Youth in detention in Wauwatosa go to school, in several ways

New sentencing option keeps them close to home, turns them into readers

Wauwatosa School District Teacher Gail Salentine helps a student with school work during a class at the Milwaukee County Juvenile Detention Facility.

Wauwatosa School District Teacher Gail Salentine helps a student with school work during a class at the Milwaukee County Juvenile Detention Facility. Photo By Peter Zuzga

March 26, 2013

The hallways of the Juvenile Detention Center on Watertown Plank Road are quieter than a library and as clean as a hospital. It's a perfect place for thinking, reading, learning - getting your life in order - and it provides a stark contrast to the chaotic environments some of the youth placed there hail from.

Until late last year, all of the detention center's 100 or so young residents stayed for a short period of hours, days or weeks while they awaited court hearings. But a change in state law and an approval from the Milwaukee County Board last summer made it possible for kids found guilty to be sentenced to time at the detention center instead of being sent to the Lincoln Hills School, operated by the Wisconsin Department of Corrections in Irma, Wis., a four-hour drive away.

Keeping the kids close to their families and community and providing education through the Wauwatosa School District for months at a time is a change and an opportunity that Tom Wanta has advocated for at least five years.

"I'm ecstatic about what we've seen so far," said Wanta, the longtime administrator of the facility.

The new program serves as many as a dozen youth sentenced to detention for as long as 180 days. Students are generally 14-to-16 years old and are part of a population that Wanta estimates at 40 youth a year at risk for state placement for violating conditions of court-ordered supervision, committing a new offense while under supervision or committing a first offense.

Before the advent of this program, most of these offenders would have been sent to Lincoln Hills. Now as many as half may be kept at the detention center over the period of a year.

Keeping kids in detention saves money by avoiding expensive state Corrections Department placements, Wanta said.

But that's not the most important factor to those involved in juvenile justice.

Since the 2011 closure of the Department of Corrections' Ethan Allen School in Wales, less than 30 miles from Milwaukee, the challenge of keeping families involved with their children has become more difficult, said Joseph Donald, the chief judge at Children's Court.

Proximity to Milwaukee and an intensive monitoring program provided by the Running Rebels Community Organization make the detention option important.

"I would love to see it expanded," Donald said.

Reading as a lifeline

Without cellphones and iPods, on low rations of TV and attending school without fail, the MCAP kids become readers, many of them for the first time in their lives, the school's administrator Dennis Mahony said. Teacher Gail Salentine said those who buy in to the program become "like kids in a candy store" about books.

Reading for two or three hours a day, the dozen MCAP students are required to complete a list of 40 books they should have read by the time they graduate from high school. Titles range from "Charlotte's Web" to "To Kill a Mockingbird," "The Fellowship of the Ring," "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn," "Lord of the Flies," Anne Frank's "The Diary of a Young Girl" and many other classics for young readers.

Along the way they read books that reflect the environments and choices they may face in their neighborhoods and homes, like "The Bully" and others.

"Some of the books are hard, but they get so attached to them," Salentine said. "And each one kind of brings out a different emotion."

A full school day

But reading is just part of the students' schedule. On a recent day, there were 10 teachers at the school teaching English, math, science, health, physical education, social studies and art.

Because the residents are where they are for a reason - for their "errors in thinking," as Wanta said - every day starts with a "cognitive restructuring" session with Eric Weaver of the Running Rebels, which has a contract with the county for this and for an intensive monitoring program that begins when a youth is released.

"The kids that come into our facility here, they come here because they're making bad choices or poor choices," Wanta said.

This involves, of course, criminal behavior - but not just that.

"It's school attendance, school participation, drug use, peers, associates, sexual activity - a lot of them do a lot of high risk behaviors."

In cognitive restructuring, "we will start with the initial behavior that got them in here," Weaver said.

"We will ask them to learn not only what the behavior was," he continued, "but what were the things that led to that behavior. … Is this behavior that repeats for you often, or was this a one-time thing?

"If this is something that is related to something that happens in your life over and over and over again … there's a reason why you haven't been able to say, 'I see this coming, I know that this is going to cause a problem for me,' and then not do it."

Instead of simply telling the kids not to do certain things, Weaver said, "we get them to look at their thinking and be honest about it," he said.

For example, a kid might say, "I stole a car because it was cold outside and I needed a ride," he said. But, "that's usually not it. Let's just be honest."

The teachers' challenge

The youth each have an individual cell about 10-by-15 feet, with a sink, toilet, bed and countertop-style desk. The facility has a full-size gym and an outdoor basketball court.

During school, the MCAP kids work quietly at their desks in their second-floor common area. On the first floor, the short term youth go from class to class in neat lines, led and followed by security staff.

Wanta said no child is ever left unattended by security, but the staff presence is low-key - no weapons, no loud orders.

"I was a Tosa middle school principal for, like, 12 years," Mahony said, "and I feel more safe here than I did in Tosa."

Still, teachers at detention face challenges.

The typical resident is three or four grade-levels behind, Wanta said, and by necessity, classes are put together with kids whose skill levels are widely divergent.

"It's a lot of hard work, because these are kids who are not good students, typically," teacher Teresa Chmielewski said. "They may not have gone to school, or if they are in school, they're not in the classroom. Socially, they don't know how to act in the classroom, so you're trying to get them to be quiet and listen, do their work."

Chmielewski said it's tough to see a 16-year-old reading at a third-grade level, but she often sees signs of improvement in the MCAP students in reading and math. And in a virtual school program for "credit recovery" in the first months of the MCAP program, she's had two students earn full semesters worth of credit - an occasion for a pizza party thrown by Mahony.

Hard cases

Of course, kids are not sent to detention solely for their benefit. Some of the youth there have involvement in homicides, and "there are kids that need to be taken out of the community," Wanta said.

The real test comes after a youth is released. Kids sentenced to detention are assigned a mentor, and Running Rebels provides an intensive monitoring program for those released on probation. Weaver said one goal of the program is to develop a relationship with the youth so that when he is in trouble, they have a "go-to" person.

"We're not fools," Wanta said. "There are pressures back in the community where they came from. Those things we can't control. But we can control, a little bit, changing the mindset with these kids."


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