COLONIE — A three-room school in the Capital District Juvenile Detention Center used to have new students every few weeks.
Students stay there for two to three years due to New York’s raise-the-age law, which keeps older teens out of jails and adult prisons. Since Raise the Age went live in 2019, the institution has graduated 10 students, which was unprecedented in previous years.
“There was a time you had them for three days,” said Southern Colony Assistant Superintendent Tim Backus. “Not much you could do.”
The secure facility is located within South Colonie school district boundaries and is staffed by South Colonie teachers. The teachers and the classrooms have not changed. The big difference now is that older teens are sometimes sentenced to years in the facility. The juveniles housed in the detention center are usually convicted of a crime at the age of 16 or 17 and can be held in the facility until they are 21, depending on the sentence. While students as young as 13 can be accommodated there, it usually takes shorter periods. There are currently 21 students, 11 of whom are aged 16 and over.
“We joke that it’s a captivated audience,” said teacher Joan Arthurton. “Before, we didn’t have much time with the students. They were so ephemeral. Now we can peel off the layers.”
Similar schools across New York were forced to make changes due to long-term sentences following Raise the Age. Last summer, the Board of Regents proposed visiting these schools, raising concerns that they were not all ready to offer a postgraduate education. The board also tightened the rules, clarifying that the school district with a detention center within its borders was required to issue diplomas to students who earned them at the center.
Many of the teenagers were not regular students in the months or years prior to their arrest. It’s not just about finding out where they stand in each course, it’s about convincing them that there is value in learning.
“These are kids who wouldn’t normally be interested in education,” said teacher Becca Oppenneer.
A student’s experience
One student, an 18-year-old from the capital area who is not identified by the Times Union because he was arrested as a minor, said he wondered if the school at the detention center was real or a “front”.
He had taken a few Regents exams before practically dropping out of school. But he failed ninth grade math, which is required for the degree. He repeated it twice, to no avail. Now he’s working on it in a classroom with just a handful of other students. There is no way to avoid notifying the teacher.
“If it’s a day that you feel like you don’t care … I was in a public school, the teacher just goes to the next person,” he said. “Here they sit next to you and do it with you step by step.”
The small classes force him to work harder — reading the books, doing the assignments, he said.
“I’m not saying it forces you to do better, but it motivates you. In a public school, 20 kids could have read this book, and you can flip through it,” he said.
With strict after-school screen time rules, he and other students even look forward to reading.
“I didn’t read at all,” he said. “I didn’t find time to read. Nothing to do now. I read every book, no matter what kind of book. Many of us have nothing but time.”
surprises and hope
The Capital District Juvenile Detention Center was put under a “corrective action plan” starting in February 2022 after the state’s Department of Children and Family Services found deficiencies in its operations, particularly in recreational facilities, according to state officials. Since 2016, the facility’s state has issued 17 additional corrective plans in response to justified and unjustified instances of abuse and neglect at the facility.
Two state agencies also launched inquiries into the death of Caprist McBrown, who died Oct. 27 after spending more than two years at the facility.
The student the Times Union spoke to said the school itself has been a supportive environment.
Oppenneer recently worked with a student to select $1,000 worth of books. When the books arrived, “it was like Christmas,” she said. “I’ve never seen teenagers get interested in books like this.”
The student said the appeal of books is that he can pretend he’s not in the facility. But he said he was surprised to discover books had made him think differently.
After his release, he said, “I’ll still read because I realize what reading here means to me and where it’s taking me.”
Some books give him hope, he said, while others show him how people overcome obstacles he’s faced.
“They bring new ideas,” he said, adding ruefully, “As you get older and more mature, you realize that education is what you need.”
He plans to go to college this fall and major in psychology. He will start college from the facility and take virtual classes. If he hadn’t been arrested, he said he was certain he wouldn’t be graduating this June.
But to achieve that, teachers must do more than just teach algebra to teenagers.
They had to track down every high school credit he earned, including private schools and public schools in more than one state. Once a student has passed a Regents exam, this credit can easily be transferred from school to school, but crediting lessons without a Regents exam is more complicated.
A student at the facility insisted he had studied biology in Texas but couldn’t remember the school’s name, Oppenneer said.
“We went on Google Maps and walked around town and he tracked his way to school,” she said.
As soon as they found the school, they called and got his report card. Sure enough, he had his biology credit.
The reality of students facing court dates and eventual condemnation hearings also threatens to hamper their progress.
Another student was about to take his Regents with him when he was sentenced to an inpatient treatment program for substance use disorder.
Schools are often reluctant to count hours of instruction at the facility and have the student repeat the entire course if they haven’t taken the Regents, Backus said. And they were confident that the student would pass the Regents. However, each exam is only offered three days a year – one day each in January, June and August. There is no leeway for students who may have a court hearing or other requirement that day, he said.
So they delayed the transfer of the students for three days. The student passed the exam, she was taken to nearby Colonie Central High School for grading, and before he left for the treatment program, they were able to break him the good news: he passed.
“He went into treatment with a sense of accomplishment,” said Lucas Jacobs, vice president of detention and prevention services at the Berkshire Farm Center and Services for Youth, which runs the detention facility.
He sees the school evolving with Raise the Age and potentially expanding to offer career programs via virtual reality headsets so students can receive their diplomas and prepare for a job before they are released.
“They are more motivated to graduate from high school in this situation,” he said. “Our goal is to be a safe school, not a safe facility that has a school.”