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Catch-16

Slipping through the safety net for juveniles.

She's hunting for jobs she can do, Kaeleigh explains. She's living with her boyfriend at his parents' house, and she has her own support network, friends from school and elsewhere. As if to underscore the point, friends wander by the table and sit down for a few minutes until summoned away by other friends or ringing cell phones.

She started skipping school, she says, because it was too easy. She was bored and preferred to read on her own. "By the time I was in sixth grade, I was reading at a senior level," she says. "But the schools I attended were very straightforward: 'You have to do this, even if you've already done it.' Everything was taught so slow and repeated over and over again. Even if everyone in the class got it, it was repeated over and over."

Some teachers did try to reach out to her, but not many. "To be completely honest," she adds, "I was a little conceited. I thought I knew everything in the world and I didn't need any of this."

Kaeleigh uses the phrase to be completely honest a lot -- enough to make a listener wonder about the times she doesn't use it, and which statements are more reliable. Certainly, it's hard to argue with her explanation of what she was thinking about when she set fire to the school bathroom three years ago: "To be completely honest, I was upset with the school because I wasn't learning anything. I was feeling left out, so I would do things to get attention. It was like, 'Hmm, what will happen if I light the bathroom on fire?' After I lit it, I thought about the consequences, so I quickly put it out."

She has felt left out most of her life. It got to the point where she "didn't feel at home" at her parents' house, she says. "They would yell, so I wouldn't do something, so they would just yell more. So I stopped doing everything."

And school? No comfort there, not even when she was trying to be a good student. "The schools nowadays aren't for the students," she says. "And they are biased. If you're pretty and blond and popular and that whole scene, you're more accepted by the teachers and the staff, no matter what you do. If you sort of stand out, like me..."

Her voice trails off. She shrugs.

"Tracks was actually a pretty good program," she says. "I was teaching myself Algebra Two and trigonometry. It was a small classroom, and you could do your own thing. It was more focused on the student, and not just saying, 'Do this, and you pass, and we don't care if you actually learn anything.' The teachers were very involved."

But the Outback "was sort of like the regular school to me," she continues. "It was, 'You have to do this.' And if you had a problem with one person, you felt excluded from the community. Everybody was friends with everyone else. If you got into a fight with one person, it was with all their friends -- and all of their friends."

Cherry Creek doesn't expel students for truancy; that would be a "Planet Bizarro" thing to do, Steinberg says. But last month, her parents learned that Kaeleigh had been "withdrawn" from school after DeEtte called to report her as a runaway. DeEtte and Chris say they didn't request the withdrawal and received no notice of it. Kaeleigh, in any event, had rarely gone to school this fall.

Still, Kaeleigh insists that she is not a bad person. She doesn't do drugs and isn't a chronic thief; she never tried to jimmy the safe at home, as her parents claim. "I will admit I took some money from my mother once," she says. "But I had no access to their safe, and what would I do with my mother's prescription drugs? I tried drugs once and never did them again. I'm not the kind of person who would sell them. But to them, that's the logical explanation. I'm a teenage girl, so I have to be doing drugs and stealing money."

So why did she run away?

"There was just too much stress and too much drama in my family," she says. "My mom would say, 'We'll go see counselors,' but we'd been through family counseling before and it hadn't done squat. My parents withdrew from me, as I did from them. I wasn't doing anything. I was constantly getting into trouble -- and basically sitting on my butt all day.

"I just felt I needed some time off. And as I got that, I did start doing things. At my boyfriend's, I haven't felt obligated to do things. I've just wanted to do them. I've been doing the cleaning sometimes. I've been cooking. I'm a fairly decent cook."

Kaeleigh has seen little of her parents in the past two months. She hasn't wanted to see them, she explains, and taking her mother's ATM card was supposed to make them feel the same way: "One of the things I was trying to do for years was to make them stop fussing so much over me. In a way, I didn't want them to care so much, to cling as much.... Looking back on it, I guess I'm the one who really pushed people and things away. I've always been sort of a solitary person, and I just could not stand the clinginess or being surrounded by people who didn't like me."

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