What stereotypes do you associate with juvenile detention centers? Inhumane conditions? Sexual abuse? Hopelessness and despair?
As Michigan Teacher of the Year 2016, I want to be an advocate for all students and educators in all schools, everywhere. This includes students in juvenile detention. As someone who was hospitalized with bipolar disorder for over three months in two different psychiatric settings - I have a slight inkling of what incarceration looks and feels like. I wanted to dispel my own myths, prejudices and biases about juvenile detention.
I had the honor of being the guest of Principal James Thomas at Shawono Center in Grayling. Shawono is one of only two state-run juvenile detention facilities in the state of Michigan. I wanted to simply show up, take a tour and talk to the educators and staff who work at Shawono as a way of showing my support for their work.
Shawono is located west of downtown Grayling in a beautiful, wooded area. The facility houses youth offenders who are incarcerated for an average of 18 months for a variety of offenses. The average age of the juveniles is 16. According to Mr. Thomas one quarter have psychiatric issues. Nearly all the kids who are at Shawono for sex offenses have been sexually abused themselves.
What is somewhat intuitive and evident from conversations with eduactors at Shawono, is that the environment at Shawono itself is not the biggest challenge these young men face. The situation at Shawono is stable, secure and safe. The problems occur when youth return home to dysfunctional environments that have not changed from before they were incarcerated. The instability of local communities and lack of ongoing education and employment opportunities poses a continued challenge to the kids who exit the program at Shawono.
Nevertheless, the educators and staff at Shawono work diligently to provide stability and offer as many opportunities as possible to youth while they are there in the hope that the education, training and psychological support will stick. They hope it will provide some measure of rehabilitation that will insulate a young man enough to enable him to find a successful path in his home community. The small class size, individualized attention and intensive therapies in place at Shawono are all intended to provide hope and a positive trajectory, something that can be elusive for many of the kids at Shawono.
With the closing of the Maxey Boys Training School in Whitmore Lake, the opportunities for career and technical education have been basically eliminated for incarcerated youth in Michigan. This is certainly unfortunate as so many kids benefit from the therapeutic aspects of hands-on learning but also the vocational training considerations that come with learning a trade. Shawono is not equipped to provide career and technical education.
I was certainly impressed with the professionalism, dedication and utter care and concern shown the young men at Shawono. I appreciated the chance to spend time observing classes and watching my colleagues work. Their mission is about as life saving as it gets, as Shawono is truly the end of the line as far as juvenile detention goes. The great work of the educators and staff at Shawono often goes completely and utterly unnoticed by the general public. These professionals and their work is critical. I am fortunate to have had the opportunity to witness them in action.