Making a difference at Echo Glen: Better late (intervention) than never

Echo Glen is Washington’s juvenile detention center, and is combined with a school of the same name. Established in 1967 Echo Glen stands deep in the woods just a few miles off of Highway 18 and Interstate 90 between Issaquah and North Bend. As I drive through the last few miles of windy back road, and approach the school and detention center the first thought is how beautiful it is here. One constant I found throughout the visit here was the sincere amiability of everyone from the staff, teachers, and even the detention personnel. One reason for this is the principal Michael Williams who, by the way, took his principal certification at Seattle Pacific University. I had contacted him on the phone and email several times, and he seemed very personable and friendly. When I actually met him face to face I was a little surprised because at first glance he could be a little intimidating. He dressed exactly as you would imagine a principal, but he is a powerfully built man who sports a utility belt with many keys and a walkie-talkie, which he constantly monitored in case he was needed. This first impression was counteracted quickly as he spoke, and his personable nature and enthusiasm was immediately evident. He is definitely a “people person” who cares a lot for and is proud of the school, staff and facilities.

The center is built on 200 acres of pristine wilderness that after years of solitude is being encroached upon by an ever expanding urban sprawl from multiple directions. It houses and schools girls ranging in age from ten to twenty one years old, and boys ranging from ten to sixteen years old. The capacity for students is 224, and their current enrollment is about 150 kids. The overall facility is run by the Washington State Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS) and more specifically the Juvenile Rehabilitation Administration (JRA). The Issaquah school district related Echo Glen School is an element of their facility. The entire detention center workforce is about 200 people including cooks, counselors, dentists, nurses, librarians, teachers, and staff who work shifts around the clock seven days a week. Other than a few students wearing orange jumpsuits its school faction seems like many other schools. The school employs about 25 people, which 12-15 are teachers. A majority of the teachers have special education endorsements including the principal. Michael mentioned that about 82% of the children admitted have mental health challenges, and half of overall population is on medication.

One of the first things incoming kids experience is a medical check-up, and a dental exam. Then they are tested using the Kaufman Test of Educational Achievement (K-TEA), and the National Initiative for Children’s Healthcare Quality (NICHQ) Vanderbilt Assessment Scale. The average length of incarceration is 143 days, so time is short when trying to change learning abilities and behaviors. Surprisingly instead of an aggressively strict and detached approach to the children, the interaction is very calm and positive.  The main method of communication and intervention is dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), which I hadn’t seen in action before, but the effect seemed very encouraging throughout the school. One of the techniques they taught was “radical acceptance,” where the student is taught to accept the situation they are, such as being in the detention center, even though it could be far from optimum. About half of the students at Echo Glen have an IEP, and the children are separated by ability level but not self contained classrooms. The class sizes are very small usually about 10 students per teacher and smaller in the maximum security areas. Another very helpful trait within the school is the extremely long tenure of the employees. Many of the teachers and faculty have been there for over thirty years, and their passion remains evident.

One of the main concerns for Mr. Williams is the safety and security of the children and the staff, so they have many back-up security measures. There are red emergency buttons in every classroom, and the teachers carry a remote version toggle with them. There is a maximum security “cottage” (what they call the separate living areas for the children) and a cooling down cell, but here are several steps taken before that. In the classroom they have a “class 1” and a “class 2” offense in which the school office is notified. In the “class 1” offense the child is usually being defiant or argumentative, and it is a type of time out for 10-15 minutes. The “class 2” is for serious, but not violent cases where the entire period is spent studying their actions using cognitive behavioral therapy.     For the most part the kids dress in their own clothes except for the kids in maximum security, and children that are a potential danger to themselves. The usual process after a child has been incarcerated is a short stay at a detention center for processing, then their sentenced time at the juvenile center, and then transitioning to a group home depending on the their home environment.

One of the most impressive aspects of Echo Glen is the multi-faceted approach for generalization and applicable life skills. Many kids coming into to Echo Glen are almost adults with little to no high school credits, so a traditional graduation is not a viable option. They have a very active General Educational Development (GED) preparation program, and they are a certified GED testing institution. One girl we observed had just passed her fifth and final exam to receive her GED, and you could tell how excited and proud she was. Echo Glen has had twelve students receive their GED so far this year. They also have a sizeable horticulture greenhouse, basketball teams (home games only), and a swimming pool. I was amazed at the other certifications and preparations for transition within the school. They have a veterinary assistant classroom, a canine therapy course (a newspaper link here), a food preparation certification course, and first aid and CPR certification all on campus. There was one girl who had been convicted of a serious crime when very young had been sentenced to juvenile detention until adulthood, and after receiving her GED she attended Spokane Falls Community College. She then attended and graduated from WSU, and is scheduled to meet President Obama. She is pursuing a career working with at-risk children.

Overall I was immediately impressed with the campus, faculty, and school. This is an experience that will have a lasting impact on my view of schools, detention centers, and the challenges of EBD. We brought up the idea with Michael about student teaching, which I know might not be optimum for a first time practice in the field, but I feel it would be a great experience for anyone to spend some time there. Of all the things that impressed me about Echo Glen was the idea of making a difference, and improving the lives of the kids. We’ve studied a lot of how early intervention can save suffering, time, and money by addressing needs before they worsen. I watched an interview on television Friday night after coming home from Echo Glen, which included a boy who was violent and oppositional at a preschool age. The reason the mother did the interview was to spread the word about pursuing help since many parents are in denial about mental health issues due to the stigma. With such a high rate of kids coming to Echo Glen with special needs it is apparent what can happen when those needs are met. Maybe Mike and his crew can’t save ever one of those kids, but it doesn’t seem to stop them from trying. Like most schools they struggle to maintain a budget, but with the services they provide they can really can make a difference and save much more costs to the state in the long run. Most of these kids have missed their chance at an early intervention, but a late one is better than never.

I’ll end with a prose that I shared with a classmate after she had asked you in class about making a difference, and coping with frustration in the special education field, I think it’s pertinent to my experience at Echo Glen as well. I was told this story by a man who operates the Washington Elks Therapy Program for Children he called it “The Starfish Story,” and is based on an original story by Loren Eiseley (1979):

Once upon a time, there was a wise man that used to go to the ocean to do his writing. He had a habit of walking on the beach before he began his work.

One day, as he was walking along the shore, he looked down the beach and saw a human figure moving like a dancer. He smiled to himself at the thought of someone who would dance to the day, and so, he walked faster to catch up.

As he got closer, he noticed that the figure was that of a young man, and that what he was doing was not dancing at all. The young man was reaching down to the shore, picking up small objects, and throwing them into the ocean.

He came closer still and called out “Good morning! May I ask what it is that you are doing?”

The young man paused, looked up, and replied “Throwing starfish into the ocean.”

“I must ask, then, why are you throwing starfish into the ocean?” asked the somewhat startled wise man.

To this, the young man replied, “The sun is up and the tide is going out. If I don’t throw them in, they’ll die.”

Upon hearing this, the wise man commented, “But, young man, do you not realize that there are miles and miles of beach and there are starfish all along every mile? You can’t possibly make a difference!”

At this, the young man bent down, picked up yet another starfish, and threw it into the ocean. As it met the water, he said, “I made a difference to that one!”


Eiseley, L. (1979). The Star Thrower. New York: Random House.

This entry was posted in L3: Family/neighborhood centered, L4: Contextual community centered, P1: Informed by professional responsibilities and policies, P2: Enhanced by reflective, collaborative, professional growth-centered practice, P3: Informed by legal and ethical responsibilities, S1 - Content driven, S3: Integrated across content areas, T2: Intentionally planned and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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