In Rock Springs, Wyoming, we follow the treacherous paths of two young women. Larissa endures one trauma after another and soon finds herself unable to escape a cycle of probation and incarceration. Another kid, Jess, endures racism and bullying and seems headed down the same road. The system fails them both, but Jess’s story takes a turn when she lucks out with a new teacher. But Mr. Baker says kids shouldn’t have to rely on good luck.

A warning, this episode includes references to violence and suicide. Please take care when listening. And if you’re struggling, call Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

 

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[ ↓ Transcript ↓ ]

 

Melodie Edwards: For a few years, I worked as a preschool teacher in Flagstaff, Arizona. Rockhouse Playschool was the name of the place. I taught the zany, brilliant, exasperating four year olds. For the letter B, we made butter by shaking cream in a jar then spread it on fresh bread and gobbled it up. For the letter V, we built a big volcano with little playdough towns and bulldozers and princesses and dinosaurs all over it. Then we blew it all up with vinegar and baking soda and red food coloring. 

The hardest thing about being a teacher was making sure some kids didn’t disappear into my peripheral vision. There was this one little boy: I’ll call him Eric. I didn’t think much about him at first. Mostly, he made my job harder. He never paid attention in class, wouldn’t clean up his toys, didn’t make friends – not with the other kids, not with me – and he often ended up in timeout. 

One morning, his single mom dropped him off. I noticed the perfect outline of a handprint blazing on his cheek. A slap mark. I didn’t know who hit him, but it scared me. I thought hard about what to do. Slowly, I brought this little boy out from the edges of my class. When he couldn’t sit still at storytime, I let him sit on my lap rather than giving him a time-out. When he needed a partner, I picked him. And I set up a meeting with his mom. She came expecting me to lecture her. But instead, I told her what an amazing kid he was, how artistic, how sensitive. But also how when he went to public school, people might not recognize his gifts. But I told her, I did. I saw him. I had learned to appreciate Eric for who he was.

But it worried me. How many kids did I not see?

This time for our series Cowboy Up, we head to Rock Springs, Wyoming to hear the stories of two young women who, like Eric, got lost in the shuffle. And how their lives took very different courses. Tennessee Watson takes it from here. 

Tennessee Watson: In my reporting on struggling kids in Wyoming, one of the biggest obstacles has been a lack of information. Wyoming doesn’t collect statewide juvenile justice data, so there’s no way to track whether what we’re doing is working or not. But knowing that Wyoming has some of the highest incarceration and suicide rates in the nation, I set out to track how kids fall through the cracks.

 

Credit Eda Uzunlar

 

And when I asked around for a place that’s particularly harsh for kids, lots of people told me Sweetwater County and the town of Rock Springs. That’s how I met Jennifer Salazar, and learned about her step-daughter, Larissa. 

 

Larissa

 

Blue skies and prairie covered in snow

Rock Springs. Photo by carfull…from Wyoming via Flickr. Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

 

We met up for the first time at a park on the edge of town. It was a sunny October day, but Jennifer’s outlook on Wyoming wasn’t so bright because of what she’d seen her step-child, Lariss, go through as a young teen.  

“Even though they say Wyoming is a good place to raise kids,” Jennifer says, “like, there’s not much of this and there’s not much of that. But the way they treat kids who don’t walk a straight line is extremely ridiculous. It just makes my heart sink just thinking about it.”

When Larissa was little, her biological mom struggled with substance use and was in and out of jail. Her parents split up when she was around five years old, and her mom pretty much disappeared from Larissa’s life. A few years later, her dad met Jennifer, and they got married. Jennifer already had three kids of her own, and Larissa struggled to adjust to life with siblings and this new mother figure.  

“I think she struggled with not having her biological mom in the picture, but we worked through that.” 

They went to family counseling and encouraged Larissa to express her feelings, and ultimately, Jennifer adopted Larissa. 

“[Larissa] was one of those kids that were non-judgmental. If you were gay or straight or if you were fat or skinny or if you didn’t have the clothes that other kids had or shoes or whatever, she would still want to be your friend, and she would want to give her stuff to you and just always wanting to help people,” Jennifer says.

She was a kid with a big heart. Goofy. Gregarious. She loved music and playing soccer. And she had a rebellious side too. As we saw with Donald Davis and before that with Kansas Charley, that’s a common way kids respond to trauma, and it’s usually not violent. I experienced that myself when I was 16 and my mom died of cancer. For me it was graffiti; for Larissa, it was running around the neighborhood with friends at all hours. One night, she refused to come home, and the Salazars called the cops for help because they didn’t know what else to do. Officers brought Larissa home, but Jennifer was surprised when they gave her a curfew ticket.  

“I went to court with her and they said, ‘Well, we’re gonna have you guys pay the fines.’ And I was like, ‘No, we’re not gonna pay the fines. She needs to do community service or something.’”

Jennifer says the judge agreed that if Larissa did some community service and stayed out of trouble the curfew ticket would disappear. This is called diversion. 

“It wasn’t anything serious. It was just kind of like a scare tactic.”

And Jennifer says it did seem to work. 

“She kind of grew up a little bit. She was trying,” Jennifer says, “And then she got sexually assaulted.”

 

A Normal Kid

 

When Larissa was in eighth grade, she was sleeping over at her close friend’s house the day after Christmas. Late at night, the girl’s 19-year old brother came home, and Jennifer says Larissa was the only one still up.

“The 19-year old boy wound up dragging her inside of a room and sexually assaulting her.”

Larissa decided to speak up about the assault, and that turned her closest friends into enemies. The 19-year old brother was prosecuted and pled guilty to sexual abuse of a minor, and after that, Jennifer says his younger sister started harassing Larissa at school and telling Larissa she wanted it and getting other kids to bad-mouth her too.

“I went to the school, and I talked to the counselors and the principals. We were there several times to try to see if there was anything we could do to stop this, and it never stopped,” Jennifer says.

The school declined to comment on how the bullying was handled. Jennifer says it continued for months, and with just a few weeks of school left, the situation reached a tipping point. 

“She was on the bus, and she called me crying. She said, ‘They won’t stop, Mom. They won’t stop telling everybody on the bus what happened, and it’s so hard for me to keep hearing what happened.’ I said, ‘Just get off the bus and just come home. And if we have to do something different next year, we will.’ She was like, ‘I’m going to physically assault one of them because I’m tired.’ They were sitting right in back of her, and they were saying, ‘I’m going to hit you, I’m going to do this to you.’ They were pulling her hair. And she had had enough, and when the bus stopped, she got up and she punched one of them in their mouth.”

The case was filed in juvenile court, and Larissa was charged with battery, which carries a maximum sentence of six months. But the judge put her on probation, and Jennifer says at first that seemed like a good thing, like an alternative to being sent to a juvenile facility.  

“But then, when she was on probation, they treated her like, ‘Okay, you’re a criminal,’” Jennifer says. “‘You’re on probation. You’re going to follow the rules, you’re going to follow the rules of your house. You’re going to follow the rules at school, and if you don’t, you’re going to get sent away.’”

Jennifer says Larissa resented the power that probation had over her life. Like how even though she wasn’t charged with a drug-related offense, she was required to do routine urine analysis or UAs at the juvenile probation office. Jennifer says for a 13-year old kid who’d just been sexually assaulted, that was just too much.

“She would come out, and she would cry to me and tell me how demeaning it was and that she didn’t want to be exposed in front of somebody.”

It might sound simple: don’t do drugs and pass the UA, behave on probation and you won’t be sent away. A little healthy fear keeps kids in line, right? But for Larissa, the pressure to comply amped up her emotions. Psychologists say that makes sense because children impacted by trauma have intense reactions to situations that threaten their sense of safety. 

Experts say that’s the trouble with probation: it sets expectations that kids, especially traumatized kids, just aren’t likely to meet. So it’s not really an alternative to getting locked up but more of an on ramp. 

According to documents outlining the terms of Larissa’s probation, she couldn’t see certain friends, she had to do well in school, she couldn’t go to sleepovers. And Josh Rovner from the Sentencing Project says those restrictions don’t necessarily help kids. 

“I mean, the best of us as teenagers didn’t really like following rules,” Josh says. “Then you have a kid who’s already in trouble getting picked on, you know, maybe has a mental health challenge, that’s not a kid who is likely to meet the terms of probation. And Wyoming seems to like to lock those kids up.”

According to federally-collected data, Wyoming locks up kids for probation violations at a rate well above the national average, higher than neighboring states and other states with small populations. Those violations could be as big as stealing a car to as small as literally turning in homework late. 

 

Credit Eda Uzunlar

 

In Larissa’s case, she violated her probation when she attempted suicide.  

“I was on my way to go to Walmart, and she comes running out to the driveway,” Jennifer remembers. “And I said, ‘Oh, you’re going to go?’ So I opened the car door thinking she was just going to jump in and go, and she said, ‘No, Mom. I took some pills and I took a whole bunch of them and I think I’m going to die from it.’ And I instantly panicked, and I rushed her to the ER.” 

While Larissa was treated with charcoal to absorb the pills, Jennifer sat with her in the hospital.

“And she looks at me and she says, ‘Do people even care that people get assaulted and that their lives are never the same?’ I said, ‘I care.’ And she said, ‘Yeah, but does anybody else?’ I said, ‘I think they do.’ She said, ‘How do they care when I’m put on probation, and I’m treated like a criminal?’ She said, ‘I hate this. I hate probation, and I hate that I can’t just be a normal kid.’”

 

Sixteen Months

 

After the suicide attempt, a judge sent Larissa to a psychiatric hospital for a few weeks. But then, instead of letting her come home, the judge sentenced Larissa to a state juvenile facility for violating her probation. 

During one of my visits to Jennifer’s house, she dug up a document juvenile probation had submitted to the judge listing all Larissa’s violations.

“It says, ‘minor child lied about her whereabouts,” Larissa says, reading from the papers. “‘Larissa told her parents she would be at a friend’s house and was found at White Mountain Mall….’”

She lied about going to Burger King with friends. She had a vape pen in her room. And how did her juvenile probation officers know about all this? Jennifer says Larissa had routine visits with her probation officers, and she told them. 

“This is her being honest about things that have happened.” 

Also on that list, “She took medication that was not prescribed.” Larissa took pills that were not her own in an attempt to take her own life, and that’s used as a justification to send her to the Wyoming Girls School. I mean, she no doubt needed help but the Girls School and the Boys School are the state-run facilities for juvenile delinquents. Kids can only be sent there if a judge determines they’ve broken the law. 

“It just seems very harsh to me,” Jennifer says. “But me and my husband just obeyed because you’re under a court order, and that’s what you do.”

So, for eight months, the Salazars made the five-hour trek – sometimes across icy snowy roads – to visit Larissa as often as they could. But the separation was still really hard on Larissa and her family. 

“There was a huge connection lost with me and her, and my husband and her, and her and her siblings, you know?”

But proponents of the Boys and Girls Schools say sending kids there does more good than harm. 

“I see an out-of-home placement, in some cases, as a very, very beneficial thing to, one, keep the kid safe,” says Nena James, the judge who called the shots on Larissa’s case. “Keep them alive where you can help them. And then, two, get them that help, the counseling and the resources that we didn’t have locally.”

In 2019, Nena stepped down after running the juvenile court in Sweetwater County for close to 20 years. She doesn’t remember the specifics of Larissa’s case but was willing to talk more generally about her approach to juvenile justice. She says that the idea behind these institutions is that it gets kids out of the places where they’re getting in trouble.

“We hope that while they were out of their homes, they kind of grew up a little bit,” says Nena. “Sometimes you have to have things taken away from you before you understand how much you really like them, you know?”

But the research is pretty clear that involuntary placements in juvenile facilities don’t change teenagers’ behavior in the way adults hope they will.

Lots of states have moved away from juvenile incarceration except when absolutely necessary because that disconnection from family and community leads to such poor outcomes for kids: higher recidivism, lower high school graduation rates, an increased likelihood for involvement in the adult justice system. 

“I mean, one of the best indicators for youth behavior is who their friends are,” says Josh Rovner from the Sentencing Project. At juvenile facilities, kids are surrounded by other kids who’ve gotten in trouble with the law one way or another. 

“And so now who are they hanging out with? You’ve sent them off to crime school. And so someone gets sent in for drug possession and comes away knowing how to steal cars or knowing how to get higher up the food chain in a drug network. And just deeper and deeper involvement. It’s a terrible decision to send kids away.”

Jennifer says what Larissa learned was more ways to harm herself. 

“She learned things in there that I don’t think she would have ever learned at home. Self-mutilation, how to strangle yourself until you can’t breathe anymore and you pass out and then you wake up. I don’t know, we didn’t do that at home.”

Studies show juvenile incarceration exacerbates mental health issues and increases the risk of suicide

“I mean, if these kids need help and all they are doing is putting them in the system and saying, ‘Here, you’re going to be away from your family for nine months to a year and then, after that, you’re going to be on probation again,’ like how effective is that?” Jennifer wonders. “Like, how stressful is that for a child?”  

When Larissa was released from the Girls School and went home to Rock Springs, she was immediately placed on probation again. All the fear and pressure that led her to attempt suicide was put right back on her. Within four months she was back at the girls’ school. Jennifer says Larissa went to some parties, she spent time with friends on her no-contact list, she drank some alcohol – stuff that her peers were getting away with.

“I explain to the kids, it’s like you’re now on the radar and every little thing you do is going to be scrutinized,” says Kathy Sizemore, a teacher in Rock Springs since the 1980s. She didn’t have Larissa as a student, but she knows lots of kids who’ve been on probation because she spent years teaching juveniles held in the county jail. “And whereas other kids can get away with it, you won’t be able to. Once you are painted as a bad kid, that brushstroke follows you.”  

Jennifer says Larissa felt that.  

“She says, ‘I’m just tired of being judged. I’m tired of probation judging me and tired of going to court. I’m tired of not having friends.”

After that second trip to the Girls School Larissa had been away from home for close to 16 months.

“October, November, December, January, March, April, May, June, that’s eight months she was gone,” Jennifer says. “Eight months in 2015-16, eight months in 2016-17, and when she came back, she had no…she didn’t even have, like, friends, you know what I mean?” 

Jennifer says Larissa struggled to see how things would ever get better. 

“She’s like, ‘I get assaulted. And now it’s like, three years later, and I’m still going through this.’ She’s like, ‘Is it gonna end? Are they going to say, you’re doing good? And you get to be off probation?’ She’s like, ‘Is there gonna be a day where that happens?’ And I told her, I said, I hope so. And she says, ‘Yeah, but I have to be perfect. Because if I, if I take a wrong step or I choose the wrong friend or if I do this or I do that, I’m going to go back to the Girls School, Mom, I don’t want to go back there.’”

 

An All-Time Low

 

The folks who run juvenile probation don’t deny it’s tough for kids.

“I think it’s hard once you get in the system to work yourself back out. That is difficult,” says Karin Kelly who directs Sweetwater County Juvenile Probation. She’s worked in the program for over 20 years.

“For one student or juvenile who doesn’t have substance abuse issues, passing those drug tests is a very easy part of their probation,” Karin says. “Another kid who has academic problems, the requirement of going to school every day and being on time to your classes and making progress and doing the best you can in school, that sometimes becomes the hard part.”

And no matter what kids are up against, they’re expected to comply with the rules of probation. But Karin says they do refer kids to services like tutoring and counseling to help with underlying issues. 

“We can make those referrals, we can help with those interventions, but it’s really up to that juvenile and that family to take advantage of that, and some do and some don’t.”

In Larissa’s case, she did go to therapy, but Jennifer says it wasn’t that helpful. During a visit to her house, she pulls out paperwork from the therapist to show me. Larissa was diagnosed with oppositional defiant disorder, but Jennifer says that put the focus on Larissa’s problematic behavior as opposed to helping her heal from the trauma. 

“Because it’s not just oppositional defiant disorder,” Jennifer says. “What about the rest of the stuff? Like, you’ve just been raped?”

“That feels like you don’t see that reflected in there?” I ask Jennifer. 

“No. No, I don’t see it reflected in this stuff at all.”

Knowing what she knows now, she wishes they’d hired a private lawyer and pushed back a little more. 

“I mean, we were never financially hurting, but we also didn’t have a whole bunch of money to afford a private lawyer, you know?”

At this point, things took a turn for the worse. In June 2017, Larissa came back from her second stint at the Girls School, and by October, she hit an all-time low according to Jennifer. 

“It’s almost like she was going into a depression,” Jennifer says. “And I reached out to probation, and her probation officer wasn’t there. But I talked to the supervisor, and I said, ‘Look, I don’t know how to help her.’ I said, ‘She’s not bad in the home. She was very respectable. She was doing what she needed to do.’ I said, ‘But I see there’s something going on with her emotionally.’”

She wanted probation to ease off, to let Larissa adjust to school. She wanted probation to call and tell Larissa she was doing a good job.

“The supervisor says, ‘Well, your probation officer’s not in right now. I can leave a message. We can try to call her. Maybe schedule a meeting.’ And I said, ‘I kind of need this to happen ASAP. The feeling is not right to me.’ I said, ‘We need to do something for her.’ And she said, ‘Okay, we can figure it out. I’ll give you a call back.’”

Jennifer says she made that call on Tuesday. Two days later, Larissa’s dad found her dead in her room. Larissa had taken her own life.

Through tears, Jennifer says, “She had just turned 16 years old. That weekend we were supposed to go and get her a car and stuff. And she took her own life.” 

 

The Parable Of The River

 

The two probation agents who worked Larissa’s case were Diana Melton and Krystle Britt. I wanted to know if Larissa’s suicide made them rethink their work. 

“Not make me rethink anything,” Diana says. “But it is just, you feel for that family. You never forget any of that.”

For Krystle, what happened to Larissa felt beyond her control.    

“I think there is a lot of pressure, but life has a lot of pressure,” Krystle says. “And you have to learn that. Adults don’t always handle the pressure all that well either. She was a good kid, and it was terrible what happened, but a lot of parents say, you’re putting a lot of stress on my kid. You’re putting a lot of stress on my kid and my family. I don’t really know how else to say it, and I don’t want to sound rude, but we didn’t put you here. Not that that justifies anything. But my behaviors didn’t put you here. I just have to follow what the judge tells me to do. That’s all I’m doing. So it’s hard. And it does make you think. Should I stop putting so much pressure? Should I back off a little bit? Should I just let this go and see how it plays out? It does. It did for me because I was only here for a year when that happened. And so it was like, ‘Well, how do you handle this? What do you do?’”

It’s taken me a while to sort through this conversation, and how this person who made Larissa feel powerless is telling me she felt powerless too? 

It reminds me of the parable of the river. 

You are walking along the bank of a rushing river when you see a person headed downstream who seems to be drowning. You leap into the river and save the person. But then it happens again and again and again. Sometimes when you’re saving one person, someone floats by that you can’t save. And because you keep diving in to save people, you can’t get upstream to figure out how all these people are ending up in the river to begin with. 

But here’s the thing: some state governments are figuring out why all these kids are in the river. Like Wyoming’s neighbor South Dakota. For decades, both states had the highest juvenile incarceration rates in the nation, but back in 2015, South Dakota’s state legislature closed the state’s juvenile facilities and re-invested those funds into local programming. So now kids across South Dakota in rural communities have increased access to mental health care and supportive supervision. As a result, South Dakota has cut its juvenile incarceration rate in half while saving millions in public funds. 

It’s not clear to me, though, that Wyoming’s lawmakers want to deal with what’s happening upstream. We’ve had some of the highest juvenile incarceration rates in the nation for over two decades and not much has changed. 

To be fair, every county in Wyoming takes a slightly different approach to juvenile justice, and some follow the research on what helps kids, but others don’t. Experts call this “justice by geography,” and without statewide juvenile justice data, it’s hard to see those disparities or to understand what they mean for kids. That’s a problem, though, that Wyoming lawmakers can fix. 

For now, it feels like luck of the draw whether kids get the support and help they need. And whether that happens or not can vary within the same community. 

 

Jess

 

Downtown Rock Springs. Photo by Cooper McKim

 

Take Jess for example. I’m just using her first name to protect her privacy. She had a similar backstory to Larissa. Her mom wasn’t in the picture. She was facing bullying at school. She stuck up for herself, and that got her in trouble. But her story takes a turn when she meets a teacher who sees her as a whole person with a backstory, and not just a bad kid. 

When I first talked to Jess, she was headed into her senior year of high school. 

“I’m always getting into fights,” says Jess. “But I don’t get into fights because I think they’re fun.” 

She says she gets into fights because she’s spent a lot of time as a kid feeling vulnerable and like she didn’t fit in.  

“I’m kind of in an awkward place. I love art, I’m in speech and debate, and I do soccer. So I don’t fit into one specific group of people. Because I’m not just a jock, I’m not just a geek, and I’m not just an art person. I’m all three. And on top of that, I’m Hispanic but I’m not fluent in Spanish. So the Mexicans look at me like, ‘Oh, that’s a white girl. So we don’t like her.’ But the white kids look at me, and they’re like, ‘Oh, she’s Mexican. So we don’t like her.’”

Adults at school told her to ignore the social stuff, to let the comments roll off her back, and just to focus on her studies. But a sense of belonging is key to learning. It helps kids feel safe at school. If they don’t feel safe, then the brain goes into a vigilant mode and not the analytical mode we need for learning. 

In eighth grade, the bullying got physical. Jess says she was jumped by two kids, and the response from the school left her feeling like it was all her fault.  

“Not once was I asked, ‘Jess, are you okay, like, I’ve seen what happened to you, and I just want to make sure everything’s okay with you.’ No one asked me that. No one asked me what being jumped did to me. No one wanted to hear my side of the story. They just said, ‘Oh, girl got beat up. That’s okay. Whatever.’ That was all.”

Jess felt anxious and unsafe, and decided she wasn’t going to take it anymore. She started fighting back and that got her suspended from school. 

“I was so furious that I even considered dropping out of school because I was not being heard,” Jess says. “ I felt like what I had gone through was not enough for someone to be concerned for me. And that’s all I wanted. I just wanted someone to look at me and be like, ‘I believe you, Jess, I believe that this happened to you. Let me help you, let me do something to make this better for you.’ No one told me that, they just told me, ‘You’re a bad kid. You are suspended.’ That’s all they told me.”

Jess was living in Rawlins at the time, but her dad moved her to Rock Springs, hoping for a fresh start. By then, Jess already had her guard up and the fights continued. After a couple more suspensions from the regular high school, she transferred to the alternative high school where she met Rick Baker, aka Mr. Baker, and things started to change. 

 

Mr. Baker

 

Jess says she’d never had a teacher like Baker and that he helped her stay out of trouble. I know Larissa didn’t have a mentor like this. So I called him up to get his take on Wyoming’s attitude towards at-risk kids. He really peeled back the curtain for me on how kids who would otherwise fall through the cracks can be pulled back from the brink. And I think Baker has an interesting perspective, in part, because he’s not from Wyoming. He moved here in 2012 with his wife and two kids. 

“We needed to get out of California. It just wasn’t good,” Baker says.

Where he lived in California was a stressful place to be. 

“You’re living in a gated community with ten-foot fences and cinder block fences, and you don’t even know who your neighbors are. You can’t let your kids ride their bikes in the street.”

On top of the high cost of living and the crime and the traffic, what really made staying in California hard was a tragedy Baker faced as a teacher. On the fourth day of school in his tenth year of teaching, Baker had a student drown in his PE class. 

“It pretty much emotionally and mentally destroyed me for a couple years.“

He thought leaving California and starting fresh somewhere new might help. On a road trip with his family, he fell in love with Wyoming. 

“We just kind of were driving through Wyoming and, I was like, ‘what I want to do is I want to move here. I want to live here.’” 

Baker was drawn to the way Wyoming values integrity and doing right by your community. 

“It was those ethics and those beliefs and those things that I had read and totally bought into believing that’s how Wyoming was. And I was enamored with that. And that’s what drew me here,” he says.

Baker’s wife found a good job in Rock Springs, so the couple and their two kids said goodbye to California and moved to Wyoming. 

For lots of folks cutting across I-80, Rock Springs is a place to get gas and a crappy cup of coffee. But it’s a cool town — quaint and gritty — surrounded by beautiful desert mesas and red rock buttes. Baker liked the feel of the place, and after a few years in Wyoming, he was ready to start teaching full-time again, and he got a gig at the alternative high school in Rock Springs. During his first semester back in the classroom, the school was hit with a tragedy: the death of Larissa Salazar. 

I never actually personally had her in classes or anything,” Baker says. “I just kind of knew her through acquaintances at the school.”

One of the first things he had to do as a new teacher in this school was support kids who were really shaken by Larissa’s death. 

“Not even really, truly knowing her or knowing the kids, it was kind of tough.”

In consoling kids, he heard bits and pieces of Larissa’s back story. And what he learned surprised him because he had a different impression of what Wyoming was like for struggling kids. You see, shortly after moving to Rock Springs, Baker’s son was diagnosed with cancer, and his dream of a fresh start was turned on end.  

 

The Cowboy Ethics

 

“Getting him better kind of took over everything.” Baker’s wife had a full-time job, whereas Baker was working part-time, so it made sense for him to be the one to bring their son back and forth to Salt Lake City for pediatric cancer treatment. Despite having to travel several hours to the nearest children’s hospital, Baker still felt good about his decision to move to Wyoming. 

“It was just people that we didn’t even know, you know, coming out of the woodwork,” he says. “It was cool.”

Parents of kids at his daughter’s school heard what was happening and helped her make friends and stay busy. 

We needed for nothing. Does that make sense?” Baker asks. “We were just embraced much more than we would have been when we were in California when this happened.”

For them, Wyoming was the close-knit supportive place they had hoped it would be. 

“It’s just kind of the cowboy ethics. It’s just kind of what people do.”

His son got better, but when Baker went back to teaching and heard Larissa’s story and saw similar things happening to other kids, he realized that the outpouring of support for his son wasn’t extended to all struggling kids.  

“When I see a kid who is hurting – obviously hurting and crying out for help a lot of the time by committing crimes or doing other things – why there isn’t that same support. It makes no sense to me. Because it’s the same thing. I mean, it really is. A kid in pain, regardless, whether it’s mental pain or physical pain, you know There’s a reason for what they’re doing.”

That left Baker wondering how to make sure kids who are mentally hurting get the same help as kids who are physically hurting? What happens if we see behavior as a symptom instead of a shortcoming? 

“It is never just the kid’s fault. It is never just the kid,” Baker says. “I’m a firm believer that any kid, I don’t care how bad they’ve been, show them the right way, show them support, and they’ll make it. I don’t just believe – that’s my mantra. That’s what I do. That’s why I do what I do. That’s why I’m teaching.” 

He believes in his approach because he’s seen it work for students like Jess. 

 

A Safe Place

 

Jess, Mr. Baker, and I met up in a park in Rock Springs over the summer almost two years ago. We head over to a table in the shade, and I ask Jess and Baker about their first impressions of each other.

“We did not like each other,” Jess says. “I did not like him.”

“Well, no, I didn’t not like you,” Baker says. “I told you you’re not gonna like me.”

Baker’s compassionate, but he’s not easy on kids. Those are two different things. 

“But I tell them that right out,” Baker says. “‘You’re not probably gonna like me, and I’m going to be hard on you. And the reason being is because I have expectations.’” 

Expectations that a kid can do better and understanding that there’s a reason kids act the way they do.

“When did you start to change your mind about Mr. Baker?” I ask Jess.

“Honestly, super-fast,” she says. “Like a couple weeks to finally realize that he’s not out to get me – he’s out to help me. And that he doesn’t want to make my life hard. He just wants to make it to where I know that I’m going to succeed.” 

 “And you said that was unique, that you hadn’t really had that kind of interaction with a teacher before?” I asked.

“Never,” Jess says. “I never had a teacher that I could go to and say something, like, flat out, just blunt. And he’d look at me and be like, ‘Okay, well, let’s figure this out.’ I never had a teacher that would be like that.”

Mr. Baker asked her questions about what was going on, helped her gain some perspective on why she was so quick to fight.  

“I’d be so upset and wanting to talk to someone, wanting to go to the counselor or wanting to talk to whatever teacher I could. And they would shut me down and be like, ‘No, focus on your work right now. Like, whatever else is happening, doesn’t matter.’ But in the moment, that’s what matters to me. I can’t focus on my work, if obviously, something in my mind is bugging me, is really hurting me.”

Baker agrees. “That’s where the empathy piece comes in, and I think that a lot of us in the profession are not trained enough in the social, emotional well-being of our students and how to handle it. And there isn’t that, ‘Well, you know, Mom’s an alcoholic, Dad hasn’t been around for 15 years, they didn’t eat last night, whatever is happening.”

For Jess, it was enduring racism from her peers while adults looked the other way. There were even times when she felt targeted by adults 

“It’s sad because when I got my tobacco ticket, it was me and three other girls. The other girls were white, and I’m the one that got the ticket. Now, coincidence? I don’t know. Racism. Can’t necessarily put it on that,” Jess says. “We all got caught together. And I was the one that got the ticket.”

In every state, youth of color are involved with the juvenile justice system at higher rates than their white peers and Wyoming is no exception. 

According to the most recent data from 2019, LatinX youth were 20 percent more likely to end up committed to a juvenile facility. The likelihood is even higher for Black and Native American Youth. 

Wyoming doesn’t produce its own statistics on racial and ethnic disparities in the juvenile justice system, but Baker says the national statistics track with what he’s seeing on the ground 

“The good old boys network is very strong. Very, very strong,” Baker says. “I mean, yeah, when you look at who’s getting in trouble, how they’re getting in trouble and what’s happening when they get in trouble.”

Baker doesn’t see kids from wealthy white families getting sucked into the juvenile justice system at the same rates. If they were, Wyoming might be more concerned about its high juvenile incarceration rates, Baker said.

“The major underlying problem in this town is, no one wants to admit that there’s a problem.”

Rather than tackle the underlying forces, be they racism, generational poverty, substance use, “It is easier and it is faster to just throw a kid into some sort of program somewhere else,” Baker says. “They’re not here. It’s the let’s-buy-the-homeless-person-a-bus-ticket-to-Salt Lake mentality. You know, if we can just get rid of them, put them somewhere else, they’re not a problem anymore. And it breaks my heart because I see these kids and they’re not bad kids.”

For Jess, knowing that Baker saw her as a whole person with a backstory and not just bad kid made all the difference.

“As soon as I get to school, I go straight to his classroom,” Jess says. “That’s where I feel comfortable. That’s where I feel like I belong because – and everyone knows this – Baker’s room is a classroom you can go to to get away from everything. That’s the place I feel safe in.” 

Jess felt lucky to end up with Baker as her teacher. Feeling safer at school, Jess was getting in fewer fights, and focusing more on her studies. But should feeling supported as a kid be a matter of luck? I really hope not. 

 

Our Collective Future

 

The day we met up in the park, Jess had one more year of school ahead of her. So I called up Baker this fall to ask how things turned out.  

“It was a tough situation. But she did it. She pulled it off. She graduated.”

And it was Baker who handed Jess her diploma. 

“We have a custom here that the kids can choose who they would like to hand them their diploma,” Baker says. “Out of the 14 graduates, I handed out seven. So that was pretty cool. Because that was completely unexpected. I had not expected to do that at all.”

So, what’s the barrier to making sure all kids have that kind of support? We can’t just rely on schools. Some say Wyoming needs to increase funding for community resources like after-school programming, and Baker says that might be a hard sell in Wyoming. 

“I’ll be more than happy to pull over and help you fix your flat tire. I’m more than happy to do that. But I really don’t want to fix your kid. That’s kind of the attitude,” Baker says.

For him, it’s not about your kid or my kid or whether it’s cancer or depression causing the problem. It’s about thinking of kids as our kids: our collective future.  

“These are the kiddos, these are the people that are going to be running the city in 10-15 years. This is a group of individuals that are going to be making decisions for you when you can’t make decisions anymore.” 

Baker says people push back and say “‘No, no these bad kids aren’t going to be making decisions about my community.’” And he’s like: you’re right. They’ll end in prison as adults and you’re gonna be paying for it. 

“One way or another, this is going to come back to affect everyone that’s saying it’s not affecting me.”

Without a coordinated effort to make sure kids feel supported in their communities, it’s often teachers like Baker who carry the burden of keeping kids out of the system. Just when Jess could have slipped into the justice system, she found a mentor. But is that kind of connection something we can guarantee for every kid? 

Next time on the Modern West, we head up north to Cody, Wyoming to meet Kate and her grandparents and to follow their fight to fill the cracks in the system. 

“They wanted her to go to residential, which means that we have to go round and round again, because we have rights.”

Tennessee first reported on Larissa Salazar’s story for Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, and we’d like to thank them for allowing us to use that reporting. 

Did you have a teacher that jumped into the river to help you to shore during a hard phase of your childhood? Make a short voice memo of your memories on your phone and send them to us at themodernwestpod@gmail.com. We’d love to include them in a future episode.

Cowboy Up art by Eda Uzunlar

Music
Blue Dot Sessions