Judgment at Hookyville

The volunteer jurists running a truancy court for St. Louis get an up-close view of wayward kids, don't-care parents and war-zone schools. It's worse than they thought.

[Editor's note: For the adults in this story, only first names have been used. The students' first names are pseudonyms.]

Wanda stands before Judge Thomas Frawley, her pigtails sticking straight out, her lithe 14-year-old body braless.

"I got no reason to go to school," she says, tilting her chin.

"So tell me why you don't go," he says.

"'Cause I don't care about nothing."

"Well, maybe you ought to spend the night with us."

He glances over at the bailiff, who's standing ready for shtick.

Jennifer Silverberg
Judge Joan Burger of the 22nd Circuit Court reads an essay she assigned and hopes to give out a candy bar, for once, instead of a referral to juvenile court or drug treatment. With her is Dave Vierzba, one of two deputy juvenile officers now stationed at Roosevelt High School.
Jennifer Silverberg
Judge Joan Burger of the 22nd Circuit Court reads an essay she assigned and hopes to give out a candy bar, for once, instead of a referral to juvenile court or drug treatment. With her is Dave Vierzba, one of two deputy juvenile officers now stationed at Roosevelt High School.

"We got any clean underwear over there, Bobby?"

"Prob'ly not, Judge."

Wanda mutters: "I tried. I used to go to school all the time."

Frawley asks her more questions, hits brick walls. Finally he asks whether there's anyone she wants to talk to.

She looks down and says, voice barely audible, "A psychiatrist or somebody."

Frawley's eyes change. He motions to the girl's deputy juvenile officer to arrange it, then turns back to Wanda:

"I still have to put you in detention."

She juts one hip, arches her back and extends her arms behind her, posing for the handcuffs with ballerina arrogance.

The minute she's gone, her mom says, disgusted, "She thinks she needs counseling because her sister got killed."

Frawley's head jerks around.

"How did her sister pass?"

"She got shot in September."

When Frawley instituted the city's new Truancy Court in January of 2001, he had a hypothesis:

"Truancy is only the manifestation of a problem that runs much deeper."

At the time, he didn't know this: Instead of finding two or three typical problems, they'd expose a thousand tangled variations.

All he knew was that these kids were his responsibility. He was the administrative judge for the Family Court. And the city of St. Louis had the highest truancy rate in Missouri.

Something had to be done.

Frawley stole a program from Louisville, Ky., and revamped it, adding on-the-spot drug testing and putting DJOs and courtrooms into the schools. His counterpart in the county, Judge Susan Block, was doing something similar.

But what she faced was tame by comparison with the city's chaotic schools and overwhelmed parents, the poverty these kids breathed daily, the constant pulse of gangs and drugs, the street culture's bitter suspicion of education.

Judges from the 22nd Circuit volunteered their time, hoping to lighten their future criminal dockets by keeping at least a few kids off the streets. Twice a month, the judges drove to one of five city schools, stepped up onto a makeshift platform and waited for the truants to be brought before them.

In the parade, they saw what they expected: drugged-out gangbangers, apathy and a lot of adolescent insolence.

Then they did something education bureaucrats can't afford to do.

They started asking why.

They found kids who couldn't spell "cat" or "dog" mainstreamed into crowded high-school classrooms where they were taunted daily for failures they couldn't even articulate. They found kids suspended for smarting off, suspended for being in the hall between classes, suspended for being tardy three times or carrying a pager, suspended three more days as a present for skipping school.

One girl had stopped going to school because she'd been sexually assaulted there.

One school was so soaked in drugs and blood, the judges secretly applauded the kids with the sense to leave.

The problems looked systemic -- until the judges started hearing about teachers so burned out that they cussed right back at the kids.

And parents who never spoke a word of praise because they'd never heard one.

Dulled by failure and struggle, these parents hadn't given their kids any sense that they, or their future, mattered to the world. Some of the mothers were so drug-addled, they didn't even notice the child sprawled on the sofa watching Comedy Central for 51 school days.

Some were still children themselves.

Here, the city had an edge: an ordinance that allowed them to hold parents responsible for their children's truancy. Municipal Judge Betty Battle Turner opened her own truancy court for parents and set about trying to distinguish negligence from helpless love.

The volunteer judges returned to the students and started taking them one case at a time. Exploring their brains a little. Finding tiny signs of hope: a squirm of guilt at embarrassing a decent mother. A quick look down at the floor, because the kid was setting a bad example for a little brother. A spark of reaction to jazz or theater or basketball.

For the kids whose eyes stayed dead, there was shock treatment:

Handcuffed trips to detention. Community service pulling feces from unflushed toilets. Residential placements at Boys and Girls Town.

When there was no improvement, the punishments escalated.

The tougher they got, the less chance they had of working.

Deep down, the judges knew this.

But judges aren't used to feeling helpless.

At 7:15 a.m. every other Wednesday, Judge Joan Burger smoothes her silk dress, climbs to the smelly, overwarm third floor of Roosevelt's High School and listens to a litany of mumbled excuses and sass.

It's not always coming from the kids.

Asked why her daughter has missed nearly every school day in the second semester, Chantal's mom turns to the child:

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