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HBO Examines Experimental D.C. School for Troubled Kids

By Adele Marley | Posted 10/13/1999

Innocent Until Proven Guilty

You may not be simpatico with all of public defender James Forman Jr.'s arguments about the justice system as delineated in the new HBO Signature documentary Innocent Until Proven Guilty—for instance, his contention that lengthy prison terms for street-level drug dealers (as opposed to big suppliers) are a miscarriage of justice; that it's impossible to find an impartial jury in America; and that the presence of drugs in inner-city communities is the result of a government conspiracy.

But Forman's powder-keg theories spring from his experiences serving clients in the District of Columbia's juvenile-justice system. They also provide fuel for discussions with some of those same clients at the alternative school Forman and fellow attorney David Domenici founded. Innocent Until Proven Guilty traces the efforts of the Maya Angelou Public Charter School (formerly called See Forever) in Northwest Washington to create a viable academic culture for kids at risk, and to break the cycle of poverty, drug use, crime, and incarceration.

Forman (the son of civil-rights activist James Forman Sr., who is seen in newsreel footage during the documentary's opening sequence) and Domenici (son of U.S. Sen. Pete Domenici [R-N.M.]), both in their early 30s, started See Forever in 1997 to provide a place for troubled teens who, for some reason or another, weren't having their needs met in regular public schools. See Forever changed its name in 1998 when it was approved as a charter school (meaning that it operates like a private school but is supported in part with tax dollars). The institution's goal is to create a supportive environment for students, to address gaps in their formal education, and to give them access to resources such as job placement that might help improve their circumstances.

The documentary spends a lot of time in classes where Forman floats concepts about race and justice, which his students either acknowledge or refute with a considerable degree of sophistication and objectivity. Other ideas, however, are less debatable: When one Maya Angelou student is arrested (on charges the privacy-conscious filmmakers do not reveal), detained, and released, we're told that black youths are four times more likely than whites to be the target of unfounded arrests.

Students interviewed by director Kirsten Johnson's crew keep their rap sheets confidential (not surprising—at one point in the film, Forman advises them as much while giving them pointers on how to talk to the press) but are otherwise pretty candid. One student says that before she attended Maya Angelou, she'd always been told she was "just bad"; another student, Bobby, recalls watching a friend get shot, and acknowledges that when he's not in school he's a different person. "I'm not up to what they think is good," he says.

Later, Bobby drops out (his girlfriend has a baby and with the added responsibility, he's not making the cut in class), and Forman is forced to consider whether the school's intensive curriculum—50 hours of class per week, 12 months a year, with only a few absences permitted—is too demanding. (He admits that sky-high standards are a big turn-off for kids who previously didn't have to live up to any standards.) In fact, we're told at the film's denouement that only seven of the school's 20 students were still enrolled at the end of See Forever's first year.

The documentary doesn't address how the program's performance will be gauged (test scores? recidivism rates?), or whether or not the fledgling school is likely in the long run to stem the tide of kids in trouble with the law. It would also have been helpful for Innocent to explain the charter-school thing in greater detail. How did See Forever get the D.C. government—hardly a paragon of efficiency—to approve its charter-school status so swiftly while the rest of the country slugs it out over such nontraditional arrangements? But if Innocent Until Proven Guilty leaves some questions unanswered, its focus on alternative education—used as an instrument to unravel the entanglements of poverty and injustice—is thought-provoking and worth a look.

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