DRUMMING UP SUPPORT -- Girls help each other pick up the beat in a new drumming circle at Long Lane School in Middletown , the only state juvenile justice residence for girls. The program gives the girls a chance to have fun and learn to work as a group. One student loved it so much, she asked to continue in the program even after being released from Long Lane. She now helps newcomers with their technique.


Published by THE HARTFORD COURANT January 24, 2002
Reprinted with Permission

"Ahh-Go!" comes the cry from Gerard Hector, calling out a Swahili word for "I'm speaking."

"Ah-may," the girls reply: "I'm listening."

And then Hector's hands fly to his drum, beating out tattoos that the girls repeat back to him: sambas, calypsos, rhythms of African and Latin origin. The girls tap, beat and slap with their fingers, the heels of their hands, their entire palms.

The energy spirals upward in the old auditorium at Long Lane School , the only state juvenile justice residence for girls. It is at once hypnotic and cathartic.

Later, some of the girls say their hands get sore or bruised from so much drumming, but they are not really complaining.

Monique Kendrick, a 14-year-old from New Haven , says that drumming is ``a good way to stay out of trouble. If you can put your mind on one thing and focus, it's really good.''

The drumming circle is just one of several new programs started last summer at Long Lane designed to develop skills for life and for employment.

Kristine Ragaglia, commissioner of the Department of Children and Families, explained that with the boys moving out of Long Lane into the new Connecticut Juvenile Training School , both in Middletown , it provided an opportunity to develop programs specifically for girls. The school had long been criticized for its lack of programs for girls, who generally number about 35 and accounted for only 15 percent of the school's population when it was coed.

"Girls need different kinds of programs," said Ragaglia. "They have a number of issues that boys don't necessarily have."

A majority of the girls have been sexually or emotionally abused, Ragaglia said. "Most of the girls at Long Lane are not hard-core perpetrators. ... Usually they were along for the ride, and something bad happens."

Ragaglia said the new programs are part of her agency's overall effort to move the culture at both the girls' and boys' juvenile justice facilities toward "a much more rehabilitative focus."

Working with a Hartford group called "Our Piece of the Pie," along with the Department of Labor and the state office for workforce competitiveness, the department has been able to offer the girls drumming, training as manicurists and the chance to work for a youth newspaper. Because the programs are aimed at developing employment skills, the girls are paid $25 a week to participate.

"We are not trying to develop a pool of manicurists or drummers," explained Alan MacKenzie, who is director of "Our Piece of the Pie." Rather, he said, the classes take advantage of kids' interests to help them "pick up the soft skills to be employable."

For instance, in the drumming program, the girls have learned about the importance of working together, of being reliable, and have become skilled and poised enough to perform at off-campus events in Connecticut and Massachusetts . In the manicure program, the girls learn not only the techncial skills but also how to attend to customers and how to manage a business.

To say these programs have appealed to the girls is an understatement.

Indeed, their popularity created a problem that Long Lane had never seen before.

Last fall, one of the students, Cassandra Beaulieu, was ready to leave the school, but she refused to go unless she would be allowed back for drumming class.

"Trust me," said Gayle Brooks, who oversees programs in the state's juvenile justice facilities, "that's never happened before."

Beaulieu, who is now 16, had arrived at Long Lane in June, before the programs started, and said that when drumming class began, it changed life at the school considerably.

"Before, there really wasn't much to look forward to," she said. "This gave you something to look forward to instead of just sitting in your room."

When it came time to leave, she said, "I was happy to go home, but I didn't want to leave that program. ... It's exciting to learn a beat, to play off other people. It kind of brings us all together."

Beaulieu was allowed to come back after her official departure on Nov. 2. As one of the first participants in the program, she is a valuable member of the group who works hand-over-hand with newcomers to help them get the beat.

Brooks said the drumming program is particularly good for girls because in adolescence it's often "harder for girls to rely on each other ... to trust each other and not compete for attention."

The drumming group, she said, "creates a team out of a group that isn't a team. ... It's very pro-social stuff: to get 20 people doing the same thing at the same time and take a lot of pride in it."

The department is planning to rotate other programs run by "Our Piece of the Pie" through Long Lane, Brooks said, to keep the girls interested.

In addition, the state has offered the girls a chance to take dance therapy at Long Lane and hairdressing and cosmetology at Vinal Regional Vocational-Technical School in Middletown , although those programs do not offer stipends.

Of all the programs, it is probably drumming that is the most popular among the girls.

Hector, a fourth-generation drummer from Trinidad and part of a now Simsbury-based group called " Drumming Full Circle ," is pleased with the girls' focus and attention.

He teaches at other schools and locales but finds that the girls at Long Lane play with particular intensity.

"These kids get body and soul into it," Hector said.

One of the participants, a girl who asked to be named only as Jennifer, said, "A lot of people stay out of trouble because they want to come here and do the drums. If you get in trouble, you can't come."

And there is a calming effect afterward.

Kendrick said the drumming is "a good way to release a lot of anger."

"It makes you forget what you're all upset about,'' said Beaulieu. Indeed, Hamish deWilde, acting superintendent at Long Lane, said the new programs have resulted in fewer behavioral problems.

"You keep the girls busy here, you are going to see a decrease in acting-out behavior," he said. "It's important for them to have something to look forward to. Before, there wasn't much."

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