Teaching 'captive audience' of teens Detention center class aims to curb crime

March 25, 1996|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

The classes Darryl Moore teaches are the smallest in Baltimore County, and his young students are among the most eager.

But most county teachers probably wouldn't envy his month-old assignment: schooling jailed adolescents accused of such crimes as murder, armed robbery and drug dealing. His new job is part of the county's response to juvenile crime, which is increasing in frequency and brutality throughout the nation.

"It's a captive audience," Mr. Moore admits, adding, "I love it. These guys have a hunger and a thirst for information. They're a lot more teachable" than normal schoolchildren.

Baltimore County is the first area suburb to have organized classes for teen-age inmates charged as adults, says Queen Anne's County Sheriff Lamont Cook, president of the Maryland Correctional Administrators Association.

But it probably won't be the last.

Criminologists predict that the trend of younger people committing more violent crimes will continue.

As recently as 1991, 66 youths younger than 18 passed through the Baltimore County Detention Center, with no more than a few in residence at any one time, Administrator James M. Dean said. Last year, the center handled 128 inmates younger than 18.

Nationwide, arrests of youths 18 and under for violent offenses rose from 15 percent of the total in 1988 to 19 percent in 1994, said Melissa Sickmund, a senior research assistant at the National Center for Juvenile Justice in Pittsburgh. And within that age group, arrest rates for violent crimes increased 50 percent during the period, she said.

Mr. Moore, the county detention center's first teacher for inmates younger than 21, deals with the phenomenon on a personal level, four to six at a time, in a tiny classroom with a half-dozen chair-desks, a color computer and a small green chalkboard. A round table and bookshelf up front are for the teacher.

He has 30 students, including two teen-age girls. Half are 16 or younger, and most never got past middle school. About half were in special education classes.

Their appearance ranges from man-sized to short, slim youths with baby faces. Their speech is slurred with street accents and terms, and their posture is slack. Among them: a 15-year-old charged with first-degree murder, and an 18-year-old charged with armed robbery and attempted murder.

All were charged as adults, often with the most serious crimes, and normally spend months, not weeks, in the crowded detention center on Kenilworth Drive.

Antonio Jose Warren, 16, a big, bass-voiced youth with a round face and short attention span, is typical. He's been at the jail since July for selling drugs, and, like the others, is delighted to be in school.

Seated with four other prisoners, all wearing bright-orange jail-issue jumpsuits and matching plastic sandals, his gaze wandered during a recent lesson -- from the third-grade long division being taught up front to the colorful maps on the classroom walls.

He struggles a bit with the idea of adding simple fractions, but gets a problem right.

"You got it. You just don't understand what you got, but you got it," Mr. Moore encourages.

"I like math," Antonio says. "I only knew how to add and subtract. Now I can divide."

Says another youth, who would not allow his name to be used: "This gives me a chance to do something I didn't do at home. At home, you got temptation. Here, you don't have nothing else to do."

Mr. Moore, 40, a big, enthusiastic doctoral candidate with a quick smile and a sharp eye, frequently and gently nudges the students' attention back to his lesson.

"I love it. I love it. It's just so exciting," he says of his pupils' eagerness to be in his jail-house classroom instead of their prison pods. They even do their homework.

A former teacher at the Charles H. Hickey Jr. School, the state's juvenile detention center, he's doing his thesis on teaching in prison. Deeply imbued with the desire to help black men in prison after attending the Million Man March in the fall, he also volunteers to tutor at the Maryland Penitentiary.

The first lesson for his young jail charges during a recent session, however, was on the "offense cycle" -- a circular chart of emotional impulses that can lead from a perceived insult all the way to a shooting. It's an effort to teach impulse control -- the kind that might prevent a fight, or a murder.

Some of the kids have heard it before. "I got this at Hickey. I got out, but then I did it again," one youth says.

Mr. Dean, a former Hickey superintendent, began lobbying for the new teacher last year, when he realized the number of under-16 inmates was rising. State law requires schooling for youths younger than 16.

Mr. Moore was recruited part time by the county school system's adult education office. He also teaches part time at the county's Eastern Family Resource Center in Rosedale. A combination of a $10,000 federal grant and county money pays his $16.25-per-hour salary.

Pub Date: 3/25/96

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