Catch-16

Slipping through the safety net for juveniles.

"She stole a diamond necklace from a neighbor," DeEtte says. "I went through her room like a banshee and forced her to return it. She stole a bike; again, I made her return it. I tried to punish her by grounding her. She would just look at me, shrug, and head out the door. If you sent her to her room, she'd climb out the window. If you banned her from her computer, she'd find another one."

Kaeleigh denies the thefts, denies being violent or intimidating. "We were a very loud family," she says simply. The only physical confrontation she recalls is an argument with her mother: "She grabbed me and shook me. I had a couple of friends come over, and she'd broken the skin and there was blood and stuff. And they got freaked out and thought my parents were abusing me. They called the cops."

DeEtte remembers the incident differently. "I don't abuse my kids," she says. "Frankly, I was a little afraid of Kaeleigh. I'm small, and my balance isn't very good. She was screaming at me, and I grabbed her arms and pushed her down in a chair and told her to calm down. That was it.

 
Anthony Camera
 
Boomerang: DeEtte and Chris Altvater say their 
daughter Kaeleigh drained their bank account -- and 
that they'll end up paying for it in court.
Anthony Camera
Boomerang: DeEtte and Chris Altvater say their daughter Kaeleigh drained their bank account -- and that they'll end up paying for it in court.

"She called the law on me three times and claimed I was beating her. The police showed up every time. They took one look at me and said, 'Well, we have to file a report, but we're not going to charge you with anything.'"

One day in the fall of 2002, Kaeleigh took a lighter to Horizon Middle School. She went into a bathroom, started tossing toilet paper into a sink and set it on fire. As the flames grew, she became alarmed and put out the fire. Kaeleigh says she turned herself in; her mother says a police officer scared her into a confession. By the time the case went to court, it had been reduced to a misdemeanor charge of "reckless handling of kindling," with a small fine, but it touched off more visits to the mental-health experts.

"We took her to seven different counselors," DeEtte says. "Every one of them had the same verdict: 'We can't do anything until this child is willing to work with us.' The psychiatrist was the only sensible one. He looked at Kaleigh and said, 'There is no pill that will make you stop lying. There is no pill that will make you stop stealing. You need to be mature and take responsibility for your actions.'"

An Aurora police officer urged the Altvaters to crack down on their daughter before it was too late. Take everything out of her room, he suggested, except for her bed, four changes of clothes, a dresser and two pairs of shoes. "We stripped her room to the walls," says DeEtte.

But a bathroom connected Kaeleigh's room to her sister's. "She just went in and stole from me," says Dee.


Frustrated as they were with Kaeleigh, her parents were even more baffled by the Cherry Creek School District's response to her chronic truancy. Although standardized tests indicated she was highly intelligent, with above-average skills, by eighth grade she was flunking out of most of her classes -- primarily because of excessive absences. Yet school officials at Horizon and then Eaglecrest High School continued to pass her on to the next grade.

"She should have been held back," says DeEtte. "She wasn't performing academically, and this was setting up the kid to fail. We asked them to hold her back, and they refused."

Teachers say it's exceedingly rare for any student to repeat a grade these days, whether in Cherry Creek or other metro school districts. Even if the parents request it. Even if the kid almost never shows up for class. Students are passed on because educators think it's "demotivating" to hold them back, or because other remedies, such as alternative schools or individual tutoring, are considered more effective. But DeEtte thinks that Cherry Creek's policy amounts to cheating its most troubled students out of a real education.

"It's social promotion," she says. "And it's dreadful."

"It's a huge debate in education right now," says Ed Steinberg, director of special education and mental-health services for the district. "One of the Planet Bizarro things school districts have done in the past is to suspend a chronically truant kid -- 'You're not coming to school, so we won't allow you to come to school.' That makes no sense. We do everything we can to re-engage the student and try to figure out what is going on."

Although Steinberg can't comment on the specifics of Kaeleigh's situation, he says he's not surprised that officials at her schools would look for other ways to deal with her truancy. "I would assume that people at Eaglecrest don't have a hard and fast policy, but look at each kid individually," he says. "They might have made a decision that keeping her back in ninth grade would put her at higher risk of dropping out -- the social stigma, another nail in the coffin, so to speak."

Schools can refer truants to the court system, which can impose a range of sanctions, from special monitoring programs to attending classes while in detention. But the programs have been hit hard by a shortage of juvenile-detention beds and state budget cuts in recent years, and Cherry Creek never attempted such a move with Kaeleigh. Now she's ineligible for such referrals; once juveniles turn sixteen, they can make their own decision to attend school or not, a throwback to the days when a semi-educated sixteen-year-old had a chance of obtaining meaningful employment. The district has its own Student Assessment Review Board, which is supposed to leap into action when a student has more than four unexcused absences in a month -- but it, too, is limited to considering the cases of teens under the age of sixteen.

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