Oct 12 2006

Case Study: Stepping Up to Success

A look at how staff members at some juvenile detention centers are using technology to protect and educate deliquent youth.

Juvenile detention centers go high tech to teach—and protect—deliquent youth


THERE’S NOTHING TYPICAL ABOUT MARY ANN COOPER’S STUDENTS OR THE CLASSROOM IN WHICH she teaches. Her students are in jail, charged with crimes ranging from shoplifting to murder. Many are from poor families, have drug problems, or are victims of neglect and abuse. They couldn’t care less about school, but it’s her job to engage them. Like many teachers at juvenile detention centers, Cooper doesn’t just give lectures in front of the classroom. She provides a hands-on approach through computers, teaching students to type, fill out job applications and do research online—skills that will help them become productive members of society.

“They get kicked out of school so much that they need skills they can use if they don’t go back to school,” says Cooper, a computer lab teacher at the Florida Parishes Juvenile Detention Center in Covington, La. “Many kids don’t have computers at home. And if they’re ever going to straighten out their lives, they need to have technology backgrounds.”

Click HereNationwide, an average of 93,000 children under age 18 are confined in juvenile detention centers each day, according to a 2000 study conducted by the Department of Justice. The law requires that these children attend school, so juvenile detention centers work with local school districts to provide education to these juveniles.

Their classrooms and detention cells are housed under one roof. Juveniles seldom notice the behind-the-scenes technology that keeps them secure. To keep the facilities safe, detention centers use a combination of electronic doorlocks and video surveillance cameras in nearly every room—all connected and carefully monitored by a network of computers in control rooms staffed by security guards.

High-Tech Security

At the Florida Parishes Juvenile Detention Center, the 80 kids detained there probably don’t even know administrators and security guards can watch their every move, even from home.

This year, Eric Starkey, the center’s network administrator, installed a new digital video surveillance system. The system covers the 50,000-square-foot facility with 82 cameras, saving the live video on two digital video recorders, which, in turn, store the footage on computer hard drives. Center staff can access live surveillance feeds from work or via the Web at home.

The new surveillance system replaces five VCRs. In the past, security guards had to insert new videotapes every six hours to record the video. Now, Starkey needs to swap out the stored footage only once a month. More importantly, the new technology gives the detention center quick and easy access to archived video whenever it is necessary to refer to a recorded incident.

“In the past, if an incident occurred, a security person had to sit in front of a VCR to go through hours of footage—it might have been a half-day process,” Starkey says. “Now, we pull up an incident in 10 minutes at the most. If I want to know if there was motion in a certain room, I can search back a month and see every time there was motion. Or if I want to see what was happening from 8:32 a.m. to 8:34 a.m. last week, I can literally see what happened within 15 to 20 seconds.”

The video is important in case juveniles complain they were mistreated, Starkey adds.

“A month back, a juvenile complained some guards attacked and beat him. We were able to pull the video and show the judge, ‘this is the day and here’s the footage,’” recalls Starkey, who says the video proved no attack had occurred. “It just protects us. We know we’re not doing anything wrong, but we have to prove we’re not doing anything wrong. If this thing saves us from one lawsuit, we’ve saved money.”

Other juvenile detention centers also use computers to manage security, ranging from control of door locks to restriction of telephone access.

For example, administrators at the Lancaster County Juvenile Detention Center, in Lincoln, Neb., installed several touch-screen computers in the main control room and each housing area to control nearly all the doors, from classrooms to detention cells.

Similarly, at the Long Creek Youth Development Center, in South Portland, Maine, security guards use card keys to open every door as they make their rounds. A computer records their every movement. “It allows us to ensure that they’re doing what they’re supposed to be doing,” says Lars Olsen, Long Creek’s superintendent.

Long Creek, which houses 210 juveniles, also has a computerized phone system that limits the people juveniles can call. When new residents arrive at the facility, the staff programs in the phone numbers the kids are allowed to call, Olsen says. The detainees are given PINs, so when they want to make calls, they punch in their PINs, but can only dial phone numbers from their approved call lists, such as those of family members.

The Teaching Environment

One of the greatest challenges facing educators in the prison environment is the high rate of turnover. The juveniles stay anywhere from a day to a year, with the average stay 10 to 20 days. The uncertain lengths-of-stay make it difficult for teachers to present complex subject matter. As a result, most of the curriculum centers on building basic life skills, such as simple math, reading skills and computer literacy.

Richard Krause, education supervisor at Lancaster County Youth Services Center, says his teachers use computers as part of the curriculum to keep the detained youth interested. Like many detention centers, Lancaster County offers students computer labs with high-speed Internet access.

“A lot of kids are computer literate. They know everything there is to know about computers. So we’re taking advantage of their interests,” he says. “Technology has been a major breakthrough for us. There’s nothing as immediate as sitting in front of a computer and doing research without having to find a book in the library. You get this massive amount of information. You get graphics. And kids are so used to color and graphics, it is a comfortable way for them to learn.”

Instructors also use computers to teach job skills to students, such as writing resumes using Microsoft Office, says Larry Gardner, a principal for three facilities in Educational Service District 101, a Washington state agency that provides school services. Students also use software to learn about careers and jobs in Washington state.

“A lot of these kids come from poverty-stricken homes and they don’t have much experience with being employed or seeing family members working,” he says. “It’s nice to see them realize they don’t have to go college to get decent paying jobs and that they can get training other ways and make good money.”

Despite the difficulties and ups and downs of teaching troubled youth, teachers say it’s all worth it. For Cooper, the dividends come when she connects with a student who appreciates her efforts.

“It’s sometimes discouraging because we don’t get to keep them for long. My main goals are to get them to use their brains and to remind them that they don’t have to get into trouble,” she says. “Some students write me letters telling me I’m the best teacher they’ve ever had and that they appreciate the fact that I’ve taken the time with them. But I’m not the only one who has made a difference. Each teacher here has made a dent in some kid’s life.”

How To Monitor Students’ Computer Access

Computers and the Internet are invaluable educational tools, but students can abuse them. For students at detention centers, abuse may consist of downloading music, e-mailing friends and surfing inappropriate Web sites.

Computer teacher Mary Ann Cooper says she takes away Internet privileges when students violate the rules. “I tell them, ‘If you respect me, I will respect you. And you have to respect the computer. If you do not, then you are off of it,’” says Cooper, who teaches at Florida Parishes Juvenile Detention Center in Covington, La.

Web filters can help teachers control computer abuse, but they’re not infallible, so the staff must keep careful watch, says Richard Krause, education supervisor at Lancaster County Youth Services Center, in Lincoln, Neb. “Music slips through the filters,” Krause says. “There’s always a small group of kids who cannot resist the temptation. These are the ones we have to closely monitor.”

Teens also have a knack for changing computer settings, and installing and uninstalling programs. Eric Starkey, who directs the IT function at Florida Parishes Juvenile Detention Center, says upgrading PCs to Windows XP will help because the operating system features improved manageability. “I can limit their user rights,” he says. “Then, if they go in and change settings and uninstall programs, I can very easily restore features and undo what they did.”