Learning How to Survive (at) CEP

HISD and a paid trustee get entangled in the spreading empire of a private firm touting safe alternative schools for troubled kids. So why are some students and parents so scared?

Finally the classroom teacher returned and she sent Marshall to the clinic. Lynette took her son to the emergency room at Spring Branch Memorial Hospital, where they ran a CAT scan and told her he had suffered a mild concussion, she says. Lynette is still trying to get answers from the school about exactly how this could have happened, especially in an environment that prides itself on constant supervision.

Lynette has few good words for CEP, describing it as a place that makes a lot of promises about what it's going to do for children and delivers on few of them.

The day after his fall, in an appointment that had been set long before, Marshall went for an evaluation with the Mental Health and Mental Retardation Authority of Harris County. This examination was not set up by HISD or CEP, but instead by Justice of the Peace George Risner of Pasadena. Risner handles many children who get in trouble in Harris County, which means he sees a lot of CEP students and their parents.

Joseph has to take pills to get the courage to attend CEP's school.
Deron Neblett
Joseph has to take pills to get the courage to attend CEP's school.

MHMRA determined that Marshall has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and prescribed Concerta to increase his attention and improve his behavior. His mother says it seems to be working. Lynette is very grateful to MHMRA and especially Risner for recommending the exam. She is equally angry that HISD, in all its years of counseling and supposedly helping her son, never thought of this.

"Because of the symptoms that he has, he can't sit still. Maybe he would never have had to be here if he'd been tested earlier," she says. "I have to wonder what the counselors are doing. Just because a student has one little problem, they don't take the time to figure out what the problem is. They're being paid to send these kids off."

Risner laughs ruefully in his office when told of Lynette Jackson's feelings.

"You mean why is some goofy judge in Pasadena doing this instead of the school?"

He doesn't hesitate to affix blame. "The bottom line is [the schools are] not doing their job. They don't want to know what the problem is. If they find out, then they have to provide services."

Risner thinks CEP needs to improve. He became frustrated with it at one point and refused to work with it for a while. He's concerned that some of HISD's more overcrowded schools may be sending students to CEP to relieve that problem. He also believes Harris County has provided most of the auxiliary services like counseling at CEP, and "CEP would just suck off of it." He says CEP didn't fulfill its share of the bargain with the county for the children in its juvenile justice education program. That relationship ends May 31; the county has already put the program out for bids, and CEP has plans for the additional room the change will free up.

Dr. Regina Hicks is deputy director of child and adolescent services for MHMRA. It has been providing clinical services at CEP and will continue that after the county withdraws. (CEP is trying to secure federal funding for other counseling programs.) MHMRA does on-site assessments as well as group and individual therapy. Sessions are paid for by Medicaid, the Children's Health Insurance Program or on a sliding fee scale for those without other coverage.

"We're trying to reach the kids as early as possible," Hicks says. "Clearly what we are trying to do is to keep kids from penetrating deeper into the system and from going into the JJAEP program." Kids who have emotional difficulties, Hicks says, "are not going to be able to get a good education."

So with its heart and mission in the right place, MHMRA should be able to provide a valuable service to the kids at CEP, but takers have been few, Hicks says. Parents are reluctant to come in for the required family counseling sessions, which take place when school is in session but also when most adults work. The stigma of mental health counseling deters parents and students alike, she says.

"Our services are on a voluntary basis. We can't make you use them. A lot of families don't avail themselves of mental health services until someone has one foot in the hospital."

In the four years that Jennifer Frisman has worked in support services for CEP at Beechnut, there have been "more than five attempted suicides" by its students, she says.

Asked about the need for counselors, CEP's Anderson says: "The best counselors are good teachers, and the best counseling is the interaction between teachers and students."

I'm a student at JJAEP. I've been sent there for refusing to do work and cussing at teachers. I've only been at this school for a short time, about a month, and I've already seen many incidents where I feel the teachers are violating our rights. I know it's an alternative school and they aren't supposed to be like regular school but some things the staff does is out of hand.

I've seen many kids get manhandled by staff often leaving marks, bruises and deep scratches. I've been cussed at for minor things like talking without permission.

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