A job 'that's very unusual': Teacher talks working with young criminals

Posted: Monday, July 26, 2010

Unlike many Alaska students, all of Joe Mooney's students live in the building where they learn. Some stay indoors and strum guitar, while others play basketball or grow cabbage and cale in the garden.

Photo By M. Scott Moon
Photo By M. Scott Moon
Kenai Peninsula Youth Facility School teacher Joe Mooney talks last week about his experiences teaching.

But Mooney doesn't teach at a boarding school. The children aren't allowed to leave, even with their parents' permission. They are awaiting trial for crimes like burglary, car theft and sexual assault.

Up until last Friday, he taught at the Kenai Youth Detention Facility, where juveniles accused of criminal activities await trial. Youth Facility Superintendent Steve Kiefer said that the building has 10 rooms and can house up to 20 youth.

Students usually stay there for 30 days before trial, but he has one student that has stayed there for almost a full year.

"That's very unusual," he said.

Mooney said that the nature of the youth facility requires him to teach each student individually. The teacher attempts to motivate the students, who range from sixth graders to high school seniors, to take classes that they may not finish because of the limited time they stay in the facility.

"I can have as few as four and as many as 19," he said. "They ebb and flow quite frequently."

Classroom rules include the usual standards: no throwing objects, speaking out of turn or getting up without permission. The school has breaks during spring, summer and winter, like other schools. Mooney selects an exceptional youth as "Student of the Week" and gives them a special chair to sit in during their tenure.

Students at the detention facility come from different educational backgrounds: traditional schools, alternative education and even the Peninsula's Russian schools. He assesses each student when they begin their time at the facility. Mooney observes the new pupil's progress for a time then meets with them again to determine their individual educational goals.

Students sit three to a table in the facility's classroom, but each youth works independently during the subject sessions. Most were studying different subjects previous to their arrival, according to Mooney. One may be studying world history, while another reads about American history. The range of age, grade and skill levels present in the class room make individual attention the norm as well.

"I'd like to stand in front of the group and lecture just like any other teacher," he said. "But it's just not possible."

If a student asks him about a violent period of history, Mooney takes them outside the classroom and explains the subject away from the other students.

"Is it engaging? Yes. Is it important? Yes," he said. "Is it necessary for all the students at the moment? Not necessarily."

Students aren't allowed to draw on folders or books because everything in the room is the property of the state or the teacher.

"Everything is a privilege," said Mooney.

Students lose points for disobeying class rules, the same way they do elsewhere in the facility. A docked point can mean an earlier bedtime, fewer points to spend at the facility store, or one less movie night.

He allows students an opportunity to regain points by acknowledging what they did was wrong and drawing slips of paper from a wooden cow.

"I'm from the Midwest. The idea is 'don't have a cow,'" he said.

The slips instruct youth to complete tasks like complimenting another detainee, writing an essay explaining why what they did was wrong or a similar act of kindness. He said that allows the kids a chance to accept responsibility and admit what they did was wrong.

Mooney placed the cow on a round desk that seats three students during the school day. He undid the wooden animal's head and pulled out two slips of paper. Both gave free points.

"Very few students don't pick from the cow," he said. "Some outright refuse. Those are the ones I worry about because they don't know the difference between right and wrong."

The youth can cooperate on assignments, but socializing is limited within the class room.

"They're not allowed to talk about war stories," he said, referring to past crimes.

He believes separating what happened in the past helps limit conflict within the facility. Mooney said that he'd had a couple close calls over the years, but claims that no serious incidents ever occurred.

"There's not as much touting or aggressive displays as regular schools," he said.

Students can use a number of computers lined up against the walls of the classroom for online classes and Internet research. The teacher can access each student's history from his desk.

Mooney said that the students cannot access e-mail accounts or any website that doesn't serve an academic purpose, especially it allows them to contact victims, friends or "co-dependents." Correspondance can breach the confidentiality the permeates the juvenile justice system as well.

The teacher pre-approves all print jobs. He said that most of his students want guitar tablature, which instructs them on how to play songs fret by fret, or lyrics. He screens them for sexual innuendo, violence or gang-related content.

Mooney said one student figured out he could print to any school in the borough and sent a message to his friends in Seward.

He said that carefully assigns seating in the room, based on the personality and past history of each student. He compared organizing his classroom to a game of chess.

"If I'm doing something without a reason, I probably shouldn't be doing it," he said.

He said that the control helps the students focus on their school work, which takes up most of their day. Most students enter the facility with below average reading skills and are around five credits behind their grade level. Removing students from peer pressure, drugs and alcohol, along with the regiments of the facility, provide the kids with structure that in turn helps them study. Mooney said that the facility provides the students with their basic needs: food, shelter and medical attention.

Superintendent Kiefer said that many detainees are behind on medical and dental check-ups.

At a regular school, students don't know what they're going to do after they turn in their assignments, the 20-year educator said. In the detention school, the students do because of their individualized work schedules.

"The education system likes to do what works best for it, not necessarily the students," he said.

However the facility isn't without its flaws, Mooney said. Students awaiting trial are isolated from their family, friends and regular surroundings. Many also spend time interacting with lawyers, psychologists and probation officers.

Even if the youth work hard, the credits may not fit into their next school's requirements. Or they might not finish their work. Mooney said that he promises to help students finish classes after they leave the detention facility. He said that the possibility that their work won't count is the biggest obstacle to engaging students.

"The kids want a guarantee," he said.

The structure can help a student focus academically, but also make them accustomed to an institutional way of life. Mooney said that many of his students go on to military schools. Others, though, fail treatment and end up back in his classroom. He said that he has two or three returning students in his classroom at the moment.

According to the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services, the recidivism rate amongs juvenile detainees is 45.1 percent.

Mooney will teach special education at Kalifornsky Beach Elementary next year. Standing in front of the metal detector at the entrance to the building, he said that he wanted to try teaching elementary school to help keep kids out of the detention system.

Tony Cella can be reached at tony.cella@peninsulaclarion.com.

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