For the any of the 20 or so teenage inmates "on the unit" at Johnson Youth Center's treatment facility, every morning begins on a narrow bed in a 4-by-8-foot cell waiting to hear the click of the doors being unlocked, a sign that they can go to class. At Johnson Youth Center, skipping school is a punishment, not a reward.
"For many of the kids, school is the best part of their day, and in that respect it is an ideal teaching situation," said Johnson Youth Center teacher Jo Dahl. "One the other hand, I never know who is going to be in class. If you can't come to class, you have to stay in your room, and I slide the homework under the door."
The state-run Johnson Youth Center has been trying to rehabilitate young criminals for more than a decade. Recently re-accredited by the American Correctional Association, it received close to the highest possible marks for its services. Only 15 percent of correctional institutions in the country participate in accreditation.
The facility has a detention unit for teenagers who come in for a short stay, and a treatment unit for teenagers between 13 and 18 who are sentenced to serve time for offenses from shoplifting to sexual assault. In the treatment unit teenagers take intensive classes with Dahl, finishing a subject every month.
"If I didn't get locked up, I don't think I would be a senior in high school," said a 17-year-old girl. Due to the center's confidentiality policy, the names of the residents cannot be released.
"I had a lot of contact with drug dealers, and I would just have got in trouble," she said.
In Dahl's tenure the graduation rate slowly has increased. She said she hopes this year all of her students either will graduate from high school or receive a GED, a general education certificate.
Dahl's classroom sits in a secure building surrounded by a tall barbed-wire fence. The room spans about half the space of a normal classroom, and is equipped with video cameras and an intercom. The room has been stripped of sharp objects, from staples to paper clips. A set of blunt-ended grade school-sized scissors is kept under lock and key.
Should a student "have a bad day," as Dahl euphemistically describes situations in which a student becomes violent or extremely disruptive, a team of the burlier staff members would rush to the class, restrain the student and take him or her to a cell.
"When a kid is about to loft a chair, you have to take control," Dahl said. "But I have never had that sort of thing happen in my class."
October's class subject was civics, and students finished on Halloween. Dahl came dressed as the "Queen of Everything," wearing a tiara and a long, faux fur cloak. About 10 students filed in and took seats, and Dahl passed out candy from a sparkly, gold purse. Then she began her lesson about voting.
"You guys are on the brink of adulthood and you are going to have to make decisions here," she said, holding a state voter booklet. "If you don't vote, can you complain?"
The class, mostly boys in sweatshirts and youth-center-issued baggy jeans, answered with a chorus of "no's." Dahl passed out the voter booklets, and the students paged though them, a few remarking with interest when they came across photos of the judges who convicted them.
Life for the teenagers at JYC is based completely on a point system - good behavior earns points, and points earn everything from the privilege of attending Dahl's class to wearing their own clothes to having a "soft room" with wood rather than attached metal furniture.
"Right now I get a soft room," explained a proud 18-year-old. "I get 10 pictures, two pens and three pencils."
As Dahl circulated in the classroom, students worked independently. Some were reading, others researching political candidates in the newspaper, others typing reports.
One boy, 17, was paging through an encyclopedia, researching Ben Franklin. He said since he has been in Johnson Youth Center, he has learned a lot about conflict through classroom discussions. He used to think that when people fought, someone had to win. When people disagreed with him, he used to take it personally, he said.
"Now I think that if it weren't for debates, life wouldn't be interesting," he said.
Among the many slogans pasted on Dahl's classroom wall hangs a banner that reads, "A child's primary goal is to belong and be significant."
For some center residents, the attention they receive now from adults is the most they say they have ever received. The stories of students who end up in the youth center are similar. Sexual and physical abuse, parental neglect and substance abuse are common themes.
The mission of the JYC program is not only to build skills with education, but teach anger management and help young people overcome their past bad habits by helping them develop moral reasoning, or a sense of themselves in relation to other people, according to Greg Roth, the center's superintendent.
"When I was home, my parents would give me money and then just go, 'See ya,' " said a 17-year old girl, who said she came to Johnson Youth Center emaciated and heavily addicted to drugs. "When I get out, my priority is to see my niece and nephew. I was neglected, and I don't want them to be. I feel responsible for them."
Julia O'Malley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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