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School Behind Bars

A matter of principal … Parkville College’s Brendan Murray. Photo: Thom Rigney

Can a decent education turn young criminals around? Tony Wilson goes inside Victoria’s toughest youth prison to see a remarkable new school in action.

[Long edit of this article that appeared in Fairfax’s Good Weekend magazine]

The first minute of the first school day at Parkville College began with teacher Jess Appeldorff, shaking the hands of eight teenage boys and thanking them for coming to class. The school’s other four teachers were there, as was their principal, Brendan Murray. The school was Murray’s brainchild and it was an auspicious moment: Victoria’s highest security youth justice centre was about to undertake a bold educational experiment, and these boys from North Remand had just received what Murray called “the three -quarter-time speech of my life”.

“Now, I know Brendan had a chat to you outside,” the 28-year-old Appeldorff began, sticking to the prepared script.

“More like a whinge,” interjected a pale, skinny student in the middle row.

“Hey, show some respect,’ responded a kid who was certainly not pale and certainly not skinny.

The first student raised both palms in mock retreat. “Oh, sorry, sorry … you black pig.”

“The boy stood up and he was just a giant.” Murray remembers. “Then he started swinging. I put my hand on the first kid to keep him at distance – and believe me, he certainly didn’t want any of Big Boy – but the punches flew and it was pretty ugly. Eventually, youth officers won the battle to restrain him. But, yeah, that was our second minute of operation.”

At Parkville, it’s called a “Code Black” – a critical incident in which a literal panic button is hit and a Safety Emergency Response Team (SERT) descends to secure the room. Boys involved are confined to ‘time out’ back on the units.

‘The big kid was really distressed,” Murray says. ‘He apologised over and over for ruining class. “Through the tears I remember him saying, “I’m so sorry. It’s just you guys have been really good, and he shouldn’t say things like that. He shouldn’t say things like that because ‘Miss’ is black.'”

Appeldorff, who has a South American background, shared a walk with Murray after SERT had cleared the classroom.  Murray said, ‘I reckon we go back to the unit, invite the boys to return to class, and challenge them to get school back on track. We show them that we’re serious. We show them this school is going to happen.’

After the unit had returned to their residential compounds, known as units, Murray delivered another three -quarter-time address. “We talked about respect.  I said that North Remand  had a reputation as the toughest unit in the state, and that a young woman who could have taught at any school she wanted had chosen to teach here. ‘She wants to teach,” I said, ‘but it’s up to you whether you guys want to be taught”.

The boys returned to the school building within the Remand Centre, Parkville College’s principal base. “They were perfect,” Appeldorff grins. ‘One of them said, “We want to make it up to you, Miss.”.”I’ve now taught North Remand for four terms, and there hasn’t been another incident like that one.’

It was Jess Appeldorff’s first day as a teacher.

***

Campus co-ordinator Matthew Hyde, 28, meets me at reception, after I have had my retina photographed, but before I’ve entered the Star Trek-style, whooshing glass tardis that is the gateway to Parkville Youth Justice Precinct (‘The Precinct”).

‘Security is probably the most striking thing when you first start working here,’ Hyde says. ‘”Eye scans, having to empty your pockets, not having contact with your phone, wearing an alarm buzzer that means you’ve got a little SWAT team that’ll run to your protection,” says Hyde as he ushers me through. “That’s all a bit different to what I experienced at Lalor West Primary.”

Together with Murray, Hyde is playing a key role developing the curriculum. It’s a challenging task, because for security reasons, kids cannot be separated from their units. It means on a unit like Southbank, which typically accommodates sex offenders and boys with complex intellectual issues, a teacher might have a kid working at grade one or two level in the same classroom as a boy about to start VCE.

In 2013, only one Year 12 aged student at Parkville College will undertake VCE, a boy whose studies were progressing well until a disastrous one-off confrontation that resulted in his victim’s death. “That’s absolutely the exception,” says Hyde. “Predominantly our boys are known to the justice system and haven’t been to school for a long time. That’s why VCAL [Victorian Certificate of Applied Learning] suits. It’s attainable. It’s achievable.”

VCAL targets literacy, numeracy, and, according to the Education Department website, “personal skills that are important for life and work”.

‘We walk back outside, except now we are “inside”. Isolated buildings punctuate a landscape of straggly grass and white concrete. To our left is the Remand Centre. Behind us are towering 15-metre walls topped with razor wire. A dusty football oval nestles between the Remand Centre and the units for those who have been sentenced, small enough for a decent full-back to consider having a shot. It’s a serious landscape containing up to 123 kids who have been charged with or convicted of serious crimes such as armed robbery, rape and assault. All nine of the residential units at The Precinct are now part of Parkville College.

“Most of our kids are a long way behind,” says Hyde. “We did a survey asking them the last time they went to school, and most said ‘one or two years ago’. We then asked ‘when was the last time you did a full week of school,’ the kids were like, ‘fark, a full week!’ It turned out not since grades four or five had most of these kids done a full week of school.”

“They’ve just been geniuses at getting kicked out,’ Hyde continues. ‘Whether it’s telling a teacher to go and get fucked, or flipping a table, they got themselves out really quick. And so they’re missing the fundamentals.”

We walk down to Southbank unit, a brick bungalow where Hyde teaches a numeracy class that ends with a game of “tables bingo” for Freddo Frogs. The boys, aged between 15 and 18, have times-tables sheets in front of them, as well as bingo cards to cross off and complete. The circle of desks is suddenly abuzz.

“Three times three?” Hyde rattles.

“Nine!”

“Four times eight?”

“Thirty two!”

Hyde accelerates. “Two times three?”

“I don’t fucking know!” shoots one kid.

“Six!” scream the rest.

The game is derailed momentarily when Jesse* is caught pinching chocolates, but gets back on track for Abdul’s climactic “bingo”. Hyde tosses him two Freddos, which are unwrapped and devoured in a single motion.

‘”Lucky c…sucking c…,” says one of the vanquished, but with the good natured humour that pervades the whole room. Then he remembers me.

“Sorry, I didn’t see you there when I called him a c…sucking c…”

***

In the eighties, Brendan Murray’s parents had the cleaning contract at Gordon House, then one of Melbourne’s few homeless shelters. “I spent my childhood roaming in and out of the rooms of old, drunk, Irish blokes who sometimes were coming out of prison. That was my first experience of people living that sort of life.”

In his late teens, Murray graduated to the bar at the hostel, “serving sherry at 11am to people who were drinking to the point of crapping themselves.” Murray grins: “It’s amazing to think of a homeless shelter having a bar but it did.”

He was also a promising AFL footballer. In 1991 he won the Collingwood Under-19s best and fairest, and was elevated to the senior list. He started 1992 well and was even selected as an emergency for the seniors. But emotionally, Murray was treading tough terrain. A few years earlier, his father had committed suicide from the platform at Victoria Park railway station. The young footballer continued to train at the adjacent ground, listening to trains rattle by.

“I woke up one day and just decided to quit,” Murray remembers.  He called the club and was summoned for a coffee with senior coach Leigh Matthews. ‘At first, Leigh tried to talk me out of it. He asked me what was wrong and I replied, “I don’t know. I just don’t want to spend every day chasing a ball around. I think I want more from life.”

Matthews suggested that the nineteen year old Murray might be depressed. “I said that maybe I was. I do remember saying, ‘Why do we always do 10 push -ups, never nine?  And what’s so important about running around the point posts?” Murray laughs. “That’s about the time Leigh was ready to cut me loose.”

Post-footy, Murray landed a job at Anglicare as a residential carer, living-in with boys leaving youth detention. Repeatedly, he saw how difficult it was to reintegrate youth offenders into the mainstream education system.  “If a kid has been expelled from three or four schools, the next school just says, ‘No thanks.’ So the kid hits the streets again and surprise, surprise, he reoffends. It was so depressing.  It led me to believe that what we were offering was a band-aid – that the only way to break the cycle was education.”

In 2000, Murray enrolled at university to become a teacher.

***

He who opens a school door, closes a prison.” Victor Hugo’s words are written on the school door, in the Remand Centre and repeated again in a street-arty font in the grimly lit, grimily yellow internal corridor. Eight youths, half of North Remand, wander past into class and despite the transitory nature of the unit’s population, Murray impresses with his ability to greet all the students by name.

“The movement of boys is timetabled to the minute,’ Murray explains. ‘A lot of students have gang histories, and so DHS {Department of Human Services] put huge consideration into ensuring some boys don’t have contact with other boys.”

When South Remand makes its way to class a few minutes later, kids pause to peer through the glass peephole set into the door of North Remand’s classroom. ‘They’re looking for familiar faces,’ Murray says.  ‘Sometimes they’ll wave. Sometimes they’ll make a throat slitting gesture. It’s the way it is.’

The last kid Murray greets is Axel, a flat -nosed 15 year old wearing the legislated white T-shirt and blue shorts. He’s gripping a book to his chest.

“Whatcha reading there, Axel?” Murray asks.

The boy proudly displays the cover. It’s an AFL autobiography, Shane Crawford’s That’s What I’m Talking About.

Murray digs for a review. “Liking it?”

Axel flicks the pages with his thumb. “I’ve read this much. It’s fucking awesome!”

Murray congratulates the boy on his progress. I quickly learn that casual swearing is commonplace, and will be overlooked unless it is used directly against a teacher or classmate.

***

School’s in … Parkville College teacher Anne-Maree Fenech. Photo: Thom Rigney

Check out these guns,” teacher Anne-Maree Fenech says, flexing her biceps. The North Remand boys sit up straighter in their seats. From the look of some of them, bicep size is more than a passing interest. They hadn’t expected this from a slightly built, 160-centimetre, 23-year-old woman.

“Do you reckon I’d be able to bench press 200 pounds?” Fenech poses, still in the flex position.

“Noooo!” the boys laugh. “Nowhere near!””

“What about 180?”

“Not a chance!” comes the immediate reply. The boys know their bench-press times tables.

Fenech holds up a copy of the The Hunger Games. “So, who reckons he could finish a 300-page book?”

Another “Noooo”.

“Well, who reckons he could read two pages? Two pages, and that’s it?”

Parkville College’s newest arrivals tentatively agree that they could.

‘Well that’s how we’re going to start. And then we’ll build up, just like you’d do at the gym. And I’ll bet you do end up finishing 300 pages. And more.”

Most classes begin with silent reading. For those starting out, the aim might be five minutes. For those who have developed some “fitness”, it might be 45. Bringing a book to class is non -negotiable. The aim is to generate a spark, which hopefully leads to much longer reading stints back on the unit.

New Yorker Maddie Witter, 33, is behind the school’s reading policy. She co-founded New York’s KIPP Infinity School, an institution of last resort for dragging kids out of poverty, and authored the recently released Reading without Limits. In 2011, prompted by a visit to KIPP Infinity School in 2009, Murray convinced her to move to Australia as literacy consultant to his proposed new school. It was Witter, alongside Murray, who pitched Parkville College to the Victorian state government.

“We test kids diagnostically to work out how well they can read,” says Witter, “and then apply strategies to help them improve. We provide cultivated classroom libraries, with the emphasis on sequels and series, because kids sometimes find it hard to ‘break up’ with one set of characters.” In this classroom library, I see Deltora Quest, Diary of a Wimpy Kid, Moneyball and Stephen King’s It. “We’re matching kids to books they can read confidently,” Witter explains.

Witter tells of one boy who arrived at Parkville having never read a book. ‘We started him on Diary of a Wimpy Kid and he read the whole series in about a week. After that he panicked because he thought he only liked ‘Wimpy Kid’, but then we got him onto another and then another series. He was in for five months, and went up at least three years of reading levels.”

Murray says there are already many such examples. ‘Yes, they’re starting from a low base, but we’re getting huge and rapid improvements.’

He walks me across to the Eastern Hill unit. When we reach the makeshift classroom, we prop outside: “In this room at the moment we’ve got two boys who have committed armed robbery, one who’s raped and one who’s murdered,” Murray says. We enter into the deep silence and attract only the briefest of glances before eyes descend back into books. Strikingly, the two youth officers assigned to the unit are also reading. They are in uniform, belts heavy with security equipment, legs outstretched. Murray is organising for their enrolment in a teachers’ aide course at Monash University.

Ian Lanyon, Director of Secure Services for The Precinct. Photo: Thom Rigney

Ian Lanyon, 48, the Director of Secure Services for The Precinct, has witnessed the transformation in his staff: ‘If I go back to day one, my staff were standing around the edge of the classroom with arms crossed, going, ‘This won’t work. Things will turn to crap pretty quickly.’ Now they’re helping kids with school work. Some of them want to become teachers!” Lanyon laughs. “I’m upset with Brendan because he’s pinching my staff!”

***

I attend a cooking class in the Southbank unit, and watch as Hyde incorporates addition, subtraction, weights and measures into the task of preparing rissoles.

“Cooking’s massive,” he explains. “Not only do the boys love it, but so many of them already have kids of their own. And sadly our kids aren’t well trained in providing healthy food.”

One of the most successful projects of 2012 was the cake stall. Students baked products and pretend money was allocated to staff so they could purchase the ones they found most appealing.  Similarly, ‘the hoodie project’ was another favourite. I sat next to Abdul, a , garrulous 16-year-old with multiple tattoos, as he drafted his letter to Ian Lanyon asking for permission to wear Parkville College hooded jumpers. ‘We done the design, tracked down suppliers, done costs, made the logo and everything,’ Abdul explains. The persuasive piece was not persuasive enough. Lanyon said ‘no’.

Abdul also shows me his reading list: Puppies behind Bars, Bear Grylls’s Mud, Sweat and Tears, Banksy’s Wall and Piece. “I’ve read heaps more, too. I got nothing but positives to say for the school. I mean, I’ve always been pretty smart. In school I’d finish first, disrupt others, then get sent out of the classroom or put in isolation. But in here, the classes are smaller.  It’s more one on one. And now I’m going to achieve my VCAL.”

There are other students who are a long way from achieving a leaving certificate. Jesse, 16, is tucked away from the group in an open, supervised bathroom, shaving ahead of a court appearance.

“He often doesn’t join in with the other boys,” Hyde explains. “He’s got a developmental age of about six or seven, just really battles in the classroom, and so Brendan and I take it turns to do one-on-one sessions with him.”

Murray later recalls spending several weeks reading Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory to Jesse. “He just lay back on a couch and closed his eyes. He loved it. Told us that nobody had ever read to him before.”

I ask Murray what Jesse is in for. “Armed robbery,” he says. “His mates convinced him to hold a knife to a guy in a 7-Eleven. When he got before the magistrate she gave him five months. Jesse said, ‘Get f…ed.’ She said, ‘Six months.’ Jesse said, ‘Get f…ed.’ They both eventually stopped at 15 months.”

***

Brendan Murray was the Victorian Education Department’s Secondary Teacher of the Year in 2009. The award was acknowledgement for co-founding the Pavilion School, a facility of last resort for kids not receiving education in Melbourne’s north. The Pavilion began more as an idea than an institution. ‘For the first term, back in 2006, our office was a car boot and our classroom was the council shop at Northland Shopping Centre’ says the school’s co-founder and current Principal Josie Howie. Murray and Howie had to find 20 students in 20 days. Recalls Murray, “We just went up to kids we saw hanging around and said, “Hi, we’re starting up a new school. When was the last time you went to school?’ Most would say, “Dunno, not for years. We eventually got our twenty. And from there they just came flooding in.”

Howie and Murray set up digs in a sports pavilion within the old Olympic training facility in West Heidelberg. It had a roll-a-door, four concrete walls, and a bathroom that was, in Murray’s words, ‘torn apart by the local cricket club every weekend’.

Howie, a social worker, and Murray, a teacher with experience in the justice system, were a winning combination. Both are passionate believers in “unconditional positive regard”, a term coined in the 1950s by psychologist Carl Rogers, which stipulates basic support for a person, regardless of what that person says or does.

“It’s about creating a therapeutic environment,” says Howie. “If someone comes into a therapy session, you don’t berate them. You try to understand them, within certain boundaries. That’s how you can work with people who are sex offenders, or who are violent or aggressive.”

Murray explains further: “In practical terms, it means not giving these kids what they’ve come to expect from an adult every time they upturn a table, or abuse a teacher, or ride a motorcycle into class. It means rolling with resistance. It means grabbing hold of the one thing that student might be doing well, and highlighting it. There are boundaries and consequences, and you have to be consistent in applying them, but whatever the kid does, she doesn’t lose the teacher. She doesn’t get what she expects. There’s always a tomorrow.”

Howie is adamant that the technique works. ‘They might come with a lot of anger or resistance in the early days, but eventually they’ll respond. Almost everyone stays.’ Certainly, the Pavillion School has been a trailblazer for schools of this type. Seven years on, it has 185 students across two campuses.

It was following up on a former Pavilion School student that inspired Murray to embark upon Parkville College. “We had Jack, a Maori kid who had finished year 11 but left school to work in the same factory as his parents. About three months later, friends of his told me he’d been locked up..”

This was indeed the case. Since Jack had left the Pavilion School, a family member had died, and life had spun out of control. Murray called The Precinct and requested permission to visit, and brought the Pavilion’s social worker and some school books.  “When we asked him about school, Jack replied, ‘Somebody visits about half an hour a week.’ When we asked what he was learning, he said, ‘Nothing.’ This kid was up on serious charges, did five months on remand, and was receiving no education at all. It had a huge impact on me, so in the middle of 2011 I picked up the phone to the Minister.”

Murray could not have made his call at a more opportune time. A scathing Victorian state Ombudsman’s report from October 2010 into conditions at Parkville had made similar observations. On average, four detainees were attending each session of TAFE offered and witnesses reported that teaching staff “couldn’t be bothered” and would just “sit for 12 hours and go home”.

A month after the Ombudsmen’s report came out, a new Liberal state government was elected. The incoming Community Services Minister Mary Wooldridge, moved swiftly to change things at Parkville, appointing ex-policeman Lanyon for the top job. From day one, Lanyon had a raft of Ombudsman’s recommendations to worry about, one of which was a new educational model.

“We worked out that while TAFE can provide a good vocational service, it was too advanced for a lot of our kids,” Lanyon explains. “Where our clients are deficient is basic literacy and numeracy, but even more they lack interpersonal skills, the skills we learn in prep, kindy and grade one – how to talk to someone, how to relate to an adult, how to sit there and not punch each other, all that stuff.”

An image that has stayed with Lanyon is watching a group of detainees attempt to butter bread. “They couldn’t do it. Not because they were physically disabled but because nobody had shown them how. It saddened me to the core, one of those moments where you think, ‘This can’t just be about teaching kids to drive a forklift or balance tyres. We have to get back to basics.’ ”

In her break between classes, teacher Alyce Cleary approaches me in the corridor, holding a pen. “Is this yours?” she asks. I can tell from her tone that this isn’t a casual inquiry and I shamefacedly admit that it is. “Sorry,” I say. “I never seem to be able to hang on to a pen.”

Hyde later explains the security implications: “If you go in with 10 pens, you have to come out with 10 pens. If one goes missing, we have to pass it over to DHS, and it’s possible a strip-search may occur.”

All classroom objects are assessed for weapon and self-harm potential. Hyde recently ordered 120 desks, only to discover they had extendable detachable legs. He laughs at his own mistake. “So what’s that, 480 baseball bats? Not surprisingly, they got modified.”

Since the school commenced, violence has decreased across The Precinct. Lanyon tells me that critical incidents are down 56 per cent. Dangerous flare-ups still occur – in July 2012, it made national news when a youth officer was slashed and another held hostage during an escape attempt outside school hours. But in general, Lanyon couldn’t be more enthusiastic about the impact of Parkville College. “It’s introduced a more structured day. Like any kids, busy kids are good kids; bored kids are naughty kids, – especially if they’re naughty kids, anyway.

“The fact we’ve got young people who have previously never read on their own, sitting reading books in silence for up to 50 minutes, that speaks for itself. And then back on the units we have kids electing not to watch TV or play PlayStation, but to read instead. That’s unheard of in youth justice.”

***

I’m on site when the school’s first and last Code Black for the term occurs. It happens in Street Art, when one boy calls another a junkie. Fists fly, SERT responds, and Parkville College’s fourth-term copybook is blotted on the second -last day.

“We were so close,” Murray moans over a staff-room sandwich. “We almost got through a whole term.” He flashes a smile that shows off his blackened eye tooth: “Are you sure it happened after class started?”

It ends up being an eventful day. In Remand South, teacher Maja Graham hurts her back when a student removes her chair as she goes to sit down. ‘He meant it as a joke,’ Graham says, when I see her in the corridor afterwards. ‘It’s that whole thing about not understanding suitable modes of classroom behaviour. He’s already apologised, and I’ll go down to his room after school to talk about it a bit more. We’ll ask him to return to class for the last day tomorrow.’

Graham, like the majority of the Parkville College staff, is young and articulate. I ask Murray whether it is part of a deliberate youth policy.

“I have no problem with an inexperienced teacher,” he explains, “because people learn their own ways to operate in a classroom, and can get pretty stuck in them. I had one applicant show me this document he’d developed at his previous school entitled War Zone Teaching: How to Get on Top of Kids Early. I thought, oh my god, you do that and we’ll have a riot.”

The situations can range from the violent to the bizarre. In North Remand, boys can be coming off drugs, resulting in psychotic outbursts. “One kid just yelled at us in Czech for three days,” Hyde recalls. “We try to remain consistent— low volume interactions, lots of eye contact. If a student is uncontrollable, a youth officer will remove him, but we’ll make it our job to talk to the kid afterwards. ‘What went wrong today? How can we make school better for you?’”

Murray remembers one occasion on which a Southbank student began masturbating in a numeracy class. ‘I remember talking (to this kid) back in his room and saying, “You know that simply can’t happen. You can’t jerk off in class.” And he just apologised: ‘I’m so sorry. It was the numbers. I was in the zone’.”

I spend my last hours meeting students and talking about writing. Troy (graffiti tag name Buzz) wants to know what I get paid for articles like this and asks, “D’you wanna start co-writing with me? I gotta lot of stories.” He then shows me one, a moving piece entitled Feels So Real, about dreaming of trains, parks, shops and his girlfriend, and what it feels like to wake up, as he has for the last four years, and still be in detention.

Shane, 16, is writing a TV script titled How to Make Raspberry and Custard Tartlets. “I’ve had the idea from the start of the year,” he says.

I read the first line:  

Host: Today I’m going to show you how to make raspberry and custard tartlets because they are good. I’m also a sucker for desserts.”

“By the end of show,” Shane explains, “the host has made the tartlets and everyone loves them.”

Hyde offers compliments to all. Later, he may call parents or grandparents of the boys to say they are going well. “We only ever call with good news. We’d never call and say, ‘Your kid’s screwing up’, because they already know that. They’re usually really surprised, really pleased.”

An alarming percentage of students don’t have relatives for the teachers to call. “Take a kid like Shane,” Hyde explains. “I’ve asked him and he said, ‘I dunno, maybe my YJ [youth justice worker].’ His mum died quite recently. He’s been to eight or nine schools. There’s no support at home.  And even though he’s really articulate, really bright, he’s got some real issues.”

Shane is inside for committing rape. I watch the compassion being shown to him, the concentrated teaching effort, the quality of staff resources and the unconditional positive regard. I put it to Murray that sections of the public would be upset, especially victims of crime and talkback radio hosts.

Murray grabs my pen, which I (thankfully) still have at close quarters, and starts writing in my pad:

Universal Declaration of Human Rights: Article 26


1. Everyone has the right to education

 …
2. Education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality

“Australia ratified that treaty,” Murray says, “and unless these kids are no longer human beings, they are part of ‘everyone’. Education is a difficult concept to define, but it’s got to be somewhere around the mark of ‘making better people and better societies’. In my view we’ve especially got to make a child like Shane better, when you think of what he’s done.”

He hands me my pad. “The past is the past. The only thing I can affect is the future. And I don’t want this child to rape again. I don’t want another victim.”

*Names of youths in detention have been changed.