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.
After copying Louisville's truancy program, St. Louis made its first change immediately: on-the-spot drug testing.
Jennifer Silverberg
After copying Louisville's truancy program, St. Louis made its first change immediately: on-the-spot drug testing.
Thomas Frawley, administrative judge of the city's Family Court, finds the problems behind truancy overwhelming but says his biggest surprise was this: "They're good kids."
Jennifer Silverberg
Thomas Frawley, administrative judge of the city's Family Court, finds the problems behind truancy overwhelming but says his biggest surprise was this: "They're good kids."
"Truancy basketball," where the tensions of rebellion and judicial tough talk get sweated out on the court. At left, Frawley takes a breather; these kids have nothing but energy.
Jennifer Silverberg
"Truancy basketball," where the tensions of rebellion and judicial tough talk get sweated out on the court. At left, Frawley takes a breather; these kids have nothing but energy.

"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:

"Where you been?"

"Home," says Chantal, tilting her head at her mom as if to say she should know.

Burger stares at the mother, waiting.

"Lemme think, lemme think," the woman says. "When did we go in court the first time?"

She turns back to her daughter.

"Where you been?"

Burger orders the girl to return in two weeks with perfect attendance.

She reaches with relief for the next student's file -- and gasps at the number of days truant.

Then she remembers to look at the breakdown.

"You were suspended 16 of the 25 days?" she asks the boy who's been slouched in the front row, his big knees jutting at opposite angles, his face a mask of disdain.

His mother sighs.

"They suspended him and put him in this after-school program, and then they kicked him out of that. I get calls at work all the time, saying he's been suspended or sent home," she says.

The first year Burger did this, Roosevelt's easy suspensions drove her crazy. She phoned the ninth-grade principal weekly about this silliness. Freshmen didn't have to show up until 1 p.m. for in-school suspension, and the older kids often got out-of-school suspensions -- which meant they got to sleep in, watch TV and bond with the dropouts on the street. Where was the discipline in that?

Burger doesn't make those calls anymore.

The backtalk's worn her down.

"Take your hands out of your pockets and stand respectfully," she snaps at a tall, lean young woman with 3-inch hoops through her ears. "You missed last week's court date, and you haven't reported to school at all."

"My grandfather died."

"We'll need proof of that. What are you using? Marijuana? Oh, that's right, you and your mother use it together. And you were kicked out of New Beginnings [a court-ordered drug treatment program]? How old are you?"

"I'm 15."

"You are acting and dressing like you're 25, and your attitude is like you're 25."

"I don't have an attitude."

"Well, I am saying you do -- your posture, your tone."

"You want me to stand like this?" She feigns demureness, hands behind her back.

"You don't sass an adult. And you sure as heck don't sass a judge. You keep your mouth shut and be respectful, because you are 15 years old.

"Twenty hours of community service."

As the girl saunters out, the intercom crackles and a pompous voice fills the air.

"Teachers, please check your suspension list and send any students that appear on that list to the office."

The hall rustles with bodies.

Burger still doesn't approve.

But she's beginning to understand.


Burger and the other volunteers take the first tier of truancy cases. And they manage to turn quite a few kids around: the immigrants who didn't understand what was expected; the smart, sad girls with neat rounded penmanship that dents the pages; the boys like Eddie, who skipped most of eighth grade because, as he solemnly puts it:

"I had enemies. They'd walk up and slap me upside the head."

Instead of fighting back and getting suspended anyway, he stayed home and watched Animaniacs. Freshman year at Roosevelt, he racked up 18 days truant out of habit.

Then he found himself in a courtroom.

One mention of detention, and Eddie started going to school. Now he's in one of the smaller career academies, an effort to section off Roosevelt's huge, chaotic student body so teachers and students can pay attention to each other. He wants to be a psychologist; he likes knowing "how you can get people's minds off their stress and what be hurting them."

He looks at kids on the street and thinks: "They don't have much knowledge. What do they think their future's gonna be? They're gonna be like a homeless, ropeless person."

Eddie won't be meeting Frawley down at 920 N. Vandeventer.

Frawley hears the cases that go all the way to Juvenile Court -- the kids unreformed by scolding, threats and essays on "how I would expect students to behave if I were the teacher."

He also gets the handful referred from schools such as Vashon High School, whose principal didn't exactly clamor for an on-site courtroom.

"If you think your kid's smokin' weed, I'll get him tested right here and now," Frawley tells the parents assembled in his courtroom.

Clad in jeans, their eyes uncertain, many of them look like teenagers themselves, still trying to figure out the world.

"If you want your kids to see what it's like living in a 4-by-4 detention cell, we'll keep 'em overnight for you," continues Frawley, his voice louder. "And there ain't no D -- V -- D."

This afternoon, the first case -- strategically called before the new parents leave the room -- is a boy who's had perfect attendance since he was referred. All the parents applaud. Amazingly enough, so do most of the kids.

"Nice job, man," Frawley murmurs. "Congratulations."

Then he calls Lamar: bright, talented, truant almost every day.

"What's the story, Lamar?"

"There is nothing that motivates me."

Startled by the complete sentence, Frawley probes further. It turns out Lamar has his heart set on transferring to the Visual and Performing Arts Academy.

A serious game of musical chairs is played in the St. Louis high schools, with kids coveting transfers the way preps jockey for Ivy League acceptances. Everybody's grown used to it. Sometimes the judges point out that life isn't about transferring away from your problems. Other times, they agree with the kids.

"I'll be glad to put in a word for you," says Frawley. "But you keep shooting yourself in the foot. They'll look at your record and say, 'Why would we take a kid who won't go to school?' You're screwing yourself, man. So what can I do to help you out? You want me to drive by Roosevelt every morning and make sure you're going?"

Lamar nods eagerly, so hungry for attention that the sarcasm is lost on him.

Frawley's used to this phenomenon, too. He's seen kids shape up but still maneuver to come back to court, just so they can hear somebody say something good about them. Court is the only place they've ever seen their parents smile in relief.

The next boy, Joneal, is older, tall as a tree, his hair in cornrows. He says he's doing great. His mom winces. His DJO produces the file: six cuts, one tardy, four unverified misses and three suspensions.

"I'm gonna go to school," Joneal insists.

"You gave me that crap the last time we were here," Frawley fires back.

Then his voice softens.

"You know what this is all about? We want to keep you safe. You got any friends who've been shot? You got any friends who've died?"

Joneal nods yes.

"How'd they die?"

His head rolls around, as if the question's coming toward him and he can duck it.

"We don't want to lose you, man," says Frawley. "You can do this. You've got a mama who cares."

Joneal looks up, startled. Then he leaves, and Daniel walks slowly to the bench, pushing his wire glasses up on his nose. His hair is fuzzy and uneven, his neck long and skinny. Truancy started after his mother died, his Division of Family Services caseworker reports. Now he's entering high school at Vashon.

Frawley frowns.

"That's a tough place to be," he says, "and you will be the new kid on the block. But you need to improve your attendance before we can try to get you into another school.

"It's tough when you lose your mama," Frawley continues. "I just lost mine. I guess what I'm saying is, honor her memory. And talk to that grief counselor. It'll give you a chance to say you're pissed off. Your mama's passed, and you're living with somebody who's not your mama."

The next boy isn't even present. Social workers gather around Frawley, admitting they're at a loss. The kid busted out of his drug treatment program. Now he's on the street.

His mother will have to get herself charged with neglect and give up custody in order to turn him over to DFS and get him a residential placement somewhere safe.

But even if she does this, there's no guarantee he'll be accepted anywhere.

"We've got to do something," says Frawley, jaw tight,"'cause we are gonna lose this kid totally."

The next girl's sullen, her eyes glazed.

"Drop her," directs Frawley.

Ten minutes later, the bailiff sticks his head in the door, stripping off latex gloves.

"That one's dirty, Judge."

"I figured."

And now Shanda comes forward. Her DJO says she's been climbing out of the window, missing the night-watch curfew. She rolls her eyes.

"I don't sneak out of the window," she says huffily. "I just don't be there when they come."

Frawley keeps a straight face, asks her what he should do with her.

"Put me in a program," she says, already habituated to a life of whatever social services strangers think she needs.

"What kind of program?" asks Frawley.

"It don't matter."

A long volley follows, punctured by angry denunciations from her mother. Finally Shanda, head down, mutters two words.

"My daddy."

"You want to live with your daddy?" asks Frawley, grabbing for it.

The mother explodes.

"Shanda! After all them years he didn't even want to claim you, and you are going to tell me you want to go live with him?"

Shanda looks her straight in the eye.

"You don't want me."


Last on Frawley's docket is Eric, who's in drug treatment, staying clean. He's decided not to go back to Vashon. Frawley grills him about his plan to take the GED exam instead, then says, "Frankly, I think you made the right decision."

Caseworker Ed Bell comes up and shakes Eric's hand.

"Keep up the good work. That was a good decision."

Throughout the three-hour court session, Bell has stood quietly against the wall. He wears gold-rimmed spectacles and has the vocabulary of an Oxford don -- sailing out from the wiry, hard-muscled body of a bantamweight boxer. Bell spent 20 years in the military before he started working with violent male juveniles.

He describes his job as "a fool's errand."

"If you are going to be in this business, you have to understand that you are going to affect very little of it," he says. His voice is deliberate, his eyes black pools of too much knowledge. The judges turn to him whenever they can't think what to do, and he spends his days trying to calm an ever-growing caseload scattered across the city schools. They're angry, all of them, and their offenses run the gamut from truancy to murder charges.

Most, he says, have learning disabilities, impulse problems or developmental delays.

They're not getting anything near what they need to succeed.

Any "positive outcomes"?

He shrugs.

"Year before last, I had a kid complete high school and go to junior college."

The words hang in the air, and he hears how grim they sound.

"I see this truancy program working for some," he says quickly. "I do see it working for some. If they are fortunate enough to have someone at home who has not given up on them, someone who is willing to fight the battle 24/7, they stand a chance.

"But a kid who's been in the system 15 years just hears some more conversation."

Bell looks off into the distance.

"Most of these kids have raised themselves," he says. "They remind me of Romulus and Remus. Whatever they learn, they learn mostly as defenses, and it's difficult to destroy those defenses.

"Because when they leave the school, they need them."


Judge Betty Turner has the sternest ponytail on record.

Shiny black hair pulled taut, she leans forward on her desk and stares down through thick-rimmed glasses at the least fixable part of the truancy problem: the parents.

Until last year, truancy cases rarely made it onto a municipal docket. If a hearing did get scheduled, the parents skipped it. Consequences didn't come until their kid got shot or locked up.

Now, Turner gives the parents one chance to assume responsibility. If they fail, they return for a show-cause trial, and the burden of proof is on them. Either they convince her, or they're sent straight to the medium-security institution for up to 90 days and fined $25 for each day their child was truant.

Public justice is invading their homes, and they're furious.

Turner stays as serene as a Buddha, containing and rebuffing their rage. She gives them every chance she can. But she holds firm.

Today she begins with Marilyn, whose daughter has run away.

"You haven't changed the locks on the door," Turner reminds her. "It looks like you are aiding her. We've been through this before, ma'am. Ma'am! If you are not aiding this child, then you are going to make a police report. No more games. The child has to answer to somebody, or you are going to answer to this court."

Outside, Marilyn says in a rush everything she couldn't say to the judge:

"Lady, how easy could that be? Could you change the locks when you were worried to death about where your baby was? And let's say this child just refuses to go to school and you do lock me up: Where will she be? You think a relative would take my problem child that I can't even deal with?"

She used to be close to her daughter, she says. Now the probation officer keeps hinting that Marilyn must be the cause of the problem. But she's been clean of drugs for years -- she had to pay $25 for a test to prove it.

Marilyn runs through a memorized litany of reasons: The kids her daughter runs with don't go to school, they all hate Beaumont High School and so on.

She talks herself all the way to the truth: The daughter turned wild after her father left them. He fathered a baby with another woman, and then he stopped taking his daughter's calls.

She knew it was on purpose, because he has Caller ID.

And when she blocked her number and called back, he answered.

"I tried to make up for it," says Marilyn. "She has her own phone and a TV and more than enough shoes. But none of that could take his place."


Two weeks later, Charee, mother of eight boys and two girls, tries to show cause why she should not be incarcerated. One son has missed more than 100 days, four others between 14 and 55 days apiece.

"I couldn't really say why," says Charee. "They just won't go. I'm workin' on it, though."

She lives four doors from the school. She doesn't work. She was referred for drug treatment, but the court has no record of her going.

"Ma'am, I find that you have not attempted to meet your burden of proof and there is absolutely no improvement," says Turner.

Charee is handcuffed and taken, weeping, to MSI.

The next mother meets the same fate, with equal incomprehension:

"If I walk Todd to school and he don't stay there, then I'm being held responsible for his actions?"

Well, yeah.

Last is Mary, whose son, Tony, has missed 48 days at Beaumont High School.

"There is evidence that his problems were due to his father's and my drug use," she says with dignity. She describes a history of problems with attention and behavior, a recent diagnosis and four medication changes.

Tony rises to testify, his handsome features soft-edged, smudged like a charcoal sketch. His coat slips as he walks forward, and Mary instinctively reaches to catch it.

She's been a wreck about this trial. After years of protecting her son from a stepfather angry enough to throw him around the room -- years of school failures and tantrums -- a poster on the wall at Juvenile Court told her what his teachers wouldn't: The school district had special programs and services for kids with behavior problems.

"Nobody told you because they don't want to do all the paperwork," one of the better teachers whispered.

Tony was given an individual education plan and an appointment with a pediatric neurologist. He was found to have attention deficit disorder; after three false tries, the clinic finally found the right medicine: Concerta.

Both his grades and attendance improved dramatically.

"Now, just when everything's finally good, they're gonna lock me up," thought Mary.

She started calling "every person I'd ever met in my life" to be a character witness, until her delinquent, wise 16-year-old forestalled her:

"Mama, no. All you need is you and me. It's just about you and me."

Now he's telling Turner that his mother has always stood by him, that his behavior has been his own fault.

They go home together, both on probation.


Tony started goofing off in third grade, singing, falling off his seat on purpose.

Silly stuff.

By the fourth grade, he was hanging out with the bad kids because it looked like they were having so much fun.

His grades skidded down to F's.

Every year he'd fail, then go to summer school, take ceramics, do what both he and his mother recognized as "baby work" and pass to the next grade.

He shocked everybody by asking to go to the ROTC high school, hoping for discipline and structure and wanting neither.

"I didn't do nothin' but cuss out the platoon leaders, acting the fool," he says. "So they kicked me out."

Mary drove him to Beaumont. He looked up at the stately burgundy redbrick building, its center limestone panel as ornate as a lace bodice. Kids spilled down its front steps, smoking and cussing.

"They're gonna beat me up," he whispered.

"You're just like them," she snapped back.

Travis Brown, Beaumont's genial, nattily dressed principal, would have reassured Tony heartily.

Brown, who refers to himself in singsong third person and could easily host a children's show, says that Beaumont neither has nor needs in-school suspension; behavior is improving in every way.

"You make Mr. Brown's honor roll, look what you get!" he exclaims. He removes his watch, its face clearly lettered BEAUMONT. "You make top honors, I take you and your parents out to lunch."

He chuckles for a long, long time.

"See?"

Brown locks the school doors, tracks attendance every hour and keeps his staff in tennis shoes so they can walk the halls. "And at 8 every morning, the counselors come in and talk to students about their tardies, and who else comes in? Mr. Brown!"

Tony thinks Mr. Brown is nuts:

"Skipping's not hard at all. All you gotta do is check to see which of the outside doors has a little red light, instead of a green light, and then push it and walk on out."

He did this constantly last year. Hung out at an apartment house around the corner, smoking weed.

"At first it gives you this great feeling," he explains. "No fear. You're invincible. You can talk to a girl you have a crush on and not even be shy.

"But then your attitude starts to change. I barely even went home. I was wearing the same clothes all the time."

He got arrested for helping some older guys steal a car, and he was put in detention.

"It wasn't nothin'," he shrugs. "Only a few weeks. Then they put me on probation and they put me in drug rehab." Tony stopped smoking weed -- mainly because he knew he'd get dropped -- but he kept getting suspended. Beaumont now had him in a behavior-disorders classroom.

"Take all the bad kids and put 'em in one place?" He chortles at the logic. "I'd come to school drunk on MD 20/20 and walk out of class cussin' the teacher: 'Damn, man, what the fuck, why you got to be trippin' with me? Well, fuck this classroom."

Once he pointed the security guard toward another, innocent student and walked out the door.

Once he walked across all the desktops to get to the door.

That was the day everything changed.

"They suspended me, but they wanted me to go back and apologize to the teacher first. I said, 'What?' I really didn't feel I did anything wrong. Then these guys from New Beginnings came by my classroom. They told me that by me acting the fool I ain't helping nobody. My race is suffering. We ain't doing nothing positive. We ain't trying to help each other out in no way.

"That's the first time I ever heard anything like that," he says. "I went back and apologized."

He hasn't been suspended since.

"I figured something out," he says. "Every black adult is telling their children, 'The white man doesn't want you to succeed. The white man is giving you drugs.' Every white man ain't like that. If you get your education and do everything legitimate, the white man can't touch you."

All his mother knows is that just when she'd given up on her son's sodden brain, he started telling her about cryogenics. He said he was tired of his pants sagging down and asked for a belt. She picked up his bookbag and nearly dropped it: Instead of Twinkies and some clothes, he had books inside it.

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.

"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.

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.

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.

"That a basketball, Judge?" one of the kids calls.

"Nope, it's my shoes," he says, pulling out the dry sneakers.

Roosevelt DJO Dave Vierzba, a.k.a Mr. V, runs out onto the court in a black T-shirt, long shorts, red sneakers and a knee brace. Judge Jimmy Edwards, already breathing hard from a warmup, straps on plastic sports goggles.

"We're gonna die before they're gonna die," mutters Frawley.

DJO Timothy Felton dances down one of the half-court lines, wriggling his butt to encourage some cheerleading. Burger shows up dressed for a benefit dinner and sits at the scoring table, periodically yelling "Go kids!" in a sweet treble.

The play is sloppy at first, hands flailing, movements uncontrolled. Out here, the kids look their age for once: unsure which way to pass, their arms and legs not quite in sync. They remember to feint with every pass, though; they're used to faking out DJOs.

"Go right!" yells Frawley, and they all run into each other midcourt. One of the kids gets "the rock" and passes it, and a skinny long-necked freshman banks it off glass and in.

Mr. V swipes the ball back and sinks two in a row.

Nobody makes a single smart-ass remark.

Frawley's amazed every game by how courteous the kids are. There's no trash talk. The usual anger dribbles and spins itself out.

These are kids who've puffed themselves up with the false pride the street demands. It's fragile. They feel dissed by teachers every day, and they give back what they think they're getting.

Except here.

The grown-ups lead by six points, then 10.

"Nice shot," a kid calls to Edwards, who's drenched with sweat.

They all are, and the mood is loose and easy.

Basketball is a time-out. A brief stretch where the adults and the kids are playing by the same rules. A time when the kids hang out with adults who already know they're screw-ups -- and show off one thing they can do well.

Felton dribbles through traffic and charges down the court.

"Traveling!" yells the ref.

Frawley grabs a pass and dribbles toward the hoop, stooped like Groucho Marx in his white sneakers. He springs up, takes a long shot. It wobbles around the rim, bounces back out.

"Anybody need a break?" he calls hopefully.

Instead, a long-legged kid in sky-blue satin shorts steals the ball, drives down court and shoots a three. A DJO on the sidelines forgets his team and claps. The gap in the score starts closing.

But the grown-ups, puffing and drenched, still win.

Afterward, Ed Bell grins at the shocked kids and taps his forehead.

"The game," he announces, "is up here."

Frawley shoots a look at the kids' faces. He knows teenagers hate to lose at anything.

But oddly enough, here, they seem to find it reassuring.

These grown-ups are clearly grown-ups.

They're in control. They're good at what they do.

The kids can still be kids.

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