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Locked-up athletes goal-oriented; Oak Hill Academy uses football to teach juvenile delinquents

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Most high school quarterbacks do not worry about getting kicked off the team for good behavior.

But at Oak Hill Academy, the quarterback prays that he does not go the way of the starting offensive line and get freed days before a big game.

Oak Hill, near Laurel, is the District of Columbia's maximum-security detention center for violent juvenile delinquents. Almost a third of its inmates are awaiting trial on murder charges or have been convicted of murder. It is also home to what may be the best team in the district's high school football league, the Tigers.

The team was allowed to join the league this year, but it does not play "away" games (insiders refer to them as "escapes"). The visiting teams arrive by unmarked armored bus.

The Tigers also do not have a printed roster; that would violate juvenile offender privacy laws.

But they have overpowered the competition. On Tuesday, the Tigers beat top-ranked H. G. Woodson High School, 32-12, at their first homecoming game.

Homecoming is a little different at Oak Hill. Its administrators hope that none of their players returns. Instead, they talk about using the skills inmates pick up on the field to help them in school.

"Our mission is not to prepare them to stay at Oak Hill or in prison," said George Perkins, acting superintendent. "We have to educate, encourage and motivate. We don't want the kids to stay here."

At the academy, just off Baltimore-Washington Parkway in Anne Arundel County, residents are housed in two-story concrete dormitories. A 12-foot-high double fence with curly razor wire surrounds the center.

Long criticized as a dumping ground, Oak Hill has been the subject of a 14-year court battle aimed at improving conditions.

Two weeks ago, a District of Columbia appeals court ruled that a Superior Court judge should not have stripped authority over the school from the district government and school system in September 1998.

Two receivers were brought in to run Oak Hill because of what was termed the district's "abysmal response" to court-ordered improvements.

The recent ruling, hailed by Washington Mayor Anthony A. Williams as a "victory for self-government and a victory for our children," returned control of the academy to the local government this month.

Any hint of the legal wrangling was missing from the pep rally before the homecoming game.

The gymnasium looked and smelled like any other high school's, although its climbing wall seemed a bit out of place.

The 99 male residents filed in to watch the five cheerleaders from the girls' facility perform. (There are three other girls, but they were not allowed to participate.)

In black and yellow outfits, with matching hair bows and bloomers, they danced to rap music and screamed: "We say Oak Hill, you say Tigers, Oak Hill! Tigers! Oak Hill! Tigers!"

Football games are among the few occasions when the boys and girls get together.

Oak Hill entered the game with a 2-0 record, having defeated Roosevelt High School, 52-0, in the season opener and Eastern High School, 38-0.

H. G. Woodson won the district championship in 1997 and is ranked 19th regionally by the Washington Post.

The team was undefeated going into Tuesday's game after routing Spingarn High School, 50-8.

Woodson's Warriors were picked up for the game by an armored bus sent by Oak Hill, with corrections officers searching the passengers before they boarded. Seven police and corrections officers, one with handcuffs around his neck, lined the field.

With a barbed-wire backdrop, the Tigers did calisthenics in formation in donated cleats.

Such a setting might intimidate visitors, said athletics director Donnie Dukes, but "our players are no different from their team."

During the game, some of the residents sat in the stands and cheered.

Others worked on the sidelines or videotaped the action. They were all in uniform, wearing blue rain slickers, dark green slacks and spit-polished black shoes.

They addressed adults as "sir" or "ma'am."

Between touchdowns -- signaled by the horn of an armored bus -- the sideline talk was less about football than about computer class. The school has the latest computers, including several green iMacs.

"Technology is a way of reaching the students," said Edna O'Connor, the principal. "They are fascinated, and it is a cheap price to pay for the benefits that society is going to get."

For an inmate named David -- full identification is not permitted because he is a juvenile offender -- game time was a chance to be outside.

"I wanted to play this year," the 19-year-old said, "but I am too old. It is more organized this year than in past years, when it was just people taking their frustration out on other teams."

David said he never had the chance to play on a "real team." He has been in and out of Oak Hill since age 12. Among other things, he was convicted of assault with a deadly weapon.

Now he is known as a talented barber, shaping the students' and teachers' hair.

There is no secret to Oak Hill's success on the football field, David said.

'Just talent'

"It is just talent, and we are D.C. public school students. But, we are just locked up right now."

Woodson's coach, Nevin Huff, said Oak Hill's success comes from discipline and talent.

"They are not afraid to hit you," Huff said. "They have a great chance of winning the championship, and they gave us a reality check."

He said his players were a bit afraid coming into the game, yelling that the "gates are closing" as the bus drove into the prison.

"I just kept telling my players that Oak Hill puts their equipment and shoulder pads on the same way we do," he said.

The Woodson coach also saw playing at Oak Hill as a crime deterrent for his players. "We show them this is not a place they want to be," he said.

If any of Oak Hill's players are released before the end of football season, Huff said, he hopes they will enroll at his school. "This team [Oak Hill] has a lot of class," he said.

Scouts invited

Dukes said he has invited college scouts to visit and recruit his players who, he noted, "are coachable now."

After the game, Oak Hill's two star players -- who have been in, out and back again since age 12 -- said the academy and football are giving them a shot at success.

Both said Oak Hill was "never like this" in years past.

William, the quarterback, who is from Southeast Washington, holds the door for a woman entering the building and says "please" or "thank you" with almost every sentence.

"It feels good to be me. I know I could change for good," said the 17-year-old, whose rap sheet includes a string of handgun charges. "It is a second chance. I have already learned to stay away from guns."

The other standout, Brian, also 17, is a 6-foot-6 wide receiver and also plays basketball, a sport in which Oak Hill is beginning a team this year.

A former drug offender, Brian was excited to learn that a local college might be looking at him.

"We are not just getting put here," Brian said, alluding to Oak Hill's old "dumping ground" reputation.

Coming soon for Oak Hill is an annual football game against the Charles H. Hickey Jr. School, a state juvenile facility in Baltimore County. The winner gets a symbolic gold key.

The site has not been decided.

A more pressing problem might be the logistics if Oak Hill wins the city championship.

Its administrators vow that they will find a way to take their team outside the fences and into the city, a big step considering that several of the players have not been outside the school for two years.

"I want my parents and my brother and sister to see me do something positive," said Brian, who hopes his family would come to the game.

"Football is a chance for me to stay out of trouble," Brian said. "I just love the game."

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