'We're Not Really Bad Kids'
First I posted this in "Outrage of the Day"--for the terrible unemployment and poverty that infects these girls' lives, for the horrible inequality that infects our social disorder. But I kept thinking about it, and realized how wrong my decision was.
Reader Comment: These girls may not have fans in the stands but after this article, there will be people cheering for them from all over the country during each of their games.
Reader Comment: I hope Eric Cantor and Paul Ryan do not read this article, for they will just want to cut the funding to the program, claiming the its another example of wasteful government spending. I can just see the headline "Government pays for deliquents to play basketball"
NYT NOTE: The Lady Jaguars, Part 2
Carroll Academy is a day school in Huntingdon, Tenn., operated by the Carroll County Juvenile Court and financed mostly by the stateĂ˘€™s Department of ChildrenĂ˘€™s Services. The region is beset by high unemployment, rampant prescription drug abuse and a proliferation of methamphetamine labs.
The Carroll County Juvenile Court judge, who has authority over the school, and Carroll AcademyĂ˘€™s director gave he New York Times unrestricted access to explore the school through its girls basketball team, whose players have little experience with organized sports and myriad troubles outside of school. For this five-part series, The Times spoke with the girls, many of their parents and relatives, school administrators and coaches.
By John Branch
April 15, 2012
HUNTINGDON, Tenn. -- The Carroll Academy girls basketball team had just lost by 59 points to Dresden High School, the top team in the conference. Still, Tonya Lutz, Carroll AcademyĂ˘€™s coach, lauded her teamĂ˘€™s effort. Randy Hatch, Carroll Academy's day-to-day director and founder of the basketball program, reached into a pocket and slipped $20 to one of the girls, as he usually does after games.
Together, amid giggles, the nine girls on the team bounced to the snack stand in a single-file line. Patrick Steele, the school's straight-faced security director, followed them. Over the years, Steele has overheard taunts, even racial slurs, directed at Carroll Academy students, boys and girls, from opposing fans. He escorts the players wherever they go -- from the bus to the gym, to the locker rooms and bathrooms, and back to the bus.
The girls returned to the empty bleachers on the visitorsĂ˘€™ side of the gym, munching on candy and popcorn. They settled in to watch the boys teams play, the second half of the usual girls-boys doubleheader.
It might be their favorite time of the day. The pressures of their lives melt away amid gossip and sugar.
But first it was Dresden's Senior Night. One by one, every Dresden senior winter-season athlete was introduced to an admiring crowd. Each carried a bouquet of flowers across the court, handed it to beaming parents and received hugs and kisses.
The Carroll Academy girls watched. Destiny broke the mood by pretending to cry.
"Miss Tonya, can we have parents' night, too?" she asked with a mocking tone. A couple of girls giggled.
"We could do a Senior Night," Hatch whispered. "I could get the sheriff to go round up all their parents."
Poverty, Drugs, Crime, Hope
That morning, sunlight peeked over the trees and mist loitered over the low spots of winterĂ˘€™s dormant cotton fields. The fleet of 10 white Ford vans, driven by Carroll Academy teachers and staff members, pulled out of the parking lot. They splintered across the countryside, through five counties of rural West Tennessee.
This swath of empty landscape is sprinkled with decaying towns. Some carry incongruent names borrowed from Europe -- Paris, Milan, Dresden. Huntingdon, the Carroll County seat, is centered by a stately courthouse in the middle of a picturesque square.
Most of the manufacturing jobs that attracted past generations have dried up. The H.I.S. factory that made Chic jeans and other apparel in nearby Bruceton, employing 2,000 or more for decades, closed more than 10 years ago. HatchĂ˘€™s parents worked at a long-gone shirt factory Ă˘€” his mother as a seamstress, his father as a sewing-machine mechanic.
Now, double-digit unemployment feels normal. TennesseeĂ˘€™s population grew more than 10 percent in the past decade, but it is stagnant in this area. Median household incomes linger in the $30,000 range. About 15 percent of adults have a college degree.
Drug use is rampant, across generations. Tennessee had more methamphetamine-lab seizures in 2010 than any other state, according to the Tennessee Methamphetamine Task Force. Carroll County, with 18 seizures in a population of about 28,000, had about twice as many per capita as the rest of the state.
Prescription-drug abuse is particularly acute in Tennessee. The state perennially has among the highest number of prescriptions per capita in the country. It has the sixth-highest percentage of youth, ages 12 to 17, abusing prescription pain medications, according to the Tennessee Department of Health.
It was across this quiet, complex setting that the Carroll Academy vans meandered. They picked up students, some an hour away, and returned past the scrubby trailers along two-lane roads and the tidy brick homes along High Street, to the schoolĂ˘€™s truck-dock entrance.
The school is a single-story wing of a former hospital. The sign outside reads: "Carroll Academy. Home of the Jaguars. A State-Licensed Facility for Grades 6-12 Operated by the Carroll County Juvenile Court."
Most students stay at Carroll Academy for at least six months. Enrollment wavers from about 70 to 100, depending on that week's court docket. The vans drop off up to 14 students at a time. In single-file silence, they slip into a side entrance.
Students are inspected in the school's hallway. There is a dress code: black pants and white, button-down shirts. Boys and girls open their mouths to show there is nothing hidden there. They pull their pants pockets inside-out, lift their cuffs to show shoes and socks.
Rules are strict. No ballpoint pens, because drugs could be stashed inside. No sagging pants, or else a humiliating belt will be fashioned with duct tape. No piercings, jewelry, hats, makeup, cellphones, food. Short hair for boys, ponytails for girls.
Twenty years ago, Judge Larry Logan of Carroll County Juvenile Court was frustrated that he had only two choices for disciplining teenagers. He could put them on probation and hope that was enough to scare them -- and their parents -- straight. Or he could place them in state custody, which means foster care or reform school.
"I hate to send kids to reform school," Logan said. "That kind of means I've given up on them."
He helped develop a middle road: Carroll Academy. It was initially financed with a $1.45 million grant from Tennessee's Department of ChildrenĂ˘€™s Services, although its budget has since been carved to about half that.
About half of the students come through Logan's courtroom in Huntingdon. The rest come from courts in adjoining counties. About 80 percent are boys. All report to probation officers. The goal is to shepherd students through a hierarchy of levels, through good behavior and good grades, and back to their "regular school," as the teenagers call it, in as little as six months.
Carroll Academy students fall into two fairly equal-size camps: those enrolled because they were "delinquent" and those categorized as "unruly."
The delinquent category includes crimes. A recent snapshot showed that 15 students had taken drugs to school, an offense that gets them kicked out -- and often sent to Carroll Academy -- for a year. Seven students had committed assault, and six were there for vandalism.
The unruly category refers to transgressions specific to minors. Most involve truancy. Seven other students were cited for uncontrollable behavior at home. Three were runaways.
"WeĂ˘€™re not really bad kids," said Leslee, a bright ninth grader who consumed a handful of her stepmother's Xanax and took the rest to school, a tangled episode that landed her and five others at Carroll Academy. "We're just good kids who made bad decisions."
Hatch, a county probation officer, was chosen to oversee the school when it opened in 1994. He started basketball teams in 1998. A year later, Carroll Academy was admitted as the smallest member of the Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association and joined a conference that includes the area public high schools.
There are always plenty of Carroll Academy boys to play, and the team wins a few games. The girls are different. There may be only 10 or 15 of them enrolled at any time. Unless they have a compelling reason -- a medical issue, for example -- the school assigns the girls to the basketball team. Middle school girls play, too, an exception made for Carroll Academy.
The idea is that structure, adult role models and a way to occupy their after-school hours are good for them. Somewhat unwittingly, the players also become ambassadors to a world that usually sneers at troubled youth.
Before Carroll Academy's first basketball game in 1998, the father of an opposing player stepped out of the stands, grabbed Hatch's arm and asked that the Carroll Academy girls not hurt his daughter.
"Sports were the best thing for us," Hatch said. "For four years, people didn't know what we were doing here. Then we got sports, and people said, 'Oh, theyĂ˘€™re just like our kids.'"
'You Didn't Quit'
Carroll Academy -- the Lady Jaguars -- arrived at Dresden and took the court for warm-ups. In their uniforms and sweatsuits, they looked like any other team. They did the three-man weave and layup drills. The starters were introduced, to polite applause, and they shook hands with the Dresden coaches, fist-bumped the officials and high-fived their teammates.
The Lady Jaguars trailed, 28-5, after the first quarter. They trailed by 47-11 at the half.
"Not bad," Lutz said during her halftime talk. "Well, the score's awful."
The girls sat attentively with their hands up, palms out. It's a rule Lutz imposed for all timeouts and while in the locker room to remind the girls to keep their hands up on defense.
She explained a backdoor screen to run. She told Constance to stay in arm's reach of her opponent. She told Summer to get air under her feet when she shoots.
The final score was 75-16. Lutz seemed pleased. Destiny threw up into a garbage can.
"Ya'll gave me effort," Lutz said. "You didn't die on me. You didn't quit."
At Dresden High, summers are filled with basketball camps. Conditioning classes are year-round. Players take basketball as a regularly scheduled class every day, along with math, science and history. It is a system designed for basketball success.
Dresden used to take school buses to away games. But so many parents trailed in their cars that Dresden cut the expense. The girls simply go with their moms and dads.
When it was time to leave, the Carroll Academy girls lined up. None of their parents were there. Steele escorted them out of the gym, past the snack stand and out into the cool night. The youngest players loaded equipment in the back of the school van, and everyone climbed in through the side door.
Lutz turned down a two-lane road, popped in an Usher CD and turned the volume knob clockwise. Through the dark, teenage girls sang and shimmied as the day's last van made its way back to Carroll Academy.
New York Times
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