The Miseducation of Wesley Armstrong

In the world of special ed schools in Broward County, drugs and tough love are the order of the day -- and academics are beside the point

Larry Benson, Sunset's guidance counselor, says the ultimate goals of any SED school are to get troubled students the treatment they need, to improve their educational ability, and to mainstream them back into regular schools as soon as possible. But he concedes that's not happening much at Sunset. Benson says that of the 200 or so children enrolled at Sunset, roughly 10 to 15 made it back to regular schools last year.

For those who stay at Sunset, which enrolls students from first through twelfth grade, the results are generally bleak. Last year eight students graduated from Sunset, Benson says. Just three of them got actual diplomas. The other five got "special" diplomas, which signify a low-level curriculum and aren't even accepted by community colleges or the military. About the same number of students who graduated, Benson says, dropped out of school. The percentage of Sunset students who make it to college is "very, very low, less than 10 percent," he says. Of the eight graduates last year, only one is expected to enroll at a community college.

That doesn't seem like a good record for kids who are generally of normal intelligence. But Benson says it's not the school's fault. With their deep emotional problems, he says, Sunset students simply don't have much of a chance at high-level academic success. "Our class goal is not diplomas," he observes. "It's getting them working successfully at a job and vocational training. My responsibility is more toward getting them to succeed than in reaching some grade point average."Wesley lies upside down on the brown leather love seat in his living room, with his size ten feet up in the air where his face should be and his head hanging down, not quite touching the clean, white-tiled floor. For a 12-year-old, Wesley is enormous: five-foot-four and more than 150 pounds. He has a 36-inch waist and wears a man's size-medium shirt.

Sunset School takes in only students who've been deemed "severly emotionally disturbed." A lot of them never make it back out.
Larry Singer
Sunset School takes in only students who've been deemed "severly emotionally disturbed." A lot of them never make it back out.
Guidance counselor Larry Benson says academics come second at Sunset. Is that why so many of the students there never get real diplomas?
Larry Singer
Guidance counselor Larry Benson says academics come second at Sunset. Is that why so many of the students there never get real diplomas?

But here he seems far from the violent troublemaker described by teachers. In fact he comes off as a sweet kid who obeys his mother quickly. He fidgets with a little motorized fan, its whirling, plastic propeller blowing air onto his face. Then his mother carries her new baby, three-month-old Cameron, into the room. Wesley cradles the baby and lays him down on the couch. He coos and gently tickles the baby's tummy. "I love babies," he says. "They're soft and they smell good and they're nice and I love them."

Despite a certain inherent sweetness at home, Wesley becomes a different person at school. He fights and cusses and is defiant. In short he lacks the discipline to work with others and to control his temper.

And that might seem surprising, considering that his mother is a law-enforcement professional who, while growing up in Fort Lauderdale, was a joiner, not a fighter. At Dillard High School, Felicia Armstrong was on the Air Force ROTC and a member of the drill and swim teams. After graduating high school, she attended Bethune-Cookman College in Daytona Beach, where she graduated with honors. "I wanted to go to law school, but I got sidetracked," she says. "I fell in love."

She married Wesley Armstrong on June 20, 1988. Eleven days later Wesley Jr. was born. As Felicia began her career in law enforcement, her marriage fell apart. In 1990 she separated from her husband and filed a restraining order against him, alleging domestic violence. A year later he disappeared from South Florida. Armstrong was left to raise Wesley on her deputy's salary, without the benefit of child support payments.

Her hope was that Sunset would put an end to Wesley's misbehavior. But it's only compounded his problems.

On a recent day at summer school, Wesley climbed on the bus and sat by himself in the back seat, where he always sits. After a 15-minute ride, he and the other kids got off the bus and Wesley went to the cafeteria to eat his regular breakfast of Trix cereal in chocolate milk before he started his classes.

In the cafeteria he and another boy were talking, and Wesley said the F word loud enough for the cafeteria monitor to hear him. The cafeteria monitor came up and put his hands on him. Wesley hates it when the teachers at Sunset touch him. In fact he hates the teachers at Sunset in general. Wesley jerked away and told the teacher to get his hands off.

The teacher took Wesley to the office of the school's BSO deputy, and from there he was taken to Behavioral Training Class, or BTC, which is Sunset's version of detention. In BTC no academics are taught. Instead Wesley was handed a "behavioral instruction packet," typed-out lessons with topics ranging from getting along with others to accepting blame for bad behavior. He was used to this routine. (In fact school records show that Wesley has spent weeks at a time in BTC.)

After lunch Wesley asked the teacher in BTC if he could go to the bathroom. Wesley says the teacher refused. Defiant as ever, the boy walked right out of the classroom. The teacher pushed a button on the wall, summoning a team of security guards to corral Wesley. This, too, is a timeworn ritual with him. He says he'll "kick and punch and swing and bite and spit" when he sees the safety team coming for him. Which is precisely what he did on this day.

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