Should abused and neglected boys be allowed to live at a facility for juvenile delinquents? That's the question explored in this week's cover story, "Bad Company." The facility in question is Ridge View Youth Services Center in Watkins, which can hold up to 500 boys and prides itself on its focus on academics and athletics. We took a tour with one of the youth at Ridge View. Here's what it was like.
Ridge View is in the middle of nowhere. Only one tiny sign along E-470 points toward the facility -- and if you're driving the 45 minutes from Denver, it's on the wrong side of the road. Jerry Adamek was the head of the Division of Youth Corrections when Ridge View was built and now works as a senior consultant for Rite of Passage, the for-profit company that operates the facility in a public-private partnership with the state. Though the state owns the facility, it pays Rite of Passage to house delinquent boys who've been committed to DYC. Adamek explains that the facility's larger roadside signs usually end up with bullet holes in them -- not from the youth at Ridge View, but from gun-happy motorists with few targets along that lonely stretch.
A winding two-mile side road separates Ridge View from E-470. Endless expanses of patchy green and brown grass surround the campus, and administrators joke that the reason Ridge View has a fence is not to keep the kids in but to keep the cows out. (There are indeed cows out there; Westword saw one grazing next to the fence during our visit.) Technically, a boy could walk away from Ridge View, but the location is so remote that without transportation, it'd be a long hike to civilization.
A boy named Steven leads Westword on a tour. Nineteen years old and from Aurora, Steven wound up at Ridge View because he ran out of second chances after committing a burglary when he was fifteen. "Probation violations got me here," he says as four adults, a combination of school officials and public relations people, listen in. He says it matter-of-factly, as if he's used to publicly owning up to his wrongdoing.
Even though it's warm outside, Steven is wearing a maroon letterman jacket with a big R on the breast. Boys can earn the jackets for good behavior, and those who do are called Rams -- just like the facility's sports teams. In addition to the jackets, Rams earn privileges that include special dinners and time to play games.
The tour starts in one of the school buildings. Like most buildings here, it's made of inviting blonde stone. The doors and window frames are maroon to match the school colors, and the hallways and classrooms look like they could be in any ordinary high school -- albeit one where the students wear the same clothes, have the same haircut and never ditch class, because they can't.
This part of Ridge View is a charter school authorized by Denver Public Schools called Ridge View Academy, an innovative idea that allows committed youth to earn actual high school diplomas from DPS. Steven stops outside each classroom and recites the teacher's name, the subject and a fact or two about the class. The biology and earth science teacher is tough, he says. "Some kids push through it," he adds, while others give up. Those who don't follow school rules are sent to the "refocus" room, where they must remain all day.
As the tour rounds the corner, we pass a line of boys standing along the wall. They're wearing gray T-shirts tucked into maroon athletic shorts, and slip-on sandals over white tube socks. They stand silently, looking straight ahead as they wait for their peers to use the bathroom; a staff member holds the bathroom door open, watching them. Those kids are in orientation, Steven explains. Everyone must complete it before entering "main pop," where you can walk from one activity to the other on your own, and the uniform consists of jeans and polo shirts or, on special occasions, khakis and neckties.
Steven's language is peppered with lingo. Sometimes, it's hard to understand what he's saying. The bulk of kids at Ridge View are in "main pop," or main population. Walking unaccompanied from class to class is called "free quad movement." Trips to compete in a robotics tournament or volunteer to help remodel a church are known as "off-sites." You have to earn each and every one of them, which is a theme at Ridge View.
Another noticeable thing about Steven's speech is how polite it is. He answers every question with a "yes, ma'am" or a "no, sir," and he's clearly been instructed to hold the door open for visitors. He doesn't deviate much from the script and rarely cracks a smile. When tour-goers laugh at something he says -- such as that kids always take lots of cottage cheese in the dining hall because they want to bulk up -- he seems surprised.
The rest of the tour includes well-equipped shop areas where the boys learn trades such as welding, masonry and home construction. There's also a barber shop; the kids training to be barbers keep everyone's hair closely cropped, per Ridge View rules.
Steven takes the tour to his bedroom, an orderly doorless square that he shares with three other boys. The room, part of a 72-bed unit, would look like a college dorm but for the lack of posters on the walls and laptops on the desks, and the way the matching gray bed blankets are meticulously tucked in at the corners. Personality is forbidden, but plants are okay. Two of Steven's roommates are there; they sit quietly as Steven shows how he must hang his clothes neatly in his closet. Like all the kids we encounter on the tour, these two are well-behaved, perhaps because there are staff members everywhere.
The tour ends with the athletic facilities: a well-stocked weight room, a bicycle storage area packed with fancy road bikes, a trophy case, a gymnasium with a shiny floor. Sports are important at Ridge View; all boys run three miles per day and are encouraged to play on one of the school's fourteen sports teams, which include basketball, skiing and lacrosse.
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Along for the tour, Adamek stands in the middle of the empty basketball court and reflects on his surroundings.
"The key to this construction project was normalization," he says. "We try to keep it as normal as possible." In envisioning what Ridge View should look like, Adamek thought about Andover and Exeter and $30,000-a-year tuition. He asked himself, "If you went to a private prep school in New England, what would they have?"
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