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.

He's getting A's.

And she's looking at a jail sentence.

"I think this truancy program is a brutish thing," she says, not even reassured by the reprieve of probation. "They have these little helper people sitting around -- I guess they figure, 'Just hook them up, and they will fix the family and the kids will go to school.' But it's not that easy. There's not just one reason for kids' being truant.

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.

"It's a great big ball of things."


Michael goes blank when he tries to imagine a real future.

"I just can't think of nothing."

In his wildest dreams, what could happen for him?

His face lights up.

"A car."

He's 14, and he's been suspended from Sumner High School five times, mainly for fighting.

Freshman year's the cutoff, the judges say; kids go from a relatively manageable eighth grade to a huge new school teeming with bigger, older, rougher kids. The counselors are so overworked, a kid has to be pretty resourceful to get any kind of help at all.

"People circle up, during change of classes mostly," Michael explains. "They want to prove that they tough." His eyes dart, monitoring the perimeter even at White Castle.

He's used to threats.

What he's not used to is the way some of his teachers cuss right back at the kids.

He can see they're frustrated, because the kids aren't listening.

But it's still weird seeing grown-ups with no more self-control than their students.

Michael says that, most days, he gets up, gets dressed and goes on to school. But once he's there and it's time for, say, math class, he clutches and sneaks into the gym, where everybody goes to cut class and shoot baskets.

Part of truancy is common sense: Who wouldn't rather shoot hoops than factor quadratic equations?

But the other part, the part nobody wants to talk about, is that the classes themselves are often boring, abstract, inchoate, heavy with the indifference of teachers and students alike.

"There just ain't nothin' to do after you do your work," says Michael. "You're just sitting there, and I can't just sit in one spot and be still. They give you one assignment and that's it. Some kids just don't do it. Most just lay down and go to sleep, wake up when the bell rings."

He started going to math after he spent Valentine's Day in detention.

"They take your hair down, if you have braids, and make you put on somebody else's clothes," he says, shuddering. "Then they take you to a little small room, just enough for you, and wake you up at 5 a.m. to mop the floor."

Michael is one of the kids the judges use to rationalize their new tough talk; he's still soft enough to respond to the threat of detention.

The other piece of the truancy program that caught his attention, he adds, was "when the judge talked about playing basketball, because I thought we was going to beat them."


Wednesday afternoon, eight suspended kids show up for "restoration group" with truancy supervisor Joli Baker. A straightforward social worker who spurns jargon and looks uncomfortable in pumps, she's determined to give them some sense of possibility, some way to feel good about who they are.

They're all currently suspended from school.

When Baker tells them they'll be making a collage of their positive traits, Deshawn gives a short laugh.

Silence settles.

"Is anyone patient or kind or thoughtful?" Baker tries.

Latifa leans against the wall and closes her eyes. Baker hands her a magazine.

"So what is one thing you are good at, Latifa?"

"I'm looking."

"Well, just tell me."

Silence.

"What would a teacher say if they were complimenting you? Or a parent?"

Latifa stares down at the magazine.

"Have you had a compliment?" Baker asks gently.

"Why you ask me and you don't ask nobody else?" says Latifa, the anger rising like mercury.

Baker backs off, turns her attention to the other kids until the end of the session.

Latifa has glued down three words:

"Scouting. Timeless values."


In Missouri, once you turn 16, you no longer have to go to school. The law dates back decades, finding its rationale in fields that needed plowing, corn that needed to be harvested.

Today, it's the urban areas that have the highest dropout rates.

And the harvest is in body bags.

Kids stop caring around 15 and start tugging their friends toward the street. At 16, they come back, slouch low in their seats, ricochet obscenities off the blackboard and ask the teacher what she's gonna do about it.

A few months ago, state Sen. Pat Dougherty agreed to sponsor a bill extending the age of mandatory schooling to 18 for the city of St. Louis. The judges are delighted; they need the leverage. Right now, the kids over 16 are coming just to disrupt any semblance of order.

"What do you do, carve out a school just for the malcontents?" Frawley asks rhetorically. "Then you have pegged them, so they are really screwed. The problem is overwhelming."

The judges find daily cause to blame the schools -- but they don't. No single institution should have this much asked of it.

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