A cheerleader in her black, gray and white uniform was talking with a gangster in blue behind Montbello High School one afternoon last September. The girl, Janeisha Lewis, had a solid GPA and a goal of joining the Navy; she carried her pom-poms in a duffel bag over her shoulder. Janeisha knew the eighteen-year-old dropout, who claims Crips, from outside of school.
So did a rival Blood hanging out behind Montbello that day.
"What up Blood," the kid in red barked at Janeisha's friend. "Crip killer."
"Blood killer," the Crip barked back.
As the two threw gang signs at each other, Janeisha -- who stands all of five feet -- moved between them, trying to stop the battle before it began. She told them not to fight, that there were cops around the corner. Drawn by the commotion, other students gathered around. So did more Bloods.
Carisa Rice, a Denver Police Department high school resource officer who was once a Montbello cheerleader herself, rushed to the scene. Rice had met Janeisha when she'd given the squad tips at cheerleading practice.
Rice asked Janeisha to leave, but Janeisha wanted to stay and calm her friend down. Then, cheerleader to cheerleader, Rice told Janeisha that she needed to represent the school in a positive way when wearing that uniform.
Janeisha didn't appreciate Rice's bringing cheerleading into the situation. Rice didn't appreciate Janeisha's refusing to obey an officer. Their exchange grew more heated, moving from hostile to hateful.
Janeisha says Rice told her that she'd be off the squad.
Rice denies that and says Janeisha said, "Fuck you, bitch."
Rice told Janeisha that they were going to the school office, where they'd call her mother, and then escorted Janeisha to a nearby security truck while another officer dealt with the Crip. Janeisha's pom-pom bag got in the way as Rice tried to push her into the vehicle, and Janeisha got mad when Rice wouldn't help her get around the bag. Instead, Rice put a thumb in one of the girl's cheeks and a finger in the other, until, Janeisha says, she was "making a fish face."
"I turned, and I'm, like, trying to push her off of me, because I'm like, 'I can't get in, what am I supposed to do?' while she's trying to push me in the car," Janeisha remembers. "She's hurting me. That's how I got some scratches on the left side of my face. I turned around and tried to push her away. After that, I didn't see her anymore."
Rice says it wasn't the bag that was the problem, but Janeisha's attitude -- calling the officer a bitch and refusing to go to the office. Janeisha pulled her hair, hit her on the head and kicked her in the chest as she tried to put the girl in the vehicle, Rice later wrote in her report. As the two fell into the truck, Rice grabbed at Janeisha's clothes, trying to restrain the girl. When Janeisha kicked her, Rice grabbed the girl by the arms and pulled Janeisha out of the truck. They fell to the ground, with Janeisha landing on top. After a struggle that bruised Rice's elbow, Janeisha ended up on her stomach with officers holding her down.
Janeisha was cuffed.
The cops got Janeisha up on her feet, and Rice again tried to get her into the truck, but Janeisha wasn't done fighting.
"And I see Ms. Rice, and I'm like just still mad, I'm just upset, and I kicked her, and then she comes in and she hits me in my face," Janeisha says. "Words are flying, everybody's mad and everything."
The words flying from Janeisha's mouth, Rice reported, were something along the lines of "I'll kill you. You're going to get what's coming to you."
After Janeisha kicked Rice in the chest, Rice climbed into the vehicle and tried to immobilize her legs with her body. She used a police-approved palm strike to Janeisha's upper body to further restrain her, she reported.
The officers released the Crip, but they took Janeisha straight to Gilliam Youth Services Center, a facility for juveniles in Denver. She was charged with second-degree assault and theft -- Rice's cell phone had somehow wound up in her possession during the struggle. This was her first offense, but it was enough to get her thrown out of Montbello for her junior year.
There was no cheerleading for Janeisha at the school's football and soccer games last fall, or the volleyball and basketball games this winter.
There'll be no track this spring.
After Janeisha spent six days in "the Gill," she got to return home, to her younger siblings, to the file that her mother has filled with certificates of Janeisha's achievements, including a recognition for academic excellence from the City of Denver and naval recruiting letters. Janeisha had to do fifty hours of community service and take anger-management courses. She's now attending Emerson Street School, which is designed to handle expelled kids -- there are 73 enrolled there right now, less than half of the students expelled by Denver Public Schools this year -- and doesn't offer any of Janeisha's advanced-placement or college-level courses.
Thinking back to that afternoon six months ago, Janeisha wishes she'd cooled down. Now, with a foot in the system, she knows it's easy to get stuck.
"There's a lot of people who just don't care anymore because of something that happened," she says, swearing that won't happen to her. "They just don't care anymore."
Police have had a full-time presence in all ten Denver public high schools since at least 1999. Three schools, including Montbello, have two officers on duty at all times, as well as additional security specialists.
When a kid breaks the law in Denver Public Schools, it's up to the teacher to decide whether to involve the police. After that, it's up to the cops to decide whether the incident involves a municipal violation or a more serious state violation, like the case Janeisha caught. Then the matter goes to the city attorney or the district attorney, who decides whether or not to file charges. If charges are filed, the kid moves into the system, and a judge decides whether the kid should be locked up. At the same time, a school board decides if a kid should be kicked out.
Kids have been incarcerated in Colorado since the late 1800s. Only boys were locked up for the first thirteen years, after which the system expanded to include girls.
Word on the street and in the school hallways is that more kids are catching cases on school grounds. That claim is hard to assess, explains David Bennett, associate director of the Division of Youth Corrections, because while the number of new filings by district attorneys' offices is dropping throughout the entire juvenile system, none of that data is school-ground-specific.
Thanks to changes in the law in the mid-'90s, no more than 479 kids are locked up at a time in Colorado. Bennett remembers when a single room at Gilliam could be packed with up to seven kids, and times when the facility was running at four to five times its capacity.
When Janeisha did her time at the Gill last September, she had a room to herself.
There's now a statewide cap on the use of detention, and budget cuts further limit the number of spots available, so fewer kids are doing time for crimes like truancy, he points out. In 1998 and 1999, the DYC's average daily population in detention was more than 600. Last year it was down to 396, Bennett says.
Nationally, 50 percent of kids who've been incarcerated get locked up again within a year of their release. Bennett says Colorado's recidivism rate is closer to 30 percent. Solid screening and assessments by the state help ensure that kids get the correct treatment. "I think that the system has really improved greatly over time, and we really feel that we are getting the right kids both in detention and commitment," Bennett says. "It really is important that people do understand and take positions on policies of juvenile justice."
The day's first lunch period has just kicked off at Montbello. Teens in baggy clothes, some saggin' to their knees, make their way through the halls. Chatter and plenty of school spirit fill the cafeteria.
The bell rings, a sign that kids are supposed to be in class or at lunch, not lounging in the halls, and Officer Rice quickly clears them out. A young man with a shaved head and big black shorts walks up and shakes her hand.
"What's up?" Rice asks.
"What's up?" the boy responds.
"Those friends of yours haven't been showing up on school property, have they?" Rice asks, referring to some kids who don't attend Montbello.
The boy smiles. "They were out in the lot," he says.
"What kind of car?" Rice asks.
Cool and calm. That's how Rice likes it at Montbello. Even hard-core gang members respect her, she says.
After graduating from college and joining the Denver Police Department, Rice jumped at the chance to be assigned to her alma mater and give something back to the school that had meant so much to her. "I applied here because I want to be here," the thirty-year-old explains. She now patrols the halls she once walked as an honor student, star athlete and student council member.
This is her first year on the job at Montbello, and there have been some tough times. In January, seventeen-year-old Contrell Townsend was stabbed to death in the cafeteria; sixteen-year-old Marcus Richardson is accused of the crime. In February, Montbello principal Hansell Gunn resigned amid rumors of a sexual-harassment case.
The day before Rice got into it with Janeisha, gang-bangers had fought at the school, and officers confiscated bats and a knife. That's why Janeisha had no business getting into the middle of a Crip and Blood dispute: Either of the gangsters, maybe both, could have had a weapon.
"If she's a role model and so exceptional, there's no way she should've been there," Rice says. "It was just appalling for her to do anything of that nature. She had plenty of time to walk away. She basically told me she would kill me, she would fucking kill me. A lot of times these kids put themselves into situations that are avoidable, and that situation was avoidable.
"As a cheerleader, she represents this school -- and if this is the way the school is supposed to be represented, that's not good. All I asked her was to go inside, and it went downhill from there. I have people that I arrested on the street for homicide, domestic violence, and they've never treated me the way she treated me."
Rice is a mother, and active in the community. She likes to support students by going to games, but now worries about gang retaliation. "I question myself before I go to a game," she says. "Do I wear my uniform, do I wear my bulletproof vest?"
Janeisha has been ordered to stay off the Montbello campus and away from school functions -- something she says wasn't made clear at first. She's also not supposed to come within a hundred feet of Rice. The officer says she's ordered Janeisha off school grounds several times since the restraining order was issued, but hasn't ticketed Janeisha. "I try to be nice," she says. "I try to be fair."
Most of the tickets that Rice and her partner issue at Montbello are for trespassing. They like to warn students first, though.
But even a trespassing ticket can be bad news for a student, since it puts the kid in the criminal-justice system. Kris Bethscheider, who taught Janeisha social studies, always warns students not to "get caught up in the system because it's nearly impossible to get out."
Janeisha was a good kid, Bethscheider says. All her kids are good kids.
Before becoming a teacher, Bethscheider worked with young people who were on their way in and out of delinquent programs. One day, when she was taking a student back to Montbello, she left a card asking for a call if the school ever needed a social studies teacher.
"She is pretty vibrant, she is pretty enthusiastic, a happy kid," Bethscheider says of Janeisha.
Until she got angry. "They don't know how to deal with anger," Bethscheider says of her students. "They see the way their older brothers or sisters handle anger, or the way people on TV handle anger."
And once they get in the system, she adds, the state doesn't give them the tools to deal with it, either.
Across town from Montbello, four girls gather in a stairwell at West High School. They're doing some last-minute plotting, organizing and recruiting, talking smack in English and Spanish to some friends passing by who haven't joined their cause. One runs upstairs to make some copies.
Finally, they head over to the school library, where a group of teachers and administrators await their presentation on teen courts. The girls are members of Students 4 Justice, a program of the Denver-based nonprofit One Nation Enlightened, and they want to bring a teen court to West High.
They show a mullet-filled video from the '90s, which features the Denver Teen Court. The program grew out of a community-concerns committee of the Denver Bar Association, which modeled it after teen courts in Texas. Dave Chaffee, a probation officer in Boulder County, was hired to run it half-time; four years into the program's run, it spun off from the DBA as a non-profit organization, and he went to work for it full-time.
The Denver Teen Court started out with school referrals only, and its docket consisted largely of fights, more of them involving girls than boys, Chaffee remembers. Some schools also referred minor thefts, instances of vandalism and minor possessions of pot or paraphernalia. Starting in middle schools only, the court system spread to all Denver high schools by 1994, and cases were coming from both on and off campus. Some were even referred by the district attorney's office. Kids had to enter formal guilty pleas in adult court, but they avoided convictions if they upheld teen-court promises. If they didn't, they went back to grown-up court.
About 1,000 cases were handled by Denver Teen Court in its eight years before funding ran out, in 1999. Teen courts are still allowed by Colorado statute, though, and a website maintained by the American Probation and Parole Association lists seventeen such courts in the state.
When the video ends, the students hand out their copies and take the stage to describe their concept of bringing a teen court to West. Some of the younger teachers are excited about the students' initiative, but the skimpy 54-word (and one acronym) pitch isn't particularly impressive. Faculty members also note that they see different faces at this meeting than they did at the last one, and they stress that commitment is important.
The students have listed eleven violations that they believe should go to school peer juries. One is smoking, and the staff and teachers seem warm to alternative sentencing in those cases. But another is weapons, and the adults aren't having any of that. The girls talk about how they use chains to carry wallets and wear spiked wristbands or necklaces, and how they're sometimes mistaken for weapons. The administrators say they don't call in the cops for misunderstood jewelry, just actual weapons.
Chaffee's not directly involved with ONE's effort to reintroduce the teen-court concept in Denver, but he's willing to help. "I'm excited that there's new energy. I love it," he says, before cautioning that the court must be a team effort between courts, schools and government attorneys.
Studies show that teens punished by their peers are less likely to offend again. But teen courts have other benefits, too, Chaffee points out. Offenders who plead with their peers later return in other roles, like jurors or attorneys. A few kids who took an interest in Denver Teen Court later became attorneys. "That was the beauty of it," he says. "It wasn't just prosecute, prosecute. We had balance."
One Nation Enlightened has won fights before at West. A three-year effort culminated with the campus being opened at lunchtime in 2002. To win that fight, students had to develop a sensible argument -- not just say they wanted to eat at McDonald's. So they documented that there wasn't enough time or seating in the cafeteria to serve everyone, and they got a resolution passed by the Colorado Legislature that noted the importance of nutrition, especially for low-income students. They transformed the open-lunch campaign to a right-to-eat campaign.
"We let them come up with the ideas they want to work on, but we do say that they have to have some kind of racial-justice component," says ONE director Soyun Park.
A recent study by the Denver-based Padres/Jovenes Unidos indicates that black kids in the DPS are ticketed twice as much as whites, and Latinos are ticketed seven times as much. That takes care of the racial-justice component of the West teen-court push.
Alberto Melchor, a ONE organizer, understands why a teen court appeals to West students. "There's only so much a kid can take of being tossed into the corner," he says. "They want to be involved, but something's missing there, obviously, and it's not getting addressed. Disciplining a student is actually adding to the problem."
Kids tell him stories of getting caught in the system for reasons as simple as trespassing for changing floors in school without a pass, or as stupid as mooning a packed school bus. A teen court could handle such situations easily: Some lessons are better learned in school with peers than in the system with prosecutors. Calling the police takes manpower, charging the kids clogs the courts. And tickets often penalize kids whose parents don't have cash or can't afford to take a day off work to go to a hearing with their child.
"Sometimes a movement like Students 4 Justice is just what they need," Melchor continues. "First of all, they feel empowered to actually make changes in their immediate environment, they feel empowered to help others or help themselves, and they learn more about themselves in the process. Because what happens is, they develop all these tools -- negotiating skills, organizing skills -- that are going to transcend from the school environment to adult life. They're going to take this out into the community; they're going to take this out into their workplaces. Instead of them thinking, ŒI can punch out my manager,' they're going to think, 'I can organize my co-workers, and we can do something.' That's the positivity that they're being exposed to. I see a big turnaround in a lot of these kids."
Like the kid who was already getting involved with the program when he got shot last December. The bullet went into the back of his skull; it was meant to kill him. "Here's where the real change is," Melchor notes. "He just got shot. Normally, when someone gets shot, they're thinking retaliation -- and he's thinking forgiveness. That's huge."
Denver Public Schools project manager Tim Turley says the district is studying other alternatives, too. "Teen courts are ineffective," he says. "What we're trying to do in the district is look more to restorative justice."
For example, he explains, if a kid caught stealing a laptop isn't ticketed, but instead ordered to rewire the classroom's computer system, that's restorative justice. The student makes amends, and at the same time, he restores the teacher's trust.
"What we want to do is grow this culturally in the district," Turley says. "The district is supporting these values contradictory to Œsuspend 'em, expel 'em, forget about 'em.' This is a slow process, because we're trying to install a new mindset."
At Cole Middle School, where DPS introduced a restorative-justice program eighteen months ago, suspensions dropped more than 47 percent after the first year, and fights are down 88 percent. But the district can't afford to put a full-time program staffer in every school, so administrators are hoping to train staff already at the schools in how to administer the programs.
The West students aren't waiting for DPS to push restorative justice.
Lilliana Landa is also a cheerleader, as well as a leader in West's push for a teen court. "Not to be rude or anything," she says, "but [teachers and administrators] see us as kids, like we're not committed, like we're going to blow it off. I have been through these cases, I've had the experience. I want to see a change at West High School. We're willing to go to the extreme limit to get this going."
After Janeisha got caught up, cheerleaders wore their skirts sideways in support at a Montbello football game. Seventeen of them, including Rice's niece, signed a letter written by coach MiDian Holmes, asking that Janeisha be allowed to return.
"She was really a joy to be around," Holmes says. "The other members of the team went to her to get their spirits lifted. Janeisha was always a catalyst on my team and made a legendary impact."
Holmes believes the system made an example of Janeisha. Rice doesn't see it that way.
"For someone in jail for second-degree assault charges, why would you turn your skirt around?" Rice asks. "That is not what Montbello represents. I am what Montbello represents, a student who went to college and came back and gave back to the community."
Nonetheless, when the Denver District Attorney's Office consulted with Rice before Janeisha's plea and asked whether Rice needed any kind of damages to be awarded, she said no, and supported the DA's reducing the charges. Janeisha's military aspirations were taken into consideration in keeping the felony off her record. Officials with the DA's office and DPS refused to discuss Janeisha's case, which was sealed after the theft charge was dropped, and she was adjudicated on misdemeanor assault charges rather than felony assault.
If Janeisha can stay out of trouble, she has a shot at getting back into Montbello for her senior year. Since she's already ahead on credits, she thinks she might be able to graduate a semester early.
But if she does return to Montbello, she won't be cheering for Holmes. The cheerleading coach says she doesn't expect her contract to be renewed, and speculates that Rice will replace her.
Rice says she has no interest in the job. Her time is taken up by motherhood, and her job as a police officer, and the hair salon and Popeye's Chicken outlet that she owns. She still thinks about the fight. Janeisha was a good student, which makes her wonder, "What are the kids who are not involved going to do to me?"
Next time, she says, she wouldn't be so slow to restrain a girl, not even a cheerleader. She should have cuffed Janeisha right away, she thinks. "It was on a personal level," she says. "Janeisha knew me outside of the uniform. She thinks it affected her staying in jail for one week. It really affected my family."
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Janeisha's still feeling the effects, too. She wanted to surprise her mother on Valentine's Day, and arranged for an aunt to pick her up at her new school so they could go shopping for a gift. But since Janeisha didn't have her mother's permission to leave, that violated the rules of her strict probation. She'd broken the rules once before, when she violated curfew (she says a bus was late). On February 15, police picked her up in the school cafeteria and took her back to the Gill for fourteen days.
"It was horrible," she says. "Those girls in there, they always want to fight somebody or start something with somebody."
One step deeper into the system.