School goes on at juvenile detention
Teacher Guy Tutland says people probably would be surprised if they met the kids in his classroom in Jackson County's juvenile detention center.
"I think probably the No. 1 thing that would surprise them would be if they met them one-on-one, they would realize they are just kids. They're just like other kids, but they usually had something that caused their lives to derail. There's still a kid in there somewhere who wants to be a loved, respected, contributing member of society," Tutland says.
Like teachers who worked in the one-room schoolhouses of the past, the former Central Medford High School principal teaches kids of all ages.
"My youngest was 10 years old so far," Tutland says.
His oldest student was 21, although most range in age from 12 to 18. The classroom seats up to 24 students. Most are boys, although Tutland usually has a handful of girls.
Some are in his classroom for only a few hours, while others are at the detention center for months. The average stay is 10 days, he says.
To get to his classroom, Tutland passes through a series of locked doors at the Jackson County Juvenile Services building in Medford. The facility is equipped with 122 security cameras.
His students come silently into the classroom and face forward in their desks. They aren't allowed to talk to each other in class or pass notes. That can make classroom discussions tricky.
"If a student wants to talk and make a comment about what another student said, they raise their hand and talk to me. Everything is funneled through me. It's the opposite of what you want in a regular classroom," Tutland says.
The rules are designed to create a consistent, safe environment. Some students are co-defendants together in a criminal case. Others are antagonists, perhaps coming from rival gangs. They have to be kept apart.
The kids often work independently, catching up on school credits as Tutland circulates around the room, offering assistance where it's needed. One student might be focused on finishing senior English, while another tackles pre-algebra.
"The wheels in their brains just spin and spin and spin about their situation. If I can get them to focus on school, that gives their brains an opportunity to slow down," he says.
Spending Christmas or other major holidays in the detention center is extra stressful for the kids. Tutland tries to make school more festive by having his students work on clay snowmen, origami-style wreaths, decorated gift boxes and ornaments made out of eggs.
"The kids make ornaments and Christmas gifts for themselves and their families. It's a way to have art and make the holidays tolerable," he says.
Tutland tries not to pry into the students' situations and doesn't let them reveal aspects of their personal lives in the classroom. But they can share and express their feelings during writing assignments — which are also English, punctuation and spelling lessons.
Tutland says many of the kids have never had the kind of parental guidance most people take for granted. Others already have been through more bad experiences than most people face in a lifetime.
"Some have had horrendous lives. People would say, 'How did you survive?' And the kid is only 12 years old," he says.
For some youths, the detention center represents a safe, secure setting where they are treated with respect by adults, get regular meals and know where they are sleeping at night.
Tutland says he has seen some kids who were released get sent back to the detention center on purpose. One trick is to violate the terms of their probation.
"When kids are here, this is probably the healthiest place some of them have ever been," he says. "They're in jail, but they can see how healthy interactions work."
Once they see the staff members treating them respectfully, the kids generally respond by being respectful themselves.
"That was a surprise to me. It's like Jekyll and Hyde in a way. It exemplifies how kids need caring, compassionate structure," he says.
Tutland says members of the public are often judgmental and have a "lock-em-up" attitude toward juvenile offenders.
"With a lot of kids, there's hope for them if they get help to move beyond the situation and learn skills. They can become contributing members of society. They just have a few strikes against them," he says. "The interventions seem to be working. If we don't give up on them, then we don't have to support them for the rest of their lives in correctional facilities. It makes fiscal sense."