Two dozen middle-school students have received an eye-opening lesson on the consequences of the illegal use of alcohol and other drugs.
Serving Eastern Loudoun Families (SELF), a community coalition that advocates alcohol- and drug-free schools, initiated a pilot program at Sterling Middle School, where Susan Buckley, a volunteer and a lawyer, spearheaded a field trip to the Loudoun County courthouse and Juvenile Detention Center (JDC). The latter destination generated the most attention.
Kenneth Dodson, the eighth-grade dean, agreed. "My group, the one I was in, they put us in the drop-off point. We're standing there in this 12-foot fence with the rolling barbed wire at the top," he said. "The myth of the 'JDC' is now a reality to a lot of the kids."
HE SAID THE GOAL was to show students what happens to those who don't follow the law. The county's four community coalitions plan to replicate the field trip at all of Loudoun's middle schools next year.
Michele Smith, the Juvenile Detention Center's assistant superintendent, served as the tour guide. "When she told them, 'We give the kids two phone calls a week, one to mom and one to dad,' there was sort of a gasp," he said. "Somebody asked, 'What about our friends?'"
If the prisoners stay out of trouble for two weeks in a row, they receive 30 minutes of television, he said. Bedtime is 9 p.m., but inmates have to call it a night as early at 6 p.m. if they don't behave. "This was another way the kids were shocked," Dodson said.
BUCKLEY SAID the students were selected at random, contributing to a mix of at-risk students and those who are likely to not break the law. "They were to act as messengers, going back to school and telling other students what happened," she said.
"We couldn't even stop them from sharing when they got back," Dodson said.
Dodson said the students shared their tales informally and during civic class discussions.
Tony Bonilla told his classmates that he would not want to be sent to the JDC. "It's terrible. You can't do anything. You can't choose your food. You can't choose your clothes."
Bonilla's teacher, Kurt Engel, said an inmate might be wearing the under clothes that another prisoner wore the day before. All the laundry is mixed together before it goes into the washing machine, he said.
Bonilla said showers are limited to five minutes, one minute to undress, three to wash and one to dress.
Engel said some students told him that they take an hour-long shower. "I asked them, 'What do you do, go in there with a snorkle?'"
Engel, who taught at a different school 15 years ago and took a class to the same Juvenile Detention Center, told his students last Friday that the prisoners sleep on thin mattresses on a concrete slab or the floor, if the facility is overcrowded.
Dodson said the field trip served as a wake-up call, an "I really don't want to go down this bad trail."
He said one boy told him after the field trip, "I'm a good kid, but I'm going to be a better kid from now on."
BUCKLEY SAID the trip to the courthouse provided another lesson in consequences. Circuit Court Judge Thomas Horne and Family and Domestic Relations District Court Judge Avelina Jacob detailed what has happened to young people who have committed crimes. Horne told the students he hoped they would make the right choices, particularly considering all of their opportunities. He encouraged them to come back to court only as attorneys or in the capacity of someone who is involved in a lawsuit.
Principal Ellen Fein said the pilot project was so successful that she would do it again. The school should stick with small groups, she added. "I don't think it's effective with 300 kids down there. First of all, they don't listen."
Fein said she would continue the practice of sending a mix of students. "Some already have been in the court system. They have been there and done that," she said. "But as far as I'm concerned, all middle-school kids are at risk."