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Dropout Nation: From Detention To Diploma

the Coconino County Juvenile Detention Center
Photo by Laurel Morales
the Coconino County Juvenile Detention Center

Audio Clip

Dropout Nation: From Detention To Diploma

Dropout Nation: From Detention To Diploma

Photo by Laurel Morales

the Coconino County Juvenile Detention Center

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. — The high school dropout rate for American Indians is almost twice the national average. Educators in Flagstaff, Ariz., have tried to turn that trend around. And they’ve had some success at a place you wouldn’t suspect -- the Coconino County Juvenile Detention Center. Most of the kids who wind up there are Native American. Incidentally, we weren’t allowed to show faces of most of the kids because of their age.

When Jay was caught doing meth at 15 he says he couldn’t see past the drug.

"I loved it," Jay said. "I loved everything about it. It was like the greatest rush I ever felt all in one bowl y’know. I loved that I didn’t have to eat. I loved that I didn’t have to sleep ... When the person who caught me told me I looked half dead. I remember telling her she should’ve let me die because I didn’t see my life clean."

His life is clean right now. Jay, who didn’t want to use his real name, has spent a year and a half in treatment, and has been in and out of "juve." When he was first locked up, he weighed 108 pounds. Now almost 18 and clean, he weighs 160 pounds.

"I’m very nervous because I know the addiction’s still in there. I don’t want to disappoint myself again. I always see myself doing good you know. I always see myself, ‘this is the last time. This is the last time.’ It usually ends up with me back doing it again," said Jay.

And ending up back in detention. But he’s turning 18, which means if he’s caught again he’ll be thrown in with adults.

"I honestly I want to be successful in life," said Jay. "I want to make money the right way. I don’t want to fail. I want to finish high school first, go to college and I want to be a paramedic because I want to help people. I look healthy I look happy y’know. They’ve seen me the staff that’s been here they know how bad it was...I’m doin’ this for me you know. It’s my life. This isn’t how I want to be so I have to make a change for myself and then I wanna help other people change. I’m one that can say I know how hard it is."

Photo by Laurel Morales

Jay takes a break in the outdoor enclosure. He says he wants to finish high school and study to be a paramedic.

The staff and teachers in detention have worked with Jay and helped him see the good in himself and focus on the future. John Lee, transition counselor, helped Jay set a career goal. He assesses the kids in detention and helps them find their talents.

"To leave this place believing that they are good at those certain things, so I feel it’s my job to really instill hope, confidence and self esteem because I’m not going to be there in their lives, so they need to leave on their own with that confidence," said Lee.

Lee says sometimes will make a breakthrough with kids when he opens up about his own struggles when he was their age.

"I was stealing. My parents owned a grocery store, I was stealing at different stores. I was stealing from my own parents. I stole thousands of dollars from them, they filed bankruptcy. I ran away from a cop one time got involved with some drugs. It was around middle school and high school which is a pivotal time in life I got connected with a church and I met a few men that became my mentors and they really poured their lives into mine, they gave me hope and the tools to succeed. They were a huge part of my life," Lee said.

When arrested kids go to school inside the jail, where teachers give students a lot of individual attention.

"A lot of what they build, paper and pencil tests and exams don’t work well," said Pete Holloway. "Hands-on works really well, so if you look around, rather than give them tests they have to build projects and explain those."

The students range in age from 10 to 17. And they are often two to five grade levels below their peers. But here, they don’t have many distractions.

"No one’s yelling at them, no one’s beating them, there are no threats," said Holloway.

The staff often uses the term “stabilized.” They’re sober. Their needs are met. They don’t have to worry about food, shelter and clothing, so they’re able to focus on learning.

"Most of the time they return to the environment that created that behavior in the first place. But from a physics perspective it’s like a vector. They’re on one trajectory hopefully we can bump them enough hopefully enough bumps and we’ve turned them," said Holloway.

Juvenile sentences are only a few weeks, so the staff has a small opportunity to make an impact on kids. But when they leave the detention center, many do stay in school. In fact, 80 percent are more likely to graduate, according to detention records.

Photo by Laurel Morales

Kids do well at the school inside detention. They get a lot of one on one attention and they are stabilized.

"What do you hope they walk away with?" asked Holloway. "The confidence and the knowledge of knowing they can learn. That’s probably our number one to turn them back on maybe not to school but to learning."

Holloway says most of these kids have had negative experiences in school. They didn’t get the attention they needed or they weren’t identified for their needs or they weren’t recognized for their strengths. Once the kids are released home, many attend the transition school to get caught up on credits they missed. And then, if they haven’t reoffended, return to regular schools.

"I never ended up in detention," said Gilbert Contreras. "There may have been some occasions I could have but I had caring parents and I think that made a difference for me. A lot of my peers I grew up with are in prison. The difference for me was having those caring parents that provided some of that structure and provided boundaries and values I needed to make sure I didn’t wind up in the same place. But I was very fortunate very fortunate. Sometimes it’s not a matter of having those skills but it’s luck. Some of our kids they made a mistake. Ninety-nine percent of our kids aren’t bad people, they made a bad decision and it’s our hope that that decision isn’t something they spend the rest of their life paying for."

Gilbert Contreras and other detention staff all agree the hardest part of their job is seeing kids succeed in detention, then regress to their old ways as soon as they leave.

"What we learn working with really troubled kids, change doesn’t come all at once," said Bryon Matsuda.

Matsuda points to a long-term study by Emmy Werner and Ruth Smith that showed even troubled kids change. The two researchers followed the lives of five hundred men and women who were born in 1955. A third were considered at risk. After tracking them into their forties, they discover most become competent caring adults.

"Kids do grow up. Sometimes its a long journey for some. Sometimes they do things they have to be in prison for a long time, but the great majority do grow and develop. Eighteen doesn’t mean that you’re all grown up," said Matsuda.

If only we could fast forward Jay’s life to find out where he will be. Since the filming, he’s been released from juvenile detention and has turned 18. Authorities have lost track of Jay, and he hasn't checked into school. They're concerned about a relapse.

From Detention To Diploma

Laurel Morales was a Fronteras Desk reporter in Flagstaff from 2011 to 2020.