Thursday, October 6, 2016
UP CLOSE AND PERSONAL-WORKING IN A MAXIMUM SECURITY CLASSROOM
Most everyone supports the premise that teaching is one of noblest and most important professions. At the age of 21, I embarked on my chosen career path as a high school Spanish and English teacher in the small town of Brasher Falls in upstate NY. During this interval, I added a Master’s Degree and an administrative certificate to my resume. Years later on the opposite side of the country in Wenatchee, Washington, I found myself endowed with the dubious title of “correctional educator.” This change required an additional endorsement -- special education. For 20 years, I would practice the art of teaching at the Chelan County Juvenile Justice Center, a maximum-security facility.
It didn’t take me long to discover that this new direction came with its own set of specialized demands, challenges and mandates set forth by the Department of Corrections. My traditional classroom management style of the past would not be effective in this environment. It was like entering another world -- a subculture of society. I felt like I had become the Cinderella of the educational biosphere, “Cinderella do this, Cinderella do that.” People often asked me if I was an authentic teacher, and my fellow colleagues in the “real” schools did not show me the respect I deserved. At times, I felt professionally ostracized and devalued just like Cinderella.
Most teachers enter their building through the main entrance. Not me! Every morning I had to stand outside a secure metal-monitored door and push a buzzer. I would be asked to identify myself and required to hold up my county issued ID for the camera. After this routine, the door would stridently buzz and unlock. The beastly gate required all my upper body strength to tug it ajar. It would then magically slam shut behind me with a deafening and chilling clanking clamor. I had to repeat this procedure at two more doors before I was in the actual bowels of the edifice. A short hallway brought me to my first destination -- the control room or as it was fondly known: the command center. Inside this room were the switches to every door and camera in the building. Its strategic placement and elevated stature gave it a panoramic view of all zones. The darkened one-way glass contributed to its ominous appearance. I then pushed a buzzer and a metal drawer would slide out delivering my keys and the daily roster.
My keys did not give me access to my classroom. Once again, I had to push a buzzer and have the door opened for me. I was virtually locked in my room and needed to buzz to exit, too. The unlocking instruments were strictly for my desk, cupboards, closet, and the interior office area. Everything had to remain locked at all times. My room was crafted from ceiling to floor with bulletproof glass windows on two sides and drab institutional yellowish cinder blocks on the others. It was like working in a fishbowl-on display at all times. The room was outfitted with multiple cameras scrutinizing your every action. The space was also wired for sound meaning that someone heard every word uttered. Four bright red buttons tactically placed added a much-needed pop of color to this bland background. They were smartly embossed in bright white letters that said PANIC providing yet another possibly lifesaving resource if needed. Next order of the day was to retrieve my two-way radio from the inner office. I was required to have it on my person every minute that I was in juvenile -- another lifeline.
Mundane items that most teachers take for granted like pencils, paper, staples, paperclips, pens, etc. now had new monikers -- deadly weapons and instruments of destruction. Writing utensils were used in several stabbings of inmates and staff during my resident stay. To minimize the risk, I was required to personally hand out and retrieve individual pencils. If they needed sharpening, I did it. If the lead went missing at any point then the student was obligated to crawl around on the charcoal color carpet to find it. If that did not happen, the students were removed one at a time from class and searched. Being caught with the evidence resulted in a three-day confinement to their room. Pencil lead can be used to stick in veins and tag cells. During art class, the kids were handed a clear plastic container of assorted supplies. An inventory of the contents was prominently displayed on the front. I had to regulate this constantly and recount every item in the box upon its return. It was very time consuming. If anything came up missing, the kids knew the drill. Gang Graffiti antics was always a concern.
I previously mentioned the evils of staples, paperclips and paper. Staples and paperclips could be used to pierce veins or other body parts such as eyes or ears or used as a last resort to keep holes open for tongue and nose rings etc. They could also be adeptly fashioned into makeshift tattoo devices and therefore not allowed in the classroom. Paper was my archenemy. We had to have it to do our work, but it was the catalyst for my biggest source of classroom disciplinary infractions. Tagging or defacing a paper in any way resulted in a time out and loss of school points for the day. Consequently, that affected their overall program score in detention and resulted in the loss of certain privileges. Missing corners or other torn off pieces meant a classroom lock-down and staff search. These could be used to exchange phone numbers, make threats or plot heinous crimes within the facility.
Nothing left the classroom with the kids. At first, I naively let them borrow books but soon found out that they would be desecrated with graffiti, sexual slurs or even ripped apart and used to back up the toilets and flood their cells. I learned that lesson the hard way. One thing I did not have to fret over was inappropriate dress. Inmates were required to wear a hospital scrub like uniform. The boy’s was a dark drab army green while the girls donned a dowdy khaki tan. Everyone wore a short sleeve white cotton tee shirt under their top and white socks sheltered their feet. Shoes were deemed potential weapons and banned. During the winter months, the building remained quite cool and the kids sat in class shivering while trying to do their schoolwork. I always felt guilty wrapped cozily in a warm sweater. When I first started the journey, the students were allowed to wear sweatshirts but after using them to clog toilets, choke staff and other inmates and for self-harming purposes they took on the nomenclature of dangerous liability and the privilege of warmth relegated to the past.
Something as simple as taking my class to the computer lab always turned into a big, involved production. I had to make a request and wait until staff was available to escort us the 10 feet. It required being buzzed in and out of both rooms. The computer lab was similar in design to my classroom with the bulletproof glass and cinder-block walls, mirroring the same color scheme. I jokingly asked one time if a gun had ever made it into the secure area and was surprised by the response. “Yes! Several times.” Eventually they were recovered during a cell search. Many knives and other contraband occasionally circumvent the intake process too. “The staff member glibly added, “You may not be as safe as you think back here.”
Custodial staff uniforms consisted of jeans, blue-collared polo shirts imprinted with the justice center logo and sneakers. They also donned the required utility belt housing mandated items. They were issued embossed navy blue sweatshirts. Although I was employed by Wenatchee School District, I was operating on the county owned property of the Justice Center and the inter-agency agreement between the two entities required me to comply with all rules, regulations and mandates set forth by Juvenile. Therefore, I was given a dress code which was similar to staff, but it allowed me the flexibility of not wearing the exact same thing every day. It made it easy to get ready for work, and I loved the causal and comfortable attire.
The innards of the detention edifice were windowless. It was like working underground. There was no natural light to brighten your day just the oppressive glare of fluorescent. The minute you set foot in the building, you felt cut off from the outside world, isolated -- quarantined. There was no stepping out for a breath of fresh air or the touch of the sun to warm your soul. The fortress seemed impenetrable. The classroom itself was an anomaly in comparison to its stark surroundings. It was like an unexpected oasis. It was typical of what you would see in a “regular” school setting. There were the standard student desks, overflowing bookshelves, student artwork plastering the walls and motivational posters purposefully placed. It was bright, cheery, warm, cozy, colorful and most importantly welcoming and comfortable a direct contrast to the rest of the monotonous institution decor. The students loved classroom #2. Every one of them, in some way, had contributed to the ambiance and with ownership came pride.
There is also the teaching component that needs to be addressed. My coed charges ranged in age from 8-18. Most of them were academically-behaviorally challenged requiring serious remedial intervention. Those that still actively enrolled in school were provided their own work. This last group was the minority. For the majority I was required to design individualized curriculum based on their performance levels derived from a battery of tests. Many of my students were in special education and I was responsible for revising their IEPs (Individualized Education Program) while they resided in my program. Trying to get parents down to the juvenile facility for IEP meetings was a nightmare. The average class size was around 14, but fluctuated on a daily basis. The faces changed constantly. Some kids were there for two hours before going to court and being released and others remained for months on end. It was like a revolving door -- round and round, in-and-out, in-and-out. There are also many interruptions to deal with during school time. Staff is constantly calling for kids to go to court, or to meet with lawyers and probation officers. More of the in-and-out, in-and-out syndrome. It is very disruptive and impedes the already questionable focus of others. All communication is done via the two-way radios. This frequent chatter is another problematic concertation buster that you learn to endure.
Upon departing at night, my morning routine is reversed. I enter the inner office and secure my two-way radio. I check to make sure my desk, closet, cupboards, and office door are locked. I then buzz my door, approach the control room, deposit my keys, and school points sheet in the waiting drawer. I retrace my footsteps and buzz through three doors, and each time the aftermath of the banging metal clamor resonates through my body. Finally, out on the street I take a deep breath of fresh air and remind myself how lucky and thankful that at the end of the day I am able to regain my freedom and go home to my family. My students are not as blessed.
The working environment of a correctional educator is definitely unique. You are constantly juggling your teaching duties with the safety and security demands dictated by another agency. It is an extreme sport, of sorts, with danger lurking around every twist and turn. There is never a dull moment and no two days are ever the same. It is addicting. How many people can say that after 20 years on a job? In the end, all I can say is that yes, I would do it all over again in a heartbeat. I do not regret one moment of that amazing experience. I loved that job, and it made me a better human being. I was blessed.
A special thanks to all my students. I will never forget you!
August 14, 2016
Thank you Valerie for sharing a very interesting and unique teaching position. It surely makes my teaching experience a cake-walk!