Four-legged therapy comforts students at a rare school inside New Orleans jail

(Jim Pennison)
Updated: Nov. 14, 2018 at 9:12 PM CST
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NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - There are just over 1,250 inmates being housed at the Orleans Justice Center, and at any given time, dozens of those inmates are juveniles who still have a lot to learn.

That’s exactly what they’re now doing behind bars as they wait for their cases to play out in court.

FOX 8 was granted exclusive television access to Travis Hill High School inside the jail. The students are between the ages of 16 and 21, and they wear a uniform no one wants to wear. They go to class five days a week, eight hours a day.

Principal Mario Myles calls it an evolution of education.

“Before the space was refashioned, there was a library in the jail and students would come down two to three hours a week,” Myles said. “We felt like they needed more.”

Travis Hill is part of the public school system in New Orleans, but it’s run by the the Center for Educational Excellence in Alternative Settings. It’s one of only three schools like it in the country. The other two are in Chicago and New York.

“The big purpose here is to be able to change the narrative about students' experience in school,” Myles said.

These students are facing serious charges and being tried as adults.

“A lot of them are dealing with the possibility of facing a lot of time in prison,” said Kaiya Dockery, the school’s social worker.

You can imagine the tense situations that have to be defused. That’s where four-legged therapy comes in, with a staff member as unique as the school itself.

Suzie is a courthouse facility assistance dog, one of five across the state of Louisiana. She’s the only one that works in the prison system. Her mere presence in the jail’s school melts away the stress.

Kimberly Beshears is Suzie's handler.

“She’s naturally affectionate, she’s naturally responsive to what’s going on around her, what people around her need,” Beshears said. “So she can walk into a room of 10 people, and the one person who’s had the worst day, she’ll go to that person first.”

Beshears said the 4-year-old yellow lab teaches student inmates about kindness, compassion and consideration for others. Beshears takes her to classrooms where students are learning everything from science to math to art. Suzie teaches them an important life lesson.

“I think the biggest thing is showing that kindness is not a weakness. There’s nothing bad about having empathy, there’s nothing bad about the softness in life,” Beshears said.

Chris Hughes is awaiting trial for second-degree murder and said he feels like Suzie reads his emotions.

"My son’s birthday coming up, she can feel that, Hughes said.

His son is about to turn one.

“She know how a person mood feel, like, she is intelligent. She can read our body language,” said Rashad George.

George was arrested in March for armed robbery. For him, Suzie fills a void as reality sets in.

“Mostly everybody ain’t gonna get a chance to go back in that world,” George said. “Basically they feeling stressed in jail, they need somebody to talk to.”

Beshears said that somebody is Suzie.

“Didn’t matter what you did, why you’re here, what matters most is you need support and she’s gonna give you that,” Beshears said.

Suzie has won over the hearts of just about everyone at Travis Hill.

Social worker Dockery said Suzie gets the incarcerated teens to open up when she can’t.

“I love the fact that Suzie gives them a sense of what love and comfort feels like, because a lot of these students don’t have that in their households,” Dockery said.

Principal Myles believes if the purpose of jail is to attempt to rehabilitate people, then that level of vulnerability is needed. He calls Suzie an integral part of the school, where students now ask to spend time with her. They shower her with love and oranges - one of the few healthy treats allowed in her strict diet.

In a school that is showing signs of success, graduating five students in its first year in operation, Suzie may be one of the most important lessons they won’t find in the books.

“She might be the only time they’ve ever felt that someone loved them and not with strings attached,” Beshears said. “She loves you because she loves you. She gives you attention because you need attention.”

Suzie has also worked in juvenile court and forensic interview rooms for children. She also spends half her day at the Youth Study Center’s school.

She responds to more than 60 commands, including opening doors, turning pages in books and turning lights on and off.

Sponsors help cover the cost of caring for Suzie, but they also rely on donations. To learn more about Suzie and the NEADS facility that trained her in Massachusetts, visit their website.

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