Don Austin lost track of the number of Minneapolis schools he’d bounced between before dropping out entirely in the fall of 2007, a few months before stealing a car at age 15 and causing an accident that killed a woman.
That fall, he’d spent a week at Minneapolis’ South High School before getting kicked out, another week at Washburn, and about a month at a high school in New Brighton.
He was supposed to be getting help for several learning disabilities first diagnosed in the third grade. Neurological problems affect his ability to process language, and he needs help breaking down instructions and written words. He didn’t get it, and his resulting frustration made him act out.
Ugly cycle of failed school experience
By the ninth grade, he had fallen into an ugly cycle: Being called on in class was humiliating. Rather than reveal his ignorance, Austin would talk back to his teachers or outright refuse to participate.
After Austin’s arrest, all that changed, in part because his criminal case took an unusually long time to wend its way through the courts. Because prosecutors wanted to try Austin as an adult, they moved him from the Hennepin County Juvenile Detention Center, which houses an eight-room Minneapolis Public School dubbed Stadium View Campus A.
Instead, he was sent to the regular adult jail, where teens in Austin’s situation then met with teachers on a more irregular schedule.
To get a sense of Austin’s academic level, the first thing his new teacher did was ask him to write a report on a topic that interested him. At first, Austin couldn’t come up with a subject. He barely read at a fourth-grade level, so to him school so far had mostly meant humiliation, not inspiration.
After some back and forth, Austin settled on the life of Martin Luther King Jr. He knew, he would later tell a neuropsychologist who evaluated his learning disabilities, that King was “someone from black history” who “stood up for his rights,” but no more. The next day, the teacher brought some simple books about King.
Austin was blown away. “It was inspiring,” he said recently during an interview at the State Correction Facility in St. Cloud, where he’s serving the remainder of his prison sentence.
“Being African-American, to not know about him and to read about him — that’s something.”
“If school was like this on the outside, I would have been there every day, on time, ready to work,” he said. “I would have had less time to get in trouble, been less angry.”
Suddenly, Austin couldn’t get enough school. If he’d stayed in the juvenile detention center, he would have gotten a full day’s instruction every day. But because the Minneapolis district classified students in the adult jail as “homebound,” he got just an hour a day. After a while, a second student needed his teacher’s attention, so his lessons were reduced to every other day. Sometimes even that didn’t happen.
“Don had caring instructors in Minneapolis who really made a difference,” said Goetz, his attorney. “He just needed six times as much.”
System falls short
Attorneys filed a complaint and a lawsuit demanding the district live up to its obligations to Austin. The administrative law judge assigned to Austin’s case ordered an evaluation by a neuropsychologist, who identified a host of issues, including a language-based disorder that makes it difficult for him to take in information and to express himself.
“Various schools and school districts have failed to identify very prominent behavioral and emotional disturbances and therefore have failed to program adequately for [them],” although “documented as early on as in his third grade,” the evaluator noted. “The analysis of his progress over time reveals a general failure of any special education program that he has been exposed to.”
Austin’s later behavioral problems were a predictable result, the evaluator continued: “[His] best chance at becoming a productive member of society will be directly related to the quality of educational and behavioral health treatment services. He is literally captive and motivated to learn all he can while incarcerated. It is counterintuitive that at a time when [Austin] is most amenable to instruction and treatment, such instruction and treatments have been downgraded or nonexistent.”
Since November, following his conviction, Austin has been at the state prison in St. Cloud where he’s busy trying to catch up on studies.
Austin is one of six students receiving 100 hours a month of instruction specially tailored to reinforce basic skills. With the help of a computer program that helps students with disabilities like his break down unfamiliar words, he’s now reading at a ninth-grade level.
“It’s different now because I know I can accomplish whatever I want,” he said.
Austin’s goal is to progress to the 11th grade in reading and math. If he achieves that, he will be able to start barber school even before his release, scheduled for April 2012. Then he’d like to go into business with one of his brothers, already a barber.
In the meantime, he’d like to see the wrinkle ironed out that kept him from being taught in jail.
“I just hope another person doesn’t have to go through what I went through to realize school is important,” he said. “That’s the main place you want to go if you are going to be successful in life. It’s not going to be an easy row, but you can do it.”
Beth Hawkins writes about schools, criminal justice and other topics.