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.

Still, the variety stuns them:

Teachers so "ghetto" -- in the kids' words -- that they're as angry and impulsive, as lazy and apathetic, as their students.

Teachers so dedicated, they've single-handedly turned around the most bitter and hopeless kids in the system.

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.

Schools such as Roosevelt, the first to welcome a judge onto the premises and the fastest to cooperate with whatever resources, time and programs its staff can scrounge.

Schools like Vashon, which made only 13 of this year's 192 new referrals to the truancy program -- yet has a war-zone reputation, test scores among the lowest in the state and a graduate rate of 23 percent.

The other schools fall somewhere between those extremes, and even though they use the same basic disciplinary code, the grounds for suspension range from felony possession of a firearm to carrying a pager, or smarting off to a teacher who wants you out of her face so she can teach for a while. In the milder cases, "in-school suspension is a better solution," says Bell, "but determining whether to use that vehicle is a capricious and arbitrary process."

He wishes teachers were taught group dynamics so they could learn to manage their classrooms the way he managed his Army recruits. But he also knows that boot camps only change behavior because their graduates are sent away afterward to use those new skills in a new place.

These kids go back to the same streets every day.

Burger knows this all too well. She talks with police more often than she'd like, and she's haunted by kids like Jimmy, who's out of Truancy Court (cases can only stay open one year) and dealing drugs.

"He cries, he says, 'My mom puts me down, and I took care of all the younger kids when she was smoking crack.' It's sad. But I'm past the point where I think I can save everyone," she says briskly.

Case closed.

Then she adds, her voice lower and rushed, "I'd like to save him. I thought I'd have the power over him, and I didn't.

"He has to get out of the environment."


Each judge, each DJO, each caseworker or teacher, is haunted by a different piece of the problem. For Frawley, it's the number of kids with learning disabilities, undiagnosed neurological problems, lead poisoning, parents who didn't know the importance of stimulating their minds early. Frawley's son has an auditory processing disorder, so he's especially sensitive to these kids' frustration -- even when their disabilities come out looking more like hardcore rage:

"They can't move forward, so they get frustrated. They don't succeed, so they start blowing it off. If every day you went in to your job and every day you felt totally inadequate, how long would you keep going?"

He says these things in chambers, blowing steam.

Frustration's contagious.

He calms himself, though, before climbing the bench. He's made a vow to give each kid his full attention.

Enter Billy and Bobby.

Grounded, stripped of TV and Nintendo, watched like hawks by both parents, they have still managed to skip school.

Their mischief comes as comic relief after the girl whose mother is dying of cancer.

But Frawley hears them out. Seems the real problem is that the other kids make fun of Bobby when he tries to read, and the teacher always cuts him off before he can finish. Billy's been trying to teach him at home because it's taken months to get a tutor.

"It's hard to fight the system to make sure he gets everything he needs," Frawley tells the boys' parents. Then he frowns at Billy and Bobby: "But it's impossible if you're not going to school."

Dimitri steps up next. His father died in July, and he started running with his 24-year-old cousin. His mom's spitting mad about his "wearing his pants hangin' down." His face registers no emotion.

"Unfazed, Ed," Frawley says to Bell as the kid leaves.

"That's dangerous," agrees Bell. "We certainly don't have his attention."

Last is Darryl, his eyes lit with intelligence beneath his 4-inch Afro.

"We need some shears," teases Frawley. Then he sobers. "You know, Darryl, you're kind of fun to talk to, 'cause you look at me and you talk and you have a sense of what's funny and what's not, what's appropriate and what's not. And you know what that tells me? You are just messin' with us. And I don't know why."

He leans over his desk and peers at the kid's feet.

"Those aren't those $200 Nikes, are they?"

Bell steps forward. "No, Judge, those are Timberlands -- they run about $130."

"Oh, those are nice," says Frawley, still examining them. "Sit down here and take them off."

Darryl looks up, startled. "You serious?"

"Oh yeah."

The judge's assistant takes the shoes to a capacious closet, attaching Darryl's name. He'll get them back at the next court date, if he behaves.

Frawley turns back to Darryl.

"The next basketball game's the 27th, right? I'm guarding you, buddy."


It rains all of Wednesday. By rush hour, cars are plunging through puddled intersections like horses fording streams. Frawley comes into the brightly lit gym shaking rain from his hair. His penny loafers are soaking wet, and there's a sort of pregnancy bulging out his sweatshirt.

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