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

The guards hauled him to a so-called safety room: a padded six-by-seven-foot cell that has steel mechanical doors with automatic locks and a window made of unbreakable glass reinforced with wire. He bounced off the walls for a while before he sat down and waited to get let out. He's usually detained about 30 minutes, but at times he's been in there long enough that he slept on the padded floor. A security guard once told him he'd been in there for an hour and ten minutes. That was a record, Wesley says.

Finally a security guard got him out of the cell (Wesley thinks he was in there for 40 minutes) and took him back to BTC, where he sat down with a packet and waited for the end of the day to come.

And that was how his day at Sunset went.

Now back at home, Wesley starts talking in his deep, hushed voice about Sunset when he actually goes to his classes. He says he works for an hour or two on his lessons, then gets free time on computers. Then he goes to music class, where he plays on computers. Then he goes to lunch and after that he has cooking class. Then, he says, it's pretty much free time.

"I play games on the computer, like basketball and target-shooting games and Resident Evil, where you kill zombies, and Dino Crisis, where you shoot dinosaurs. In Dino Crisis, you find as much guns as you can before time runs out," he says. "Then you get the card key to get in the factory. I saw a raptor and I picked a shotgun, because that's a good gun to kill a raptor with. So I blew his head off."

He says he also likes to download music on the Internet at school. With all the free time, it might seem like Wesley wouldn't mind school. But he says he wants to get out of Sunset as soon as possible. "I want to go to a regular school so I can learn more," he says. "Look at my report card. I don't want to be dumb. It's like I'm in there for my health."

He says he usually tries to behave, but the other kids in his class -- some of whom are as much as three years older than he is -- pick on him and call him fat. "They just like to set me off," he says. "At Westwood Heights they didn't do that to me. At Sunset the kids don't know what stop means. They only understand fighting and hitting." Which sounds a lot like Wesley himself.

The boy's own private therapist, who spoke about his patient on condition his name not be included for confidentiality reasons, concurs with the University of Florida's Smith that assembling troubled kids in one school is a mistake. "The environment over there really just complements his negative behavior," he says. "It's a ruins of an educational process. When in Rome you do as the Romans do. Wesley can't be a tourist at Sunset. These places, they eat you up."

Ironically Wesley says he sometimes purposefully acts out in an attempt to get kicked out of Sunset. His plan, obviously, isn't working.Felicia Armstrong says her first realization that Sunset was going to be a disaster for Wesley came two weeks after he was enrolled, on the day she learned that Wesley had been arrested. His crime: stealing candy from the teacher's desk. Suddenly her ten-year-old son had a police record. "They said it would teach him a lesson," Armstrong recalls. "How are you going to teach him a lesson when you are saying he's not even capable of learning because he's so disturbed? They wouldn't have done that in a regular school. All you're doing is getting him ready for the adult system."

Records show that arresting students is a fairly common occurrence at the school. In a recent seven-month period ending in April, more than 20 Sunset students (accounting for about 10 percent of the school's students) were arrested for offenses ranging from creating a classroom disruption to truancy, theft, drugs, or assault. Guidance counselor Benson declined to discuss arrests at his school, but Kirk Englehardt, spokesman for the Broward Sheriff's Office, says it's solely the in-house deputy at the school, John McGurgan, who decides to make an arrest. McGurgan declined to comment for this story.

Since Wesley's first arrest (which led to a sentence of community service), he's been arrested twice more on school grounds, for stealing candy again and for threatening another student with a fork he got off the teacher's desk. Rather than curbing Wesley's misbehavior, these scare tactics seemed to make him worse. Suddenly a week couldn't go by without some big incident, a fight, a disruption. What is Wesley getting in the way of treatment? Armstrong wondered.

Wesley himself says he rarely talks to his therapist at the school. More often he's given drugs. Since Wesley enrolled at Sunset, he's been prescribed more than a half-dozen medications by the school's psychiatrist, Dr. Gaetano Defilippo, who is contracted to work 25 hours a week at Sunset. Defilippo, who also maintains a private practice, was on extended vacation and couldn't be reached for comment. The drugs include Ativan, a tranquilizer; Prozac and Zoloft, both antidepressants; Depakote, an anticonvulsant that for unknown reasons has therapeutic effects; and Clonidine, a drug used for patients with high blood pressure that also acts as a relaxant. None of these drugs has been tested for safety and effectiveness in children, according to RxList (www.rxlist.com), a Website that publishes manufacturers' information on prescription medications. And none of them seemed to have any significant effect on Wesley.

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