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In a room of killers and thieves, teachers see a ray of hope

By MARY HARGROVE

This article was published June 15, 1998 at 5:02 a.m.

You are capable of such beautiful dreams

And such horrible nightmares.

You feel so lost, so cut off

And so alone.

Only you're not.

-- From the movie Contact

HIS FACE is contorted in rage. His body's a dangerous vehicle about to explode. His 6-foot frame looms over the woman. She reaches out slowly and gently touches his arm -- and his heart.

HIS FACE is contorted in rage. His body's a dangerous vehicle about to explode. His 6-foot frame looms over the woman. She reaches out slowly and gently touches his arm -- and his heart.

"What's the matter?" she asks. "You don't usually act like this. Tell me what's going on."

The big-man facade melts, and the little boy inside pours out his feelings that he has been treated unfairly.

They call them "our boys." Every weekday from 7:30 a.m. to 4 p.m., Jo Ann Warren and Tammy Reeder are among six employees who teach English, math, science and social studies at the Central Arkansas Observation and Assessment Center in North Little Rock.

The needs of their students give new meaning to the term "special education."

The boys range from 11-17. But age means nothing. These are the children time forgot. Their childhood has passed too quickly. For some, it never occurred. They are streetwise, old in the ways of their world, yet wary strangers in the civilization in which they were born.

One student, 17, is a drug addict going through withdrawal. He recalls a picture his mother took of him as a 2-year-old, his tiny lips puckered around a marijuana cigarette.

Another student, 15, is a gang member who refuses to do his schoolwork. He knows all he wants to know -- he can write the intricate gang code.

A 17-year-old boy is the father of a 7-month-old. He and the baby's mother are engaged, and another baby is on the way. He wants to get back to his construction job and support his family.

When the teachers review a boy's educational background, the list of his crimes stares at them from the page. Their classroom at any time could include robbers, rapists, murderers, thieves, sex offenders and arsonists.

The women teach together, two groups for three hours each, with a male youth services worker nearby in case a student turns violent.

Warren, mother of a 17-year-old daughter, is the disciplinarian. Reeder, mother of an 11-year-old daughter, is the soothing counselor. Both are genuinely fond of some of the boys.

"I'm stern," Warren says. "I expect them to be doing their work. They say, 'Take it easy on us.' And I say, 'No. If I take it easy on you, it means I don't care about you.' "

She reminds them constantly that an education is the only way to improve their lives.

"They don't see it that way," she says. "They say they are here simply to take whatever punishment the world wants to give to them. They're not fit for anything. And that is their attitude toward life in general."

She assures them there are people, groups, an entire society that wants them to succeed. "They think it's all a front, and nobody really means it," she says.

When some boys return to school, they do not receive credit for work completed at the facility. That upsets Reeder.

"We work very hard to make sure the kids are doing what they would be doing in school," she says. "And it's not easy. When they first come in they're mad. Most don't like school. I think that's because they've been in trouble, and schools are tired of messing with them. They haven't been in school enough to enjoy the good things. They haven't had a teacher to guide them."

The abilities of the students vary drastically. A few can barely read or write. One boy didn't know his birthday. Another couldn't spell beyond "cat" and "dog."

There also are boys who could graduate from high school -- even college, the teachers believe.

"After they get over their anger, they begin reaching out," Reeder says. "These kids are yelling for help in their own way. At home, they don't have food on the table, but I bet they have HBO. They want someone to care. We want to give them hope. And education will do that for them. I tell them, 'You've got to go to school.' "

Both women have paid a price for their loyalty to the boys. At different times, each has been physically attacked by a student.

On May 27, 1997, Warren was bending over, helping a boy with some homework, when she felt someone touch her from behind.

"At first, I thought someone bumped into me. I stood up and next thing I knew he kept coming, coming, coming. He started cussing. I thought if I walked away, he would stop.

"He followed me to the middle of the classroom and kept hitting me. Somehow, he hit me in the nose, ear and cheek. He bent my glasses," she says. A guard restrained Delusta Brown, 16, and the boy was charged as an adult in Pulaski County Circuit Court with second-degree battery, a felony.

He immediately posted bond and was freed.

"He came back to O&A and stood outside on the track and waved at everybody," Warren says.

Lloyd Warford, former director of operations at the Division of Youth Services, which operates O&A and the Alexander Youth Services Center, says boys at both facilities will attack employees, hoping to be charged as adults.

"They get to adult court, bond out in half an hour, and they're gone," he says. "We didn't have any system to require the courts to hold them for us."

Brown wanted his belongings. The staff refused to give them to his sister. When he returned to O&A to pick them up, he was detained so he could serve the remainder of his juvenile-offender time.

On June 3, 1997, he threatened to stab an O&A employee. He was charged in circuit court as an adult with two felonies -- possession of a weapon by an incarcerated person and first-degree terroristic threatening.

"Mrs. Warren ticked me off" by "messing with me" and "telling me to sit down, be quiet, shut up, stuff like that," he said during a mental health evaluation before his sentencing.

He also said that the weapon -- a piece of metal from the sprinkler head in his cell -- was for his protection. "He was afraid of staff members because he had previously observed them assaulting clients of the center," the evaluation stated.

Brown pleaded guilty and was sentenced Dec. 15, 1997, to 120 days in jail. He already had spent 134 days in jail and was released immediately for time served.

"I was uneasy the next month if someone came up behind me in class," Warren says. "I try not to think about it. If I dwell on it, I wouldn't be able to go in."

On Jan. 26, Reeder was attacked after telling 16-year-old Timothy Ravion to sit down and be quiet. "He kept on cussing and ranting and raving at another boy," she says.

Earlier the boy had removed a shirt from over his T-shirt. "He acted like he was going to put his other shirt back on when he picked up a chair and threw it at me," Reeder says. "I blocked it with my arm so it didn't hit me in the head."

Her left arm was swollen and bruised from her wrist to her elbow. The marks could still be seen four months later.

"It hurt my pride more than anything else," she says. "I have been apprehensive since then. You don't know when the next one's going to come. Or why.

"I'm not angry with the boy," Reeder says. "He was mad at somebody else, and I was razzing him just like a mom would because I can't let someone stand there and cuss and act like a fool."

DYS recently arranged to have youths sent back to O&A after their adult charges are dealt with. Ravion was arrested for throwing the chair and charged with second-degree battery. He is in the Pulaski County jail with an order to hold him for DYS, meaning he cannot post bond.

Some boys do respond positively to Warren and Reeder.

One boy came back and wanted to take them to lunch to thank them for helping him. He had a job and was proud of his new life.

Other students have discovered they have talents for writing poetry or essays, drawing pictures or solving math problems.

"We could help a lot more," Reeder says. "If our staff pulled together, and we got them some treatment or drug rehab while they were in here for all these months. The boys could start their process of change.

"It breaks my heart thinking that they are so young, and they've already been in such trouble, and they already have a family," she says. "What's their future going to be? What's our future going to be? Without some treatment, aren't we setting these kids up to fail?"

She also would like to see anger management classes. Anger is a major problem at O&A. The facility was built to hold 84 people but has held as many as 135 teen-agers crammed into a building where the air conditioning often breaks down.

The center is set up to evaluate the boys' mental and emotional health. As far as intense counseling or rehabilitation, O&A is dead time for the boys. It can take 60 days or longer to find an opening in a treatment or lock-down program.

Too often, the boys are sent to the first slot available, even though it does not fit their needs or specifically treat their problems.

At times, a glimmer of good shines in the boys who would be men, Warren says.

"I have migraines, and they show me a lot of empathy. I'll take off my glasses and hold my head and they say, 'Mrs. Warren, we're so sorry.' "

And when the boys leave? "I wonder what happens to them," Warren admits. "They stick with you. We've heard of some of our boys being killed. Yes, I wonder about them.

"There's so much world out there they don't know about. Some will accept that world. And others, if it's not the streets, don't want any part of it."

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