the charges.
Weeks after the Tara High incident, school system leaders sat down with Grover, District Attorney Hillar Moore III and the parish’s two juvenile court judges to try to work out a better way of sharing information.
Domoine Rutledge, an attorney for the school system, said he expects they will reach an information-sharing agreement later this summer.
The goal, he said, is for educators to make case-by-case decisions about whether the neighborhood school is best or whether the student should go to an alternative setting.
“It’s not our goal to railroad any kids out of school,” Rutledge said. “We just want to make sure we protect the child as well as the larger student population.”
If Armond Brown is sitting in his office, it’s early in the morning, late in the day or on the weekend. During school hours, though, the longtime McKinley High principal is on patrol.
“I like to know what’s going on around me,” he said.
McKinley draws students from some tough neighborhoods, including Old South Baton Rouge between downtown and LSU and, since 2009, part of the Gardere area.
The city-parish Department of Juvenile Services has traced about 130 juvenile violations a year, the average in the past five years, to students at the large high school.
Brown said he gets little to no information about these juvenile cases because most of them happen off campus. What he doesn’t know haunts him.
He tries to compensate with vigilance. As he makes his rounds, Brown is alert for anything out of the ordinary. A child walking somewhere he shouldn’t. A face he doesn’t recognize. It’s hard for him to describe.
“It’s just a feeling I get,” Brown said.
He said he thinks he should be informed about students with serious juvenile criminal violations, to help him and his staff keep the other students safe as well as help them find ways to assist the offender. It’s information he said he would likely share just with his two assistant principals and the dean of students.
Grover, with the city-parish’s juvenile services agency, worries about stigmatizing children.
“It will be all over the campus,” she said.
“Quite frankly, it already is all over the campus,” said Dumaine, with the DA’s Office. “The kid himself has an (electronic) monitor. Somebody asks, ‘Where did you get that monitor?’ He’s going to say, ‘I got it up in juvenile court.’ ”
“What doesn’t happen is he doesn’t say is ‘I’ve been arrested for rape,’ ” Grover said.
In the absence of such information, Brown said, he talks to as many people as he can.
If a student transfers to McKinley High mid-year, Brown starts asking questions: Why did the student leave the previous school? What happened there?
If Brown gets word that street conflicts might spill over into the school, he calls knowledgeable people in the neighborhood. On the last two days of school, he walks the streets looking for signs of trouble.
Brown says he makes it a point to know every kid on campus, more than 1,300 of them, which is no easy task.
“I don’t know their names, but I’ll know something about them,” he said. “I’ll know their nicknames.”
An alternative approach
James Williams was 13 when his grandmother died from heart problems. After that, he said, “I always had a chip on my shoulder.” Fighting, he said, “was an outlet.”
Now 22, Williams is a semester away from graduating from Baton Rouge Community College. Next is Southern University, where he plans to study mechanical engineering.
Williams credits AMIKids. The alternative school develops turnaround plans, drawing from varied sources — including the child’s juvenile record, something traditional schools are not privy to. The idea is to root out what may be driving the bad behavior of kids like Williams.
“All these things were possible because I was given a second chance at Baton Rouge Marine,” Williams said, referring to the name of the institution in 2004, when he attended.
AMIKids — AMI originally stood for Associated Marine Industries — began in 1969 in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and has developed into a multifaceted program, with small class sizes and a variety of services.
Jamile Emile, executive director of Baton Rouge’s AMIKids location and an after-school coordinator there in 2004, said school staff strive to form lasting bonds with every kid who walks in.
A former teacher, Emile said traditional schools focus rightly on instruction but in so doing miss the warning signs that AMIKids makes it its mission to deal with.
He said traditional schools often target AMIKids graduates as troublemakers and he worries releasing more information to schools about juvenile offenders could make that worse.
This year the state Office of Juvenile Justice eliminated funding for day programs, where kids go to their homes each night; eight of AMIKids’s nine schools are such day programs. Deputy Secretary Mary Livers earlier this year, in a letter to AMIKids, explained that OJJ is “emphasizing community-based programs that keep youth in their home and home schools.” AMIKids schools are meant to be a bridge to help kids successfully re-enter their home schools.
This year AMIKids’ state funding through the Office of Juvenile Justice was cut in half. This coming year, only its Acadiana area residential program in Branch will get OJJ funding.
AMIKids found other clients but its enrollment still decreased from about 900 to 784. A new law will partially offset the OJJ money that was lost. AMIKids will receive the full state per-student allotment for public schools, and a requirement that more students attend alternative schools may bring more clients to AMIKids.
The program appears to be getting some results.
The Tallahassee-based Justice Research Center evaluated AMIKids and found that in 2009, Louisiana teenagers attending AMIKids improved on average two grade levels each in math, reading and writing. They made this improvement during stays that averaged between five and six months.
By contrast, after an entire year, teenagers sent to state-run juvenile prisons barely improved academically in math, reading and language, a state commission reported in 2010.
Not all students succeed at AMIKids. In 2009, 15 percent failed to complete the program, and 15 percent were arrested for new juvenile crimes within a year of finishing.
‘There are people to help’
Chronic fighting propelled James Williams into the juvenile justice system.
He was expelled from Kenilworth Middle after a fight on the school bleachers; it ended when the other boy fell and broke his jaw. Williams went briefly to Valley Park Alternative High School, which was established for students in grades six to 12 who are expelled from the East Baton Rouge Parish system. He was soon expelled from there as well.
He was referred to AMIKids with, he said, a bad attitude. He didn’t count on Emile. Unlike other adults in Williams’ life, Emile wouldn’t let him keep his volatile feelings to himself and kept at it until the boy began to open up.
After seven months, Williams transferred to Crestworth Middle. By then two years behind his peers, he was placed in an acceleration program and ended up passing the LEAP test, he said.
Williams later graduated from Istrouma High, in the top 10 percent of his class, he said.
In going to AMIKids at just 14, Williams was young enough to catch up with school and start collecting high school credits.
Williams said most of his AMIKids classmates ended up getting a GED instead.
Williams’ life hasn’t been easy since. In early 2011, one of his younger brothers was shot and killed while buying candy at a woman’s house.
These days, Williams sees younger versions of himself on the street. He tries to tell them there’s another way.
“You don’t always have to prove yourself,” Williams said. “You don’t have to do bad things to get attention or prove anything. There are people to help.”