A ‘likeable’ kid gets into trouble, drops out at 14

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As a 6th-grader, “Juan” racked up 24 days of suspension for disruptive behavior and finally an expulsion from his Back of the Yards elementary school. Still, Assistant Principal Rhonda Hoskins, Seward Elementary’s disciplinarian, remembers him fondly. “He was a likable kid,” she says with a half-smile, both wry and wistful. “We all liked him.”

Sixth-grade teacher Robert Zarnowski admits he often needs a photo to jog his memory of a former student. “But Juan, he’s a standout. Juan was a good guy. If Juan walked down the street, I’d be the first one to greet him, and the last one to want to see him leave.”

Juan, not his real name, left Seward in May 1998 to face his year of expulsion. A year and a summer later, he resumed his troubled school career as an 8th-grader at nearby Lara Academy. That school year left him without an 8th-grade diploma, and Juan left school altogether.

Now 15, Juan often speaks of his past with surprising candor. Talking excitedly about life on the street, the brushes with danger, the easy money, his words tumble out, and an occasional grin crinkles up his round face. Considering his future, however, he grows somber. “I could have been the next biggest lawyer in the world, the biggest cop,” he reflects, “but now I’m going to be the biggest gang-banger that died in the world.”

Zarnowski considers 6th grade a fork in the road for many troubled kids, a last chance to get themselves on the right path. If only Juan had come to Seward sooner, or stayed with them longer, that might have made all the difference, he thinks.

A veteran teacher, he mourns for all the children who start school full of enthusiasm and gradually lose hope. “In this case, it breaks my heart.”

Juan doesn’t remember much about his early years of school, except for getting in trouble. “I would always go to detention, man,” he says with a short laugh. “Mostly everyday,” and mostly for fighting. “I was a bully.”

Recalling his early home life, he avoids specifics and talks philosophically about how too many children are exposed to “guns or drugs or somebody getting shot or somebody getting beat up.”

Scenes like this play through a little kid’s mind, he says. “He keeps seeing and seeing and seeing,” Juan explains, turning his head back and forth as if viewing a stream of images.

Juan moved to Chicago in 1989 at about the age of 4. His mother, “Maria,” says she wanted to escape a hard life in rural Texas where she had been born, the daughter of Mexican immigrants. She followed a girlfriend north, taking Juan, a younger daughter and a son of about 6. She left behind Juan’s father, also a Mexican immigrant, and two older sons.

Maria had dropped out of high school after giving birth to her second child. For a time, she worked cleaning houses but eventually went on disability. In Chicago, she moved from apartment to apartment. Juan would attend four elementary schools—one on the North Side and Hammond, Finkl and Spry on the near Southwest Side—before enrolling at Seward.

Juan’s kindergarten year went smoothly, Maria recalls. “I never had no complaints.” But from 1st grade on, he was in trouble—”for not listening, for not sitting down, for talking too much, having tantrums.”

A school counselor talked to him, she says. “But it didn’t do no good.”

Juan doesn’t remember any counseling. “Just detention.”

Outside of school, Juan was into more serious trouble. When he was 10 or 11, his mother recalls, some older boys “gave him the first pistol to hide. He was dumb enough to carry it,” and the police nabbed him.

By 5th grade, Juan was so frustrated with school work that he often wanted to hit somebody or yell out: “Leave me alone, I want to do it by myself, stop telling me how to do it!”

He discovered that marijuana soothed him and so began to smoke a joint on his way to school and hide it in his sneaker. “When I’m high, I don’t see the board, I don’t see the teacher,” he explains. “I just see myself, one table, and one pencil, right there with my paper and just doing the work.”

Judging by his math and reading scores on the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills, Juan fell behind early and never caught up. At the end of 3rd grade, he was about two years below level. During 4th grade, he made a two-year gain in reading and over a year in math. But in 5th grade, he showed almost no progress at all.

By the time he arrived at Seward, he was still two years behind in both subjects. But Zarnowski encouraged him, Juan says. “He would be like, ‘How you doing, Juan?’ with a big smile. ‘Yeah, Juan! You’ve got the next question.'”

Reading that question would be a struggle. “I would be mumbling through the words, and he would be like, ‘Come on, come on. A little louder now.’ So I would try. He would help me with the words. But it never worked.”

Praising Juan’s one academic strength, Zarnowski says, “He was verbal. He could discuss things.” Despite low skills, the teacher says Juan made an effort in class, although he never turned in homework. Zarnowski suspects Juan had limited support at home. “I think getting here was all on him.”

Even so, the boy maintained fairly good attendance, school records show. Juan was suspended that year for disruptive behavior outside his 6th grade classroom, but Zarnowski cannot recall a single incidence of misbehavior in class, until the day in mid-February when Juan brought a knife to school.

Once each semester, Seward conducted a security sweep with assistance from central office security personnel. Students in grades 6 to 9 would pass through a metal detector at the front door, and security would check each bag. Juan’s knife did not set off the detector. Security did not find anything in his book bag, Assistant Principal Hoskins later testified at his expulsion hearing.

Upstairs in his classroom, Juan could not resist the urge to boast.

“And of course it came to me, ‘Juan has got a knife,'” Zarnowski recalls sadly. “‘Juan do you have something?’ ‘Yeah, I’ve got a knife.'”

Following district policy, Seward filed a police report and notified the regional office, which would set the expulsion proceedings in motion.

The knife, Hoskins would later testify, had a three-inch blade that flipped out of a brown suede holder. “I don’t think he considered it a weapon, maybe,” she suggested at the mid-April expulsion hearing at Pershing Road.

Juan’s mother described it that day as a pocket knife on a key chain, a memento that his father (actually a stepfather) had given to him before recently leaving the family.

“It was kind of depressing,” Juan says of his stepfather’s departure. He carried the knife with him every day after that. He knew it was wrong to bring it to school, he confessed at the hearing.

Dr. William McMiller, a professor of child and adolescent psychiatry at the University of Illinois at Chicago, says he has seen many boys like Juan “who are just yearning for father figures.” If the knife represented his stepfather, McMiller explains, school rules were not going to keep him from carrying it.

Juan had the misfortune to appear before the School Board’s hearing officer in the early days of the district’s Zero Tolerance Policy against drug and weapon possession.

A 1996 state law made expulsion the standard penalty for carrying a weapon to school, with exceptions permitted. Expulsions in CPS soared from 80 in 1995-96 to 668 in 1997-98, the year Juan was expelled.

“Clearly a weapon and clearly a dangerous weapon,” the School Board attorney said in his closing statement, adding that the boy “needs to be dealt a lesson about the bad judgement he has displayed.”

A year later, a student with the same violation might have been referred to the School Board’s new SMART program (Saturday Morning Alternative Reach out and Teach). Students caught with small amounts of drugs or weapons other than firearms may be spared expulsion if they attend this eight-week program.

Juan’s disciplinary record also may have figured into the decision to expel him. He had been suspended a total of 14 days on top of the 10 he had earned for carrying the knife. His mother told the hearing officer that the other suspensions were for back-talk and cursing. Hoskins was not asked to confirm that account, and she has declined further comment.

The board attorney recommended a year of expulsion and alternative school placement. Juan’s mother readily agreed, insisting that alternative school was what she had wanted for him all along, anyway.

Juan didn’t protest either, according to the transcript. “I do want to go to alternative school,” he told the hearing officer. But today what he remembers saying is, “F—yous. I won’t go to school.”

In a letter dated May 28, 1998, the School Board formally expelled him for the entire 1998-99 school year.

Had he remained in school, his low ITBS scores would have landed him in summer school. He also would have been tested for special education placement, Zarnowski says.

Instead, Juan was referred to a “safe school” for expelled students, a program the board launched in 1996 in anticipation of its zero-tolerance crackdown.

Of the safe schools operating in 1998-99, four enrolled students Juan’s age, and all provided round-trip bus service. Juan’s mother doesn’t recall the name of his school, remembering only that the neighborhood seemed dangerous. “No way he was going to go there.”

The School Board does allow safe school students to switch campuses, according to the Office of Specialized Services. Legally, however, expelled students are not required to attend school, nor is the School Board obligated to educate them.

Fall came, and Juan stayed home. Judging from various accounts, his misbehavior quickly escalated. In 1998, he came under a parole officer’s purview. He acknowledges four felony convictions for what he and his mother describe as non-violent offenses such as drug and weapon possession.

Maria says she sent Juan’s older brother back to Texas after he joined a gang and nearly lost his life. Juan also joined a gang but declines to give specifics about when and how, saying only that he considers them “familia.”

“Once a Saint, always a Saint,” he declares. “Even though you’re retired, you got your kid and you moved away, you’re still a Saint, you still got your love. You come back to the hood. You still know how to shake up.” Juan demonstrates the gang shake with both hands, one turned upside down. “You be like, ‘What’s up doc?'”

In spring 1999, Juan’s family spent several months in a small town in California as Maria and her partner seem to have briefly reunited. Juan and his sister attended school there, the family says. With no gang bangers around, Maria recalls, Juan spent afternoons skating or at the movie theater.

That fall, they returned to Back of the Yards, and Juan enrolled at Lara Academy, a few blocks from Seward.

Records from Juan’s California school never appeared at Lara, so they placed him in 6th grade. In October, Lara promoted him to 8th grade due to his age, school records show, and referred him for after-school tutoring.

Juan’s probation officer approved of the switch. “It was good for his self esteem,” she says.

By Juan’s standardized test scores, he was now about four years below his assigned grade level in reading.

From November on, school staff wrote him up for a string of incidents, including failure to wear a school uniform, classroom disruptions, profanity towards teachers, and disrespect to staff. Mid-winter, he spent two weeks in juvenile detention for an outside incident.

Lara suspended him four times for a total of 21 days and repeatedly called Maria in for conferences. Maria says she rarely attended.

“Parents get burned out by their own kids,” notes UIC’s McMiller. “They get tired of being embarrassed, if they care. And if they don’t care, what’s the point [of a conference] anyway?”

Suspending a troubled student repeatedly also tends to backfire, he adds. “He doesn’t feel like he’s part of the classroom anymore. So he’s going to act up again.” McMiller recommends counseling instead.

Lara Principal Louise Eggert and two of Juan’s 8th-grade teachers declined requests for interviews.

Juan thinks teachers should work harder to see “what’s kicking” in a kid’s brain. “They ought to talk to him, ‘Is there anything wrong with you? Can I help you?’ Get to know a kid. Sometimes all they’re there for is to teach and leave.”

By the end of 8th grade, Juan again missed his test score cutoffs by a wide margin; he was still four years below in reading. He sat and watched Lara’s graduation ceremony “just to see how it looks,” but it left him near tears. “I wanted to cry so bad and grab one of them and … just slice somebody.”

He didn’t bother with summer school, and remembers hearing he was headed to a transitional school at 51st and Princeton, one of nine that CPS opened in 1997 for older students repeating 8th grade.

The school at that location, Olive Academic Preparatory Center, says that although Lara Academy does refer students to them, Juan never appeared on their list, and so they never went looking for him.

In any case, the school’s location in rival gang territory still would have kept him away. The would have been true for Kelly High School, he says, had he been promoted.

Juan’s probation officer doesn’t blame him; she works with many children in his neighborhood who avoid those schools because of gang harassment.

“As soon as they step out of the school, they can get killed, they can get beat up,” she explains.

Irene Dugan Institute, an alternative high school, opened in fall 1998 across from Seward largely to give kids in Juan’s neighborhood a safer option. She would love to send him there, but as with other alternative schools for dropouts, students must be at least 16, the age at which compulsory attendance ends.

“So what do I do with him?” she asks. “Just wait. That’s a shame, because he’s wasting his time. He’s not getting educated.”

Ask Juan where he sees himself in five years, and he replies “To tell you the truth, probably dead.” Marijuana helps him cope with that fear, he says. “It’s not right,” he acknowledges, “but for somebody like me, you could say it would be good to block it out. Hide the pain away.”