KETCHIKAN, Alaska — Vaulted wood ceilings and a soaring wall of windows framing a slice of forest and distant hills face a row of gunmetal-grey doors, each punched with a square of safety glass.

The day room is a bright, welcoming spot with skylights, computers and clean, broad tables at the Ketchikan Regional Youth Facility.

Throughout the nine-year-old facility the juxtaposition of cozy, bright interiors and detention-center security is notable.

Entering the building, visitors must leave bags and items on a shelf next to a walk-through body scanner. The side windows and main door, with a safety glass center make the area feel surprisingly welcoming.

Visitors are escorted through the locked inner door by a staff member into a reception area.

Ahead, a grey metal door with a safety glass window and a chunky dead-bolt lock belies the first impression. A longish entry leads to a second door, creating a secure entry and exit to the residential quarters.

There are two sides to the center: the detention unit, for locking up juvenile offenders, and the mental health unit, which provides a safe environment for up to four youth with "serious emotional difficulties."

Superintendent Carla Leveque said that the usual age range of residents is 13 to 18 years old, although occasionally a 12-year-old will be admitted. The detention unit can house up to six youth who have been arrested on criminal charges or for probation violations, or who are severely intoxicated.

Prior to 2002, when the facility opened, Ketchikan's youth needing the services now provided locally at the detention center had to be transported to Juneau's facility, according to unit supervisor Rob Austin.

The rooms in the detention unit are furnished with a low bed and a stainless toilet and sink with no privacy walls. The beds were tidied military-style, with crisply folded bedding and mitred corners.

Stays at the facility are not long-term, Austin said.

"They can only receive 30-day orders at a time, and we like to see them moved, or at least have a plan in place in that first initial 30 days," he said. If there are complications, the resident's case is reviewed by the court at least every 30 days.

The detention unit, according to its brochure: "ensures public safety, ensures youth are held accountable to the victim and community for their crimes, and gives youth and their families the opportunity to build positive support systems and strengthen healthy community ties."

The Ketchikan mental health unit side of the facility is not furnished with heavy doors and locks, and the residents' rooms are more relaxed, with rumpled blankets, more personal items and more privacy. Residents can stay there up to two weeks.

That unit is led by mental health clinician Dave Garcia. Residents are referred by health providers.

Austin said that the facility uses the "restorative justice" approach with detention unit residents: "Holding the kids accountable, restoring the victims and restoring community trust are the three prongs."

He said that restorative justice, along with a "strength-based approach," creates much of the success they've created. The strength-based approach means staff members find the strengths, skills and assets that the youth residents already have, and work with them through those. That approach brings up the kids' levels of confidence.

"We've seen our recidivism rates just plunge," he said. In the past, he added, repeat offense rates were around 50 to 60 percent. Now, he said, the Southeast Alaska rates are around 20 percent.

The facility employs 10 juvenile justice officers and two shift supervisors as well as a nurse, and a teacher.

Gale Lindemann is in her sixth year as a full-time certified teacher at the facility. She has a classroom at the facility she has painted with spring-like colors and lined with books, artwork, and inspiring quotes.

"My hope is to have the ability to give them kind of a new, fresh outlook on education, because a lot of them are coming here with negative experiences," Lindemann said.

She described having to be flexible and creative with each student, because she teaches each one from between a few days to several months.

She said that she has taught students as young as fifth grade. Most of the students use Revilla Alternative School curriculum, because it is already built to be flexible. She tries to figure out the puzzle of each student's needs and background to put together an educational program to fit them.

She said that she encourages her students to keep in touch with previous teachers and educators so that they can maintain their ties to the community.

Lindemann said she has a "fair amount of autonomy" being the only educator at the facility. Her administrator is Doug Gregg, the principal at Revilla.

Drug and alcohol prevention, bible studies, victim-impact education, aggression replacement training, life skills and physical education are offered to residents, Austin and Leveque said.

They agreed that the safety of residents is maintained with constant staff contact and supervision.

"I think that's one our best tools, is our staff, as far as monitoring the tone of what's going on in the unit," Leveque said. "They'll play cards with the kids, they will present the program to the kids. They do a good job of that."

Leveque said that they address varying needs of residents with staffing. If a youth is admitted with extremely serious needs, they can supply a one-to-one staff ratio.

"Staffing is the key," she said.

Probation officers provide needed support as well, she said. If there are questions as to who is allowed to visit residents, for instance, a probation officer can provide input for the decision-making process.

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"There is really a lot of working together between this facility and the probation office," Leveque said.

She also said that she was surprised, at first, that there is more interaction with parents and residents at the Ketchikan facility than there was in the South Dakota facility she had worked at previously.

"The contact the kids can have with their parents, and with community: probation, with their counselors ... maintaining these ties can be very important to getting these kids back into the groove of the community," she said.

Information from: Ketchikan Daily News, http://www.ketchikandailynews.com

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