May, 22 2018
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Louisiana Boot Camp Offers School Alternative
Ronald Dugas Jr. was sent to the Tangipahoa Parish school system’s new military-style boot camp at Northwood High School after an incident at Loranger Middle School last spring.
Since then, his parents and counselors said, Dugas, 13, has changed, getting a handle on his propensity for angry outbursts that regularly put him into in-school suspension.
“I think he’s learning,” said Ronald Jr.’s mother, Julie.
Ronald Dugas Jr., who declined comment for this article, was one of four youths who graduated from the public school alternative program for troubled teens Thursday. He is one of 38 who were able to leave the program in its first semester, Principal Rhea Marrs said.
Students Who Qualify for This Alternative School
Students are sent to the alternative school primarily in lieu of expulsion. The program is open to children in sixth to 12th grades or who are 11 and older, Marrs said. They go to school five days a week and attend seven academic periods in classes with a student-teacher ratio no greater than 15 to 1, Marrs said.
In a small ceremony in the school cafeteria Thursday, standing at attention before the program’s remaining 180 students, Dugas and three other youths in Marine Corps-style camouflage fatigues and combat boots received certificates, handshakes and encouraging words.
With graduation, Dugas and the three others will return to their traditional schools next semester, school officials said.
Northwood High School has been one of the parish’s alternative schools since February 2003, when the public system took over from a former Type II charter school.
The school’s military-style discipline, however, didn’t start until this fall under new Superintendent Mark Kolwe and after board members had called for ways to improve discipline among the school district’s more than 19,600 students.
Creating more Respect for Authority Figures
A internal teacher survey made public in November 2006 found that disrespect for authority and failure to follow directions were the leading disciplinary problems.
Marrs said none of the students who graduated this fall have returned to the alternative school and she has received only a single negative report, about one of the students.
“So far I’ve been very impressed with it, and I feel we did have a need in our parish for another alternative school setting,” said Tangipahoa Parish 7th Ward Court Judge Grace Bennett Gasaway, who visited the school this fall with other court officials.
Her court, which handles only misdemeanor criminal matters for adults, handles all juvenile matters in the parish’s 7th Ward, which encompasses southern Tangipahoa Parish, including Hammond and Ponchatoula.
Program Receives National Attention
The boot camp program is also getting a close look from the parish chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
In court papers filed Nov. 16 in federal district court in New Orleans, the plaintiffs asked a judge to consider whether the program falls under existing desegregation orders and, if so, needs court review.
School officials haven’t formally responded.
Marrs said Northwood High’s student body is about 81 percent black and 19 percent white.
Routine and Structure for Troubled Teens
The students get a healthy dose of respect for authority and accountability, school officials said, and the military-style discipline is palpable on campus.
Days begin with about 25 minutes of calisthenics led by former Marine Corps drill instructors, who maintain a noticeable presence throughout the day and ride the buses to and from school with the students.
Also, students can choose to be “exercised” instead of suspended for disciplinary infractions.
That option is part of an effort to put the responsibility on the students to break past bad behavior, school officials said.
“It’s a learned behavior that we have to teach them how to change to make good decisions,” Marrs said.
The camp is structured into three 15-day segments. Students must accumulate 15 days’ worth of good behavior points to move from the lowest to highest level in the program and eventual graduation.
Progress is noted in a three-ring binder on Marrs’ desk. The binder keeps the point tallies for each student.
Success is marked with a T-shirt worn under the fatigues, one for each new level attained, brown, green and black.
Good Days and Bad Days
“We have good days and bad days, and bad days don’t count,” retired Marine Corps Master Sgt. Marvin Vernon said he tells students.
English teacher Miranda Phinney said she teaches eighth- to 12th-graders. The spread of ages combined with students who come and go from the program require her to stick to the basics and keep on top of where each student stands, she said.
Classroom teaching is supplemented with computer lab time.
“Overall, students get it,” she said.
It’s the hope, the Dugases said, they have for their son when he returns to school in January.
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