Locked Up, Not Thrown Away
An Education Professor Fights for Good Schools in Youth Detention CentersBy Chris Carroll| Photos by Stephanie Cordle
For much of his career, special education Professor Peter Leone has made regular trips to one of the region’s most foreboding properties, a swath of federal land next to Fort Meade where society’s vulnerable were long shuffled out of sight.
He flashes ID at a guard shack flanked by rows of deserted structures, then passes the ruins of the District of Columbia’s notorious Forest Haven home for developmentally disabled people. It closed in 1991 following lawsuits, abuse investigations and a final string of deaths. Down the street is a field of unmarked graves for hundreds of children and adults who died there.
Around a corner, beyond crumbling storage buildings and vacant houses, D.C.’s former Oak Hill correctional center squats at the end of the road. Youths sentenced there endured violence, regressed academically and often left as bigger threats to society and themselves than when they arrived.
For years, Leone fought the mechanisms of abandonment that prevailed here. Then he helped create D.C.’s current effort at juvenile rehabilitation on this campus, the New Beginnings Youth Development Center, and its audaciously optimistic school, the Maya Angelou Academy.
Over his 37 years at Maryland, he’s become a renowned scholar of the so-called school-to-prison pipeline and the intersection of childhood disability and the criminal justice system. He’s also a longtime activist educator, working to turn around failing schools in juvenile detention centers nationwide.
Staffers at New Beginnings, which opened in 2009, share Leone’s vision of lockup as a place troubled youngsters can learn to do better in their schools and communities, not one where they disappear, even if only temporarily.
On this November day, Leone steers a van full of undergraduates in his Honors College class on youth incarceration onto the campus to see how the system should work.
“What I want you to keep in mind,” he tells the class, “is that this place isn’t typical—unfortunately.”
Leone was an adult before he realized the winning hand he’d been dealt at birth. Raised in Cleveland by a professor father and social worker mother, he attended good schools and wanted for nothing. When his younger brother spent a night in juvenile detention, the family rallied around the teen. Today the brother is a physician.
Later, as a young high school special education teacher in Iowa, Leone was struck by the number of his students on probation. After earning a Ph.D. in special education at the University of Washington, he arrived at Maryland and began researching why that was so.
He found that children’s crippling shame is a factor in early troublemaking. “It’s not okay to be seen as ignorant, but being a badass is okay,” he says. “So if you’re called on to read in class and you can’t, just knock over a desk.”
His many publications include a series of papers analyzing disparate impacts of policies and practices on marginalized youth. Among them, students with special needs are pulled into the justice system at a rate three to five times higher than the general school population, with the effect particularly acute for children of color. Those like his brother, meanwhile, more often avoided consequences.
“If you show up in court, and you’re ‘yes ma’am … no sir,’ and you’re well dressed, with lots of eye contact, and you’ve got your mom and dad right behind you, you’re a lot more likely to be released,” he says. “If you don’t have those skills, and you don’t look people in the eye, and your behavior doesn’t give people confidence that you’ve really learned your lesson, you’re more likely to be detained.”
Leone once considered a career in journalism; today that urge plays out in his effort to expose flaws in dysfunctional systems. In addition to teaching and raising three children, now grown, with his wife, Diane Greig Ph.D. ’94, he’s worked as a court- appointed expert and plaintiff’s witness in places ranging from New York’s Rikers Island to Illinois, California and Hawaii.
“I kind of consider myself a muckraker in the tradition of I.F. Stone,” he says, referring to a crusading 20th-century investigative reporter.
He began regularly visiting Oak Hill more than 20 years ago when a judge appointed him “special master” to oversee the settlement of education issues in a long-running lawsuit over inadequate conditions and services for special-needs children. He was often flabbergasted by what he saw.
“I’d go out there at 10 a.m. on a school day and find youth roaming the grounds unsupervised,” while correctional staff chatted with each other.
Once, a science teacher in a vacant classroom told him that students had gone to another class to complete a special dinosaur project. “So I went down to the math class, and they’re showing ‘Jurassic Park 2.’”
In 1999, the judge gave Leone and colleague Sheri Meisel, then a University of Maryland postdoctoral researcher, control of D.C. Public Schools facilities in correctional centers. A District appeal eventually succeeded, but Leone had a year in the meantime to replace staff, beef up curriculum, policy and procedures and hire a new principal at Oak Hill.
He was back in a monitoring role a few years later when the new head of D.C.’s Division of Youth Rehabilitation Services, Vinny Schiraldi, approached Leone with a plan to close 208-bed Oak Hill and replace it with a facility designed for rehabilitation.
The new 60-bed center would be limited to those who actually need to be locked up. (After years of falling crime rates and new thinking about juvenile justice, New Beginnings is now half-full.)
“Peter was a godsend, an absolute godsend,” says Schiraldi, who later led New York City’s probation department and now teaches at Columbia University. “I knew the advice I was getting from him about how these young people should be educated was the best advice I could get in the country.”
Leone developed specifications for the education program at the new facility. The See Forever Foundation—which had set up several charter schools in D.C. for disadvantaged youth—was chosen to establish the Maya Angelou Academy at Oak Hill in 2006. According to the foundation’s statistics, twice as many residents now return to school or a job after leaving the academy as during its first year of operation.
David Domenici, See Forever co-founder and the academy’s first principal, became close friends with Leone during the changeover. Leone has since collaborated on projects nationwide with Domenici’s newer nonprofit, the Center for Educational Excellence in Alternative Settings.
“He often goes into these places with a big stick—a court order—but he doesn’t go in screaming,” Domenici says. “Instead he does his Peter thing, which is to be really good with people, really good at understanding what’s happening inside the institution—not an ivory tower attitude, but an attitude that we’re all going to work toward effective solutions.”
New Beginnings could pass for a modern private school if not for the security fences peeking out. On the sidewalk outside, in the shadow of one of Forest Haven’s eerie, abandoned hulks, Leone’s class clusters nervously around him. The low-key Midwesterner favors ball caps and comfortable khakis, and in contrast to his students, seems more at home here than on campus.
They pass through metal detectors and security doors into the Maya Angelou Academy, a cheerily decorated wing of New Beginnings named for the poet and civil rights activist who visited regularly before her 2014 death.
Books and vibrant portraits of African-American leaders and cultural icons line the walls. Incarcerated youth—scholars, as they’re called here—go to and from class wearing polos and tan pants similar to regular public school uniforms. Some may have committed serious crimes, but most are here for nonviolent offenses; at least half have disabilities.
Leone’s students split up. Several visit a science class where a young teacher guides scholars through the chemical equation for photosynthesis.
Lanky, smiling Taiquan, 17, stops writing and suddenly stands and paces across the classroom. His frequent compulsion to “jump up,” he says later, causes trouble at his home school. It’s less of a problem here, and he says he’s catching up in subjects he was failing on the outside.
He was sent to New Beginnings previously—staff wouldn’t let him detail his offenses to outsiders—but didn’t stay long. Surprisingly, he worries this confinement, too, will be short.
“You learn more here than in a regular school,” he says. “I think if they let me stay here, I think I can graduate. If not, I don’t know.”
Before returning to College Park, Leone huddles with his students. The Maya Angelou scholars had more questions for them than vice versa—what are college parties like, how hard are university classes, what are salaries like in their fields?—but his undergrads did gain some impressions Leone hopes could help nudge society’s needle in a constructive direction.
Despite being confined, many of the scholars seem eager to learn and to be nurturing goals in life, a young woman offers.
“Tell people about it,” Leone responds. “When you go home for the holidays, I hope you talk with your families and friends about what you saw here; talk about the kids here.”
Because—whether they leave lockup more alienated, or prepared to contribute to their communities—the kids are returning to society.
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