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School and unusual

photo School-sponsored trips to a Washington, D.C., jail were meant to scare some students with behavior problems, but what happened left parents and officials shocked.

[Times art:
Teresanne Cossetta]

By JOHN BALZ

© St. Petersburg Times,
published June 7, 2001


WASHINGTON -- It was meant to be a wake-up call. A group of adolescent boys with a history of fighting and mouthing off was sent to tour a city jail to see the grim fates of those who didn't learn to behave.

Teachers and guards paraded the 13 middle-schoolers into the cell block, where they watched a strip-search of adult inmates. Then, perhaps to drive home the point, nine boys were ordered to take off their clothes, bend over and cough, just like real prisoners.

The image of naked 14-year-olds on a field trip to the inside a grown-up jail is enough to make even the strictest parent cringe. So when news of the strip-search got out a week later, parents, school officials and other officers screamed, first in horror, and then at each other.

But the story was about to get uglier. It turned out that strip-searches of students were routine. The day after the boys' May 17 visit, teenage girls in another group were strip-searched and brought to the male side of the jail, where they were harassed by inmates.

Now the town that thought its biggest worry was some obscure Vermont senator fleeing the Republican Party finds itself struggling with the painful fallout of exposing children to the very adult side of lockdown.

Naturally, jail tours have been canceled. Warden Patricia Britton, three officers and three managers have been fired, with city council members calling for more pink slips. The principal of Evans Middle School in Northeast Washington has been placed on leave. Parents of the boys and girls involved say their children are too ashamed to finish out the school year, which ends June 19. Even the FBI has stepped in to investigate.

"It's very embarrassing to the Department of Corrections, the D.C. public schools and the mayor's office," said William Dupree, the union official representing officers at the jail. "The fact that it happened, it happened to kids. The Department of Corrections didn't do what it was supposed to do, the school board didn't do what it was supposed to do. It blew up."

Signs of the shrapnel are everywhere, with reputations wounded and nobody taking responsibility. In this soap opera there are no villains, only victims.

The kids weren't really troublemakers. The teachers were only trying to save the kids' futures. The corrections officers were just doing their jobs.

"I walk down the street in my neighborhood, and people who know me look at me funny," said Karl White, one of the guards who was let go by the department. "For the last few days I really haven't wanted to come out of my house."

Neither has Constance Redd's 14-year-old daughter, one of the students strip-searched.

"She doesn't really want to go to school," Redd said. "She doesn't want her friends to make fun of her. She's not the same little run-around child that she was."

The press has swarmed the city like Donald Trump at a beauty pageant, and it's no wonder. The story has nudity, minors, prison life and questionable decisionmaking. The D.C. Public Schools communication office is taking 40 calls a day and has stopped giving interviews to the national media. One family appeared on NBC's Today show for a sit-down with Matt Lauer.

Things would have been different in a place like, oh, Johnson County, Ind. In 1998, 13 boys on a hard-knock-life tour were forced to strip down to their underwear in the hallway of the juvenile detention center. One officer was fired for violating procedures, but the local newspaper didn't bat an eye. The community considered the whole episode a case of tough love.

"Being a very conservative state, we're more apt to say "Look, this kid did this, he deserves this,' " said Jim Higdon, director of the Johnson County juvenile center. "In Indiana they want to crack down. If you get in trouble, you pay the price."

In Washington, you pay a lawyer, who then files a $28-million lawsuit against the city for negligence, due process violations, emotional distress and a host of other legal claims. You could even name him Wayne Cohen and build him like a distance runner.

Cohen, who represents the Redd family and six others, says everyone's to blame -- except his clients.

"Everyone seems to be pointing the fingers at each other," he said at a news conference.

Why? Because for 12 years everyone thought taking kids' clothes off inside a jail qualified as outside instruction. The D.C. jail began offering to school groups starting in 1989. But it didn't write official rules for how the tours should be conducted until last week -- after the scandal broke.

Most of the students who took the tours had previous discipline problems or in-school suspensions, so they were brought to jail in hope they wouldn't end up in . . . jail.

"This was not a field trip to Six Flags or the zoo," said Louis Cannon, president of the Washington, D.C., Fraternal Order of Police, who is familiar with the tours. "They weren't going there to pet pandas."

The details of what went down on the block remain shady.

For instance, did the school teachers suggest the scare tactics, or did the guards use their own imaginations?

Each side says it was the other's idea. Still, it's clear that the Evans staff wanted to teach the kids a lesson. Two months before the visit, an employee at the boys' middle school sent a letter to the corrections department.

"I am sending you this letter because of our youth," wrote Dorothy Simpkins, the suspension coordinator at the school. "They are beyond control. I would love them to tour Lorton Minimum Correctional Facility to experience the way they will live when they are punished by law. . . ."

How much did parents know about what might happen to their sons and daughters?

Each parent had to sign a permission slip authorizing the visit, but the piece of paper left out any mention of a possible strip-search.

Once inside the jail, were any of the youths touched?

One boy "didn't want to take off his shirt, and a big guard grabbed him by his shirt and took it off," 13-year-old Jose Ross told the Washington Post, which broke the story.

In a small bit of irony, the Department of Corrections can't conduct strip-searches against people arrested and held overnight unless guards suspect the inmate is hiding weapons or drugs. The rule stems from a 1981 lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union, which is now considering another courtroom challenge.

Community outrage has been overwhelming. More than a hundred parents and residents squeezed into children's seats Monday night at Evans Middle School's auditorium and seethed at school officials. What could a child possibly learn from a field trip to prison? they wondered. "You mean we can't motivate our children any other way?" asked Don Foleen, a 48-year-old single father. "Then our school system is sick. Why don't we send them to the Supreme Court and let them tour that?" The Post ran an editorial under the headline "Unacceptable," calling the strip-search "outrageous." In a reference to the city's reputation for twiddling its thumbs, the editorial went on to label the officials' response as "familiar and by now predictable."

"We apologize for what happened here," Peggy Cafritz, the president of the D.C. Board of Education said Monday night. "We know what happened was wrong and we are going to do all that we can do to fix it." The only sliver of common ground for those involved is that underage nudity and prison don't mix.

"I want change out of this, so that it never has to happen to any other children again," said Redd.

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