By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
Luis is heartened by his new attorney’s attitude. “I know I’m really lucky,” he says. “If I’d stayed with Bisnow, eventually I would have had to take a deal. That’s the way it is for most people in my situation. I see it every day in here. Jail is such a bad place to be, psychologically, if you’re fighting a case. You see some
people who are guilty, other people who are innocent. But almost nobody goes home. They take a deal or they get convicted. You think, well, maybe I can be that 1 percent who wins their case. But what are the odds, really? When I was in the holding tank, after Chavez arrested me, he told me, ‘This time you’re going down for a long time. This time, you’re going to lose everything.’”
But with Overland, says Luis, he feels, once again, he has a chance.
Estephanie turns 14 on May 25. It is a school day, so Frances wishes her daughter happy birthday in the morning and hands her a $10 bill, all she has in her purse. That night, Estephanie uses the money to go to the movies with friends. The girls talk about their upcoming eighth-grade party at Six Flags Magic Mountain and their imminent graduation from Hollenbeck Middle School. Estephanie tells her mother she wants a new dress for graduation. “But I’ve got the money, so don’t trip, Mom,” she says, meaning money she has saved from afterschool work at the Homeboy office.
Then, two weeks before the end of school, Estephanie blurts the news that she won’t be graduating. Her academic performance, while not stellar, easily satisfies school requirements. But, students are also marked for “work habits” and “cooperation” — with the possible scores of “E” for excellent, “S” for satisfactory or “U” for unsatisfactory. According to Hollenbeck rules, a student may only have four U grades and still graduate. Estephanie has six.
“My teachers say it’s too late to do anything about it,” she tells her mother miserably. When Frances investigates further, she learns that, although Estephanie won’t graduate, neither will she be held back. “They still want to get rid of her,” says Frances. “They just won’t let her walk across the stage.”
Of all Frances’ kids, Estephanie has had the rockiest school experience. For instance, when she was in the third grade, Frances became concerned because Estephanie didn’t seem to be learning to read. (In 2001, Estephanie’s school, Hoover Elementary, was listed as one of the worst in the district, with 65 percent or more of the children attending scoring “below basic” or “far below basic.”) Her concern escalated when her daughter came home in tears and handed her a note. “The teacher’s aide told me that you need to buy this stuff so I won’t be so stupid,” said Estephanie. Frances opened the note. It read: “Please get GINKGO BILOBA for your daughter.”
“A teacher’s aide gave you this?” Frances asked. “Where’s your teacher?” Estephanie explained that the teacher was in a car accident, so she needed to rest. “Every day we put chairs together for her so she can lie down.”
Outraged, Frances drove to Hoover Elementary the next afternoon and found that a napping teacher was the least of the problems. Estephanie’s third-grade class was an ESL class. Okay, thought Frances. But then she noticed it was an ESL class for Korean-speaking children. Estephanie was the only non-Korean kid in the class.
The apologetic school principal convinced Frances that it was too late in the school year to make a change without compounding the damage. The next year, with the help of a kindly teacher who tutored her after school, the girl began to catch up academically, but the injury to her confidence lasted. “The good news is my daughter still knows a lot of Korean,” says Frances with a sad laugh.
Bola, on the other hand, had always done well academically, scoring second from the top in his fifth-grade class. But, now in sixth grade, particularly since Luis has been locked up, things have gone in a less promising direction. On Friday, May 28, when both Estephanie’s and Bola’s report cards come in the mail, Bola has all F’s. “F stands for ‘fantastic’!” Bola jokes uncomfortably as his mother stares at the flimsy slip of paper. “I don’t know if he thinks he’s being cool, or what,” Frances says later. “I’ve got to get him out of that school.”
According to experts, Bola and Estephanie’s school troubles are symptomatic of a newly quantified problem — namely the harmful collateral effect of imprisonment on families. “We find that when a father is removed from a family through incarceration, kids suffer in a variety of ways,” says Todd Clear, director of doctoral studies in criminal justice at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. “Children are less likely to stay in school. Moms are more likely to go on welfare. Teen births are more likely to occur. And when you remove a lot of males from a lot of families, the whole community becomes less stable,” adds Clear. “There’s even a tipping point at which crime goes up precipitously.”
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