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Friday, April 26, 2013

I put a penguin in "jail"

When I worked for a public school district, I used to see a lot of the internal mechanisms which make schools actually work. Some of this came in the form of special programs for kids who couldn't or wouldn't make it in the ordinary schools. I wrote a little about setting up a T1 line to our first "alternative school" last year.

What I haven't described yet is the alternative to that alternative. Yes, they actually had something which went well beyond the carpet-store-turned-school for kids who really had strange things going on. This one was more of a military-style boarding school, and yet I had to get involved with it. Here's what happened.

One fall, we got news that a new school would be opening in our coverage area. Every school district had defined boundaries, and anything which happened in there was automatically our responsibility even if it wasn't directly run by us. In this case, there was a tiny little slice of a nearby Army base which somehow fell into our borders due to some property line oddities.

Normally this wouldn't mean much, but then someone decided to set up a school in that little slice of land. They recycled a building to do it. Apparently, that building was the former Army jail for that base.

So one day, a bunch of us met their staff and synced up with their "technology guy". He had done a decent job of getting things patched together as best he could. They didn't own the building so they couldn't make permanent changes, but he had wires tacked up all over the place and had split things into two separate networks. The staff was on one and the students were on another.

When we showed up, it made his day. We offered to give them all e-mail accounts on our systems (that is, my Unix box) and also dialup accounts should they want to do things from home. We would also build yet another Linux gateway with a modem and would park it out there to get them online for free. They'd have a block of addresses from us and wouldn't have to pay for ISP service any more. The plan was that we'd use it as a stop-gap while figuring out the particulars of getting a T1 installed (through the Army and the telco) and would swing them over.

About a week later, I had all of the stuff built, and drove back out there to install things. While out there for the second time, I got to see more of the facility. It was in fact a former jail, and it looked and felt just as creepy and weird as you might imagine. It was surrounded by a layer or two of tall fences with barbed wire on top. Every door was solid and heavy.

They didn't use any of these locks to keep people in (or out) any more, but it still looked forbidding. I can't imagine how this was a good thing for the kids who wound up going here. Imagine being on the edge of falling into the wrong side of the penal system in the first place, and then spending most of your days in a glorified jail anyway.

This actually managed to run for a full school year of 9 months and they graduated a single class. After that, their funding was cut and they had to pack it in. I went back out to collect my server and said goodbye to everyone.

There was one part of this which really stuck with me. Apparently they'd have kids "bug out" now and then. This is where they decide they aren't doing this any more, and, well, take off running. They actually made a small request of the kids for when they decided to do this, and I got to hear it:

If you run out, could you at least run out the front door? If you go out through the side doors, it sets off the fire alarms, and then we have to deal with the fire department, and that's not cool. Just go out the front. We don't keep any of it locked, so you can just go out and it won't set off the fire alarm. Okay?

When you're running on a thin budget, you don't get to be picky about things like real estate. If someone offers you a building, you're probably going to take it.