School does not end for students in juvenile detention. These teachers won’t allow it


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The half hour before class is one of the most important times of the day for teacher David Beatty.

He picks out current events to discuss with his high school students — on a recent Monday morning, it’s the war in Ukraine and the Grammy awards. He collects books and materials for the day and loads it all into a cart to drive from room to room.

But the morning’s most essential piece is on a bulletin board in the staff room: an intake list of the teens taken to the Lancaster County Youth Services Center this weekend.

On this Monday morning in early April, there are three new names: three children entering the juvenile detention center.

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“Every day in detention is different,” Beatty said. “There is no Groundhog Day here.”

Beatty, a Lincoln Public Schools teacher, is one of five teachers in the Pathfinder Education Program, based at the Lancaster County Youth Services Center, who is tasked with educating Nebraska’s youth while they are incarcerated and awaiting court decisions.

Each year, hundreds of teens move through Nebraska’s four juvenile detention centers in Douglas, Lancaster, Madison, and Sarpy counties.

In all four detention centers, teachers like Beatty train teens from 7th to 12th grade. Depending on their case, they stay anywhere from a few weeks to a few months.

The constantly changing group of children brings different levels of trauma and learning challenges into the classroom.

Beatty and teachers like him at the three other juvenile detention centers in Nebraska serve as one of the last lines of defense against that trauma and those learning disabilities. Against sometimes great expectations, they try to keep students learning.

“Many of our students have not had a successful school history for one reason or another,” said Randall Farmer, the program’s director of education. “I have to make them want to learn again and love to learn again, if that’s not part of who they already are.”

Between sips of coffee, Beatty reads each file for the new students who arrived over the weekend to familiarize themselves with their academic and social-emotional needs.

By 8 a.m., he collects his books, projector, and erasable board and drives them all to the first of four housing units he teaches.

There is the quarantine unit, where the incoming teens spend 10 days secluded in rooms to prevent the spread of COVID-19 before being placed in a housing unit. Beatty and his fellow teacher teach through closed glass doors.

There’s the high-security boys’ section, where the boys come out of their rooms to sit at plastic desks scattered around the common area.

There is the resource area, which is used by the other two lower security units. It is the part of the building that most resembles a classroom, complete with books, computers and posters on the walls.

Each unit is like a school building with one room. In a 50-minute class period, one student may learn math in seventh grade while another student is working on a senior research paper. One student would like to earn school credits, while another struggles to crack a book.

Nearly 9 out of 10 students enter juvenile detention with under-grade credits, said Dave Collins, director of education at the Douglas County Youth Center. Credit recovery – trying to get students back on track to graduate – is therefore an important point of attention for program teachers.

“A lot of times, some of these kids weren’t learning,” said librarian Susan Helming. “People just pass them on because they can. When you see a senior come in here with a first grade reading level, you wonder, how did you get through 12 years of public school? How is that possible?”

For many students, their time in juvenile detention could be the first time they get one-on-one attention from their teachers, she said. It is often the first time a teacher focuses specifically on that student’s learning challenges.

Helming became a teacher at the Douglas County Youth Center after serving as a security guard for six years in the same units where she now teaches.

When teens need more individual attention, or need time to concentrate and read in a quiet space, they are sent to her in the library.

Sometimes that time isn’t just for extra reading help. When students struggle to behave in class, one-on-one time with Helming in the library can help calm them down.

Some days, that time to cool off goes smoothly. Others she ends up with torn books.

Some kids are angry, Collins said. Some are challenging. Some are angry with the police. And others are almost silent.

“A lot of them look scared,” Collins said. “Never been before.”

Helming has to count her pencils at the beginning and end of the day to make sure they aren’t being used as weapons. Teachers carry walkie-talkies to communicate with each other and with the detainees. Children in rival gangs cannot be kept in the same unit, and the movement of students through the corridors must be timed to avoid encounters that could turn into fights.

But the classroom is a judgment-free zone, teachers said.

“I’ve been given a job by the State of Nebraska to teach them. And that’s what I’m going to do,” Helming said. “Some of the most respectful kids I’ve worked with have been here for murder.”

Both the Lancaster and Douglas County detention centers attract students from all over the world. Their families have fled violence from countries such as Sudan, Syria and El Salvador and have ended up in Nebraska. Or they’re locals — some have never set foot west of 72nd Street in Omaha, Helming said.

“If there’s one thing that connects them, it’s survival,” Helming said. “Some children are the parents of a family. They are the ones who take charge of their siblings. There is a lot to survive.”

Helming once had a college student who told her that his mother had said she wished she had had an abortion.

“Well, I’m glad you’re here,” she replied.

Another girl said she had to choose between staying home and being raped by her mother’s boyfriend, or running away and having the police called.

“She just looked at me and she said, ‘I just didn’t feel like being raped,’ Helming said.

Pathfinders staff care for the kids year after year, but they all fall into a measure of compassion fatigue, Farmer said. To see a teen leave detention seemingly on the right track and eager to learn — only to see them come back a year later — takes students and teachers alike.

“These kids are incredibly valuable,” Beatty said. “They become productive members of society. But they’ve had a speed bump in their early lives.”

After teaching five classes and checking work, Beatty and his fellow teachers leave for the day. But it’s not unheard of to walk into the parking lot and meet a former college student, now a grown adult with a spouse and children, Farmer said.

“They’ll say, ‘I wanted to bring them back here to show them where I decided to change my life, and I wanted to thank you all,'” Farmer said.

Originally published by The Flatwater Free Press and published here in association with the Solutions Journalism Exchange

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