By Sherry Posnick-Goodwin
A student at Nidorf Juvenile Hall lock-up in Los Angeles County spends his time productively.
Probation officers stand behind bulletproof glass to press the buzzer that opens the door to Nidorf Juvenile Hall. After you enter, the door bangs shut loudly. You can’t help but wonder how teenagers — who supposedly have their whole lives ahead of them — feel when that door slams shut, knowing they could be locked up for decades or the rest of their lives.
Most kids only stay at Nidorf a few days or months, but there are hundreds of others tried as adults and facing years or decades of incarceration. Many will be sent to adult correctional facilities on their 18th birthdays. While some will be released when they are 25, others may return to life on the outside when they are senior citizens. And some are serving life sentences.
It seems strange to call them “kids,” but that’s what they are. Nearly all of them are poor and children of color. And they don’t stay kids for long.“In the first year, they may go from 15 to 50,” says a Nidorf teacher.
Nidorf teachers and counselors are members of the Los Angeles County Education Association (LACEA). They are dedicated and courageous. Most love what they do. But it’s not easy — even with a captive audience.
Teachers never turn their back on a classroom, even when writing on the board. They count the number of pencils they distribute at the beginning of class and count them when class is over, putting them in wooden pencil holders and making sure there are no empty slots. Sharpened pencils can be weapons. And even with probation officers close at hand, they can never let down their guard.
Journalists must wait a month to receive a court order signed by a judge for permission to visit classrooms in Los Angeles County juvenile detention facilities. The court order stipulates that journalists may not ask about the criminal histories or activities that brought minors here. Many of them have cases still pending. Because they are under the age of 18, their faces may not be shown in photographs. Identifying tattoos must also be excluded from photos.
Most of Nidorf’s “residents” are gang members. The number of gangs has increased dramatically throughout the Los Angeles area during the past several years. LACEA members at Nidorf used to pride themselves on knowing which gang was based in which neighborhood. Now there are hundreds of gangs everywhere, they say, and it’s too difficult to keep track of them all.
The more recent gangs don’t have household names like the Crips and Bloods. The newcomers have names such as the Harpy’s, Orphans, Westside Wilmas, Langdon Street, and the Wanderers, to name a few. Members of all these gangs share one thing in common at Nidorf, say teachers — intense hatred of each other.
From inside the courtyard Nidorf almost looks like a college campus, with brick buildings and green lawns. The buildings on the perimeter of the lawn are the classrooms and dormitories for youths with short sentences. When youths pass from one of these buildings to another, they are accompanied by probation officers carrying batons and mace. The youths walk slowly with their hands behind their backs, single file. Nidorf has mostly boys, but there is also a girls’ unit, and the genders are separated at all times.
In the middle of the lawn is the “Compound,” a series of buildings where the most serious HROs (High Risk Offenders) are housed and educated. Fencing topped by razor wire surrounds the Compound. It is a cage within a cage. Inside are youths that have committed crimes of violence, including murder. Students entering and leaving the Compound are shackled.
Nidorf is located in Sylmar, site of the fire that devastated many homes in November. The fire came to the edge of Nidorf — just before the fence — blackening the ground. The teens were not evacuated. Probation officials say they were never in danger, although parents were angry. Many said their children felt terrified and abandoned as the flames crept closer and they were unable to flee with other Sylmar residents.
Nidorf may be a world away from other public schools, but perhaps the strangest thing is that Nidorf classrooms are amazingly similar to other classrooms in California. Colorful posters hang on the wall. Teachers work hard to make sure students understand the material and offer individual attention when possible. For the most part, students are well behaved. After a few minutes, it’s easy to forget where you are.
Off to a better start
When a juvenile offender enters Nidorf, one of the first stops is with Mary Ricks at the Guidance Center. She enrolls youths into the county’s educational system. The first thing she does is look at transcripts from other schools to determine what classes the newcomers will need.
“We want to put them where they left off and give them the classes they need to graduate,” says Ricks. “We want to keep them moving through high school in an orderly, systematic fashion.”
It’s a tall order, considering most of the youths arrive at Nidorf with average math and reading levels between third and sixth grade. Some of them, she says, haven’t been to school in a year or more.
“I like the challenge of it,” says Ricks. “I’m working with people who are dynamic. They aren’t here for a quick buck. They are here because they are interested in helping these kids.”
Next stop for students is Roxanne Lee, the education counselor with a kindly smile and a regal black hat. She places them into academic courses and tracks their progress. Report cards come every 80 days in “the hall,” with students constantly coming and going. If their grades or transcripts need to be “archived” she takes care of that and makes sure students stay on track.
“How they act depends on how they’re treated,” Lee says of the students. “And if they’re treated well, they act just like anybody else.”
Last year, four students in the Compound earned their high school diplomas at Nidorf. Many have passed the GED (General Educational Development Test), the high school equivalency exam. Some might wonder why this is so important, especially for youths who are facing life sentences or release dates when they are 80 or 90 years old.
“With a diploma or GED, they will get more privileges once they are in prison,” answers Lee matter-of-factly. “They will get better jobs in prison. And some might get an earlier release date with a diploma.” Students who complete their GED or diploma may even enroll in college courses at Nidorf.
For many students, school takes on more importance than it did on the “outs.” When students are incarcerated, school can become the highlight of an otherwise dull and regimented day. For those who act badly in class, the alternative is being taken away by a probation officer to spend the day in isolation and boredom. Most prefer school.
Nidorf, like other public schools, is under pressure to raise test scores. There are “prep classes” for the California High School Exit Exam and after-school tutoring classes for students struggling to earn a diploma or GED. There is even a PTA — yes, a PTA — for the Compound’s students with long-term and life sentences. Nidorf is proud to be the first juvenile detention facility in the state to have a PTA, founded a year ago. Members meet monthly to talk about their concerns, many of them typical of any PTA. Parents, for example, are given tips on how to encourage their children to achieve better academically and stay focused. And parents express concerns to teachers and staff about their children’s educational environment.
“We talk about grades, report cards and mental health at PTA meetings,” says Montague Westmore, Nidorf’s principal. “We think it is making a difference.”
Teaching to the general population
Valerie Garcia gets respect by giving it. You have to be genuine with the students, the teacher says, because if they sense falseness or weakness, they’ll walk all over you. She describes herself as not exactly fearful, but rather careful.
“I have developed a sixth sense,” she explains. “Sometimes you can just feel it when there is a particular student you have to be careful with, in terms of ‘reading’ kids. And I never turn my back on the kids — that’s an absolute.”
Garcia, an ELD (English language development) teacher here for 11 years, teaches male students in the general units. While not incarcerated for extreme violence, their crimes include both misdemeanors and felonies. Their stay at Nidorf could range from three days to a few months.
“I do get attached to them,” she admits. “A lot of them are facing difficult situations at home. They end up here because they were not in the best situations.”
Some of her students tell her what got them into trouble, and others are more secretive — especially if they are accused of committing a sex offense. She doesn’t pry and when they do want to talk, she listens.
“Sometimes all they want to do is just to talk and have someone listen to them,” she says. “It’s as simple as that.”
But she is aware that her students can be volatile, citing an incident when she was shoved by a student. So she always stays on her guard and if she needs assistance, she immediately calls the probation officers stationed right outside the room.
“Probation is always willing to help. They helped when there was a fight this morning,” she says. “In some ways it’s much safer than teaching on the ‘outs.’”
Garcia likes having variety and a challenge, and in this job she has both.
“I like it here because the environment is always changing. Some days you will have a really easy day, and the next day could be really difficult with fights. And the kids are several grade levels below where they should be. Most of them really do want to learn. But they are preoccupied with things like court, so their minds may be elsewhere. For other youths, schoolwork and being in class gets their mind off their problems.”
What makes her job worthwhile is seeing students learn, and seeing them turn around in a positive way once they’ve left Nidorf. “I see them at the mall. Sometimes they come up and hug me and tell me they’re in school or have a job. It gives you a sense of hope.”
Teaching very young inmates
Elena Johnson teaches the “babies” at Nidorf — delinquents 14 and younger. She has them all day in a self-contained classroom. She has been doing it for nearly 20 years and has had students as young as age 9.
Her students often don’t have a full understanding of why they have been placed in a juvenile facility — especially, she says, if it’s for a sex offense or touching others inappropriately. They write in their journals about their confusion. Many of them have never suffered consequences for negative behavior before, nor had role models to tell them right from wrong.
“Sometimes they cry because they don’t want to be in class. Or they camouflage their feelings by being aggressive and hostile, cussing people out. I reassure them and tell them not to be scared, because adults are watching over them. It’s important for them to feel safe because when they don’t, they can’t focus.”
After a few days, they generally settle down and connect with her, says Johnson. “Once they make that connection, I find they are very hungry for education and some direction,” she says. “Maybe because I’m a female they look at me like a mom.”
There is no formula for success; she is constantly changing strategies in the classroom. “If someone says ‘I don’t learn by reading quietly, I learn by reading aloud,’ I say ‘OK.’ I have to be flexible with them.”
Johnson, raised in the Philippines, says education helped her to rise above poverty. “Maybe through education these kids can also rise above their circumstances,” she says. “I want the best for them. They are not throw-away kids. My mission is to help make their lives better.”
Bridging the gaps
John Clayton sees his job as “bridging the gaps” in their education. Because so many of his students missed chunks of instructional time at regular school, they need to make up for lost time in his math and science classes.
“I asked my class today how many of them missed seventh grade, and half of them raised their hands,” says Clayton. “I asked how many missed eighth grade, and more raised their hands. And it was the same when I asked about ninth grade. It’s a challenge, because so many prerequisites are needed for algebra and geometry. I’m filling in the holes while also teaching standards-based curriculum.”
Clayton, who was named Court School Teacher of the Year, spent 10 years in regular public schools before arriving at Nidorf two years ago. He wouldn’t trade it for the world.
“There’s nothing like seeing kids ‘get it’ — and these are the kids that have been written off,” he explains enthusiastically. “To see them learn and grasp the material — such as quadratic equations — is exciting to me. Working with these kids is far more rewarding than anything else. Everyone in this world has value. And these kids have shown time and time again that once they ‘get it’ they can rise to the occasion.”
David Berke assesses students in the general population, but in between the tests he administers, he always takes time to encourage students to look at their stay at Nidorf as an opportunity so they can continue to do well after they leave.
“I tell them it’s not the end, but the beginning. Most of my students feel that they have a limited amount of choices. And I want to change their thinking, and help them realize they have unlimited choices.”
Teaching in the Compound
After the regular school day ends, Berke teaches after-school college courses in American history to students in the Compound, the cage within a cage in the middle of the courtyard. He must go through a series of locked gates to enter his classroom to teach students with long-term sentences for violent crimes.
Like all Nidorf classes, the classroom has its own bathroom, so students don’t have to go outside to use the restroom. The door to the bathroom has a small window. Unlike classes in the general unit, there is a probation officer stationed inside his room at all times.
“I’m really proud of what these kids are doing,” says Berke. “They are really working hard.”
When asked if he’s ever afraid, he says “yes” without hesitating. “You’d be a fool not to be,” he says. “You can’t ever let your guard down, because you are dealing with a very different type of environment here.”
Offering students a sense of hope is easy when kids have short stays. But with students facing long sentences, it’s quite different.
“It’s hard to give kids a sense of hope when they have sentences of 10, 20, 30 years or life,” he explains. “I guess you could say my goal is to help give these students a positive sense of self.”
When you walk into Robert Earl’s classroom inside the Compound, you might think you have entered an honors class or magnet program in an urban high school. Earl, dressed impeccably in a suit and tie, sits back and watches proudly as a boy stands at the front of the economics class, leading a spirited classroom discussion about blackmail, democracy and the mobilization of workers during World War I. Colorful posters hang on the wall and the students appear to be relaxed and engaged. At times there is laughter.
“I find the best way to teach this class is the way I would teach any class,” says Earl, who has worked at Nidorf since 2006. “I try to make it comfortable and inviting, run like a class I would want my own children to be in. My goal is for these students to let their guard down so they can allow education to happen.
“I get kids everyone thinks are hardened criminals and let them act like kids. When they enjoy learning, they become indistinguishable from any other kids on the outside.”
He allows students to lead class discussions while he plays the role of “guide on the side vs. sage on the stage,” because he believes that students don’t learn as much when they are just being lectured to. But learning doesn’t happen overnight. When new arrivals first enter his classroom, they are anything but enthusiastic. Usually they are highly resistant and defiant. Little by little, he says, their defense mechanisms break down. Other students urge them to try. Before long, they are trying, too.
“Sometimes the only thing that will cheer them up is trying to learn and achieve something,” he explains.
Even though most of his students have committed violent crimes, he is not afraid of them and is sympathetic about the circumstances that brought them to Nidorf. As they tell him their stories and talk about the crimes they are accused of, he realizes that many of them never had a chance.
“I had one 15-year-old who recently looked up at me and said, ‘Mr. Earl, there was never a day growing up when I didn’t hear gunfire.’ He said that every adult in his family was in a gang or had been incarcerated. Preventing kids from being involved in gangs is the only real way to deal with the problem. Everything else is too little too late.”
Ethelbert Ozor does not care to know about the circumstances that have led his students to living in the Compound, nor does he care to know any details about the crimes they are accused of committing. It’s easier to just look at them in the here and now, he explains.
“I try not to get into their business,” says the math teacher. “I see them as my students irrespective of whatever they have done. And no matter what they have done, they are still my students. I am not here to condemn them; I just want to make their lives a little bit better.”
Ozor uses a projector to write on the board so he never has to turn his back on students. He walks around and helps them individually to make sure they are “getting it.” And more often than not, they are.
“I really am learning,” says one boy. “I dropped out when I was younger. Now I just want to get my GED or my diploma. The teachers here, and Mr. Ethelbert, are good. They know how to teach in a way so I can learn this.”
“The teacher’s all right,” says another boy who is close to his 18th birthday. “We’re just kick-back here. My goal is to get a diploma. I already have 103 credits.”
“This is a difficult job,” admits Ozor. “The culture we are dealing with is one where the kids aren’t used to being in the classroom. They are used to being on the street. I tell them when they come in here that we are a family. New kids are read the rules by other students and told this is a classroom and not a place to fight. I give them tough love and tell them I want them to learn.”
Students, he says, realize that it may be their “last chance” for a high school diploma because when they go to “the pen” they will probably not have that opportunity. Many of his students have been advised by relatives who have done hard time that they should get their education before leaving Nidorf, because it will elevate their status in prison. So there is motivation to learn.
“It’s true that most of them are facing long-term sentences,” says Ozor. “But I try to make them understand that even with that, their lives will go on.”