She gives a soup bone to Lovey, her "little love bug" Boston terrier, before settling into her sleek red Honda coupe. Half an hour away from her Lutz home, Sharon McKenna arrives for work. Platinum blond curls frame her face. She wears a neatly pressed ruffled blouse, white pants. Diamonds sparkle on fingers tipped with pink nail polish.
She could be ready for any professional office.
But here, at the East Juvenile Detention Center, the compound is wrapped in razor wire. She passes the barriers and waits at a door for the buzzer that grants her access inside. She must leave her keys — no purses or cell phones allowed — and then pass through another buzzing door.
A final buzz leads to a classroom where about 20 teenage boys wear wrinkled orange jumpsuits. She's used to the slamming of doors after nine years. Never quite used to being locked in.
The boys size her up from head to toe. First-timers often guess she is the principal.
“I'm not here to judge," says McKenna. "I'm here to teach kids."
When she started, a friend asked if she was scared.
Not at all, she said. She feels safer here than outside, here in this classroom with boys accused of crimes from murder to rape to shoplifting cookies.
• • •
Within 24 hours of their arrest in Hillsborough, juveniles arrive at one of two detention centers — on W Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard or on E Columbus Drive, next to the county's Falkenburg Road jail. The latter is where McKenna works.
She and three other teachers and assistants teach up to 50 students, ages 8 to 18, as they wait to see a judge and hear their fate. School is mandatory.
"The last place that kid wants to be is in a classroom," said Greg Harkins, principal of classrooms at the district's 11 delinquent-youth sites, including the two detention centers. "They could be facing serious charges. A good percentage are coming off substances."
The longest each of them will stay is typically 21 days. But McKenna sometimes wishes she could have them longer. She has no children of her own. Before coming here, she worked with delinquent teens for 23 years at the Tampa Marine Institute. She was 24 when she started, sporting an anklet and wearing her hair in pigtails. The girls she worked with copied her.
At the East Juvenile Detention Center most of her charges are boys, but she sees herself as a role model here as well, and believes there is an even greater need. The kids are on a track to nowhere good. They may have limited support on the outside. Many have given up.
McKenna likes to get them one on one. She looks for their talents. She uses games and crafts and guest speakers. Some, she noticed, work at a fourth-grade level. She helps others study for the GED exam.
"My challenge is to get them to believe in themselves," she said. "This is where I belong. I fit here."
• • •
The barber confides to McKenna: He's a little nervous. She has invited him because many of the boys say they want to cut hair. He prepared notes to tell them about his work, but he wants to know she'll be there if he gets stuck.
She assures him she will.
He writes his name on a whiteboard: Carl Fitts.
He tells about 20 high school-age boys the average tuition for hairstyling schools and about the state exam to be a barber. McKenna tells them grants are available to cover the costs.
A guard walks through the room and shakes the shoulder of a boy who has fallen asleep. A world map and military insignias decorate yellow walls. Computers line the back of the room. It could be any other classroom in Hillsborough County — but for the jumpsuits, the locked doors and the pencil block on a teacher's desk that holds exactly 24 pencils. Pencils could be used as weapons, so students must return them after class. They are strip-searched when they enter the center. In hallways, they walk with their hands behind their backs. No talking back. No touching another student.
One day in class, a boy attacked another from an opposing gang. Guards handled it quickly, McKenna said. Never has a student threatened her.
On a recent day, the center had two girls and 37 boys, separated by gender and age. Classrooms sit next to living areas and rows of single bedrooms and concrete confinement cells.
A door slams in a room of the building where a boy spends his day in isolation. He started a fight in the cafeteria that injured a staff member.
Back in the classroom, the barber tells students about his younger brother who served time in prison. Family members suffer too, he says. He tells them bills keep coming every 30 days on the outside and you have to be ready. He tells them to find something they love to do and learn it.
"Right now if I were in this chair I'd be hoping someone would grab a hold of me and help me," Fitts said.
A boy in the back bites: He is nearly 18, he says, and will most likely be homeless when he gets out. A job sure would be nice.
Fitts leaves his business card.
• • •
Rose-colored lace curtains frame a window in McKenna's office. On her desk sits a trophy. Her co-workers nominated her this month for a district award as an outstanding resource teacher at a ceremony held downtown.
"You can tell she's passionate," said Sherell Wilson, supervisor of the district's neglected, delinquent or at-risk children. "She's empowering students to be more than they believe they can be."
McKenna has watched boys bloody themselves on the razor wire trying to escape. She remembers two brothers who looked to be no older than 6 who had stolen their grandfather's car. One had pushed the gas pedal while the other steered.
Another boy earned the nickname Twinkie for stealing the snack food.
She reads about them sometimes in newspapers, which she peruses each morning before giving them to students. She takes out stories that might identify their family members or gangs.
Sometimes they come back to visit McKenna, to introduce girlfriends and invite her to weddings.
Above her desk hangs a sketch of her dog, Lovey. A student drew it after seeing the dog's picture. McKenna told him he should be an artist. He had real talent. He was surprised when he came back after another arrest to see the picture still there. He knew she meant it.
Elisabeth Parker can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3431.