In a cluster of yellow buildings connected by sidewalks, students are learning history, English and math. Outside, a basketball game is halfway over; it's almost time for the players to return to class. When the school day is over, however, there are no buses, kids don’t walk home and no parents come pick them up. Barbed wire is visible through the classroom windows. This is Adobe Mountain School, Arizona’s only state-run juvenile secure care facility.
In Arizona, when youths are found to have committed crimes, they are typically processed by their county justice system. Depending on the seriousness of the offense, they could be processed by the state. The state can send them to Adobe Mountain School.
Kids stay at AMS until a professional team decides they are ready to return to their communities, or until they age out. Historically, many youths were released without the skills needed for a successful reentry into their communities.
“We have created a disadvantaged population by focusing a lot on public safety laws, but we have an obligation to make sure that people who have had to go through these situations have the opportunity to go back into their communities and become productive citizens,” says Sarup Mathur, a professor in Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College at Arizona State University.
For over 20 years, researchers at the teachers college have created and implemented programs to equip youth in the juvenile justice system to successfully re-enter their communities after they are released. The specific programs have changed and evolved over the last two decades, continually improving their ability to provide lasting impact.
Prepping for success
Heather Griller Clark, a principal research specialist in the teachers college, has worked for over a decade with Karen Lorson, a teacher at AMS, to design a transition and career readiness class. Lorson and her colleague, Clayton Hall, teach the course.
Students taking the class have the opportunity to earn an Arizona Career Readiness Credential, a document demonstrating that they have mastered applied mathematics, reading for information, workplace data and graphics, communicating effectively, teamwork and collaboration, professionalism, and critical thinking and problem solving. This certificate was an initiative from Arizona Governor Doug Ducey in partnership with ARIZONA@WORK and the Office of Economic Opportunity as a way to validate competency in skill areas relevant to every line of work.
Youth often take this class during their last term at AMS, just before they are released. This ensures that all students have the ability to take the course, no matter how much or how little time they spend there.
Through the class, students receive professionalism training, resume help and interview practice. They practice how to tie a tie, make eye contact, give a firm handshake and articulate their skills. Their final assignment is a mock job interview with James Short, the program manager for the project. Short also helps connect with businesses and organizations in the community to provide resources for the kids.
When they are released from AMS, students leave with a portfolio. The portfolio contains their notes from class on coping skills, the ACRC and resources to find employment, among other things. Hall says the only thing that kids ask for when they are released is that portfolio. It’s their lifeline back into the community — a physical reminder of their progress and a set of documents and resources to give them a second chance.
“The folder that these kids walk out into the world with is a real result of the work that they’ve done. They get an artifact of their result before they walk out of the door,” he says.
The team wants students to feel confident that they do not have to return to the same behaviors as before, even if their situations are the same.
“When these kids are released, they are often times facing the same dilemmas, the same barriers, because nothing has changed around them,” Mathur says.
To address this, Short and Leslie LaCroix, a transition specialist, work with the students, their families and the community to provide better options. Short and LaCroix work with the programs inside the facility to help kids prepare for interviews as well as finding and connecting them to community resources. They continue to partner with the youth after they are released to help them find education, employment and other resources.
This multifaceted approach, addressing needs both inside and outside of AMS, increases the likelihood of a successful transition.
The kids in the program are often ready to make positive changes for their futures, according to interviews that the team conducted.
“Based off of how I was before the program, I’d say I’m very hopeful for my future. I feel stable where I am,” says one former AMS student.
“I just didn’t want that for my life, you know what I mean? I knew I could amount to more. I could be something more. I could make a difference,” adds another.
Twenty years in the making
Over thirty years ago, Robert Rutherford, Jr., an ASU professor, connected his research on educating youth with emotional behavior disorders and disabilities with education in the juvenile justice system. The rate of learning disabilities is significantly higher among incarcerated youth than among those in a traditional public school classroom. Rutherford realized that this population often needed the most educational services to be successful.
Clark and Mathur conducted their graduate degree research with Rutherford and worked in secure care facilities. Now, the two are part of a team that carries on the work that he started.
Over the last twenty years, Mathur and Griller Clark have written grants, conducted research and funded programs to help students in secure care facilities gain confidence, a quality education and the skills necessary to reintegrate into their communities.
The whole team has worked in juvenile corrections facilities in some capacity. Griller Clark taught in a facility before transitioning to research.
“Most of these kids don’t have that one caring adult that they need, and they have been the behavior problems in classrooms,” she says. “I always felt like just showing up for them and letting them know that my whole heart was in it and that I was here for them and that I wanted to make a difference — that in and of itself made a tremendous impact on them.”
With so many different needs in the classroom, teaching can be difficult.
“It was emotionally exhausting,” Griller Clark says. “They just are in such great need of so much help that it was challenging. But the rewards definitely outweighed those feelings.”
LaCroix says that reasoning kids out of going back to what they were doing before isn’t easy.
“To some of these kids, if you say that gangs are bad, it's like saying family is bad,” she says.
The team works hard to build trust with the students and demonstrate that they are there to help them transition successfully into the community. Because the team members are employed by ASU, they do not have police badges. This helps create a different kind of trust, LaCroix says.
When LaCroix is asked why she does this work, she says, “I believe in resilience and hope. Some of them turn around and some don’t, but they are still going to be our neighbors.”
She adds: “And if not me, then who?”