The green chalkboard still held the smeared shadow of a global studies lesson: “Aim: What are the countries and cities in North America?” But all the desks were empty. Textbooks and art supplies were packed up in cardboard boxes, and the school’s final student—ever—had just gone home.

“It’s weird,” said teacher Rachel Matthews. “Nostalgic, sad. I guess we’ve come full circle.”

The Manhattan school, housed in a municipal building at the corner of Broadway and Leonard Street, is part of the city’s Alternative to Detention Program (ATD), created in 1971 to serve children ages 7-16 facing charges in Family Court. The program’s three sites are now officially set to close by early March, marking the end of a controversial experiment in juvenile justice—and prompting an outcry from advocates.

Department of Probation Commissioner Martin Horn announced the closures in a December 23 letter to Family Court Administrative Judge Joseph Lauria, citing “health and safety concerns” and a lack of funding from the city and state. “These sites not only expose the city to potential liability,” he wrote, “but, most significantly, they also send the wrong—terribly negative—message to our court-involved juveniles that the system values neither them nor their education.”

Juvenile justice advocates agree that ATD is flawed. In fact, they’ve long demanded more funding for the program, which served roughly 1,300 youths last year for an average of 60 days each. Yet the solution, they say, isn’t simply to shut it down.

“The closure of the ATD program will lead more children to be locked up,” testified Mishi Faruqee, director of the Juvenile Justice Project at the Correctional Association of New York, at a City Council hearing last Thursday. As it is, she said, “the city often misuses youth detention,” confining those who commit minor offenses “because of the lack of alternatives in the community.”

The original goal of ATD was simple: Rather than incarcerate young people between arraignment and sentencing, or simply release them to their parents, a judge could order them to attend ATD, run jointly by the Departments of Probation and Education. Smaller and more structured than a regular school, ATD would allow a youth to live at home while receiving extra supervision and counseling.

In practice, however, the program has floundered. A 2002 report by the Correctional Association was sharply critical of ATD, particularly the “expanded” ATD program, which runs until 8 p.m. Students at the Bronx site described “just sitting around in the rec room” for hours after school.

The schools’ facilities were also notoriously unkempt. Troy Sill, a social studies teacher at Bronx ATD, had complained for years about the physical conditions at his school, including rats, mildew, clogged toilets and fire code violations. But little changed until this fall, he said, when he and other staff took their concerns to the United Federation of Teachers. “Suddenly people were walking around saying ‘Oh my, how shocking,'” he said. But Sill didn’t expect, or want, his school to close. “To a certain extent, we’ve been hoisted by our own petard,” he said.

Family Court Judge Ruben Martino seemed equally dismayed by the closures. “ATD serves a very useful option for kids that are not doing well in school,” he said. “You want to avoid placing them [in detention centers], but you want a more structured environment. I had good results with ATD; I’m sad to see them go.” While the loss of ATD would not necessarily lead to more incarceration, Martino said, “it could be a factor” in certain cases.

Officials at the Departments of Education (DOE) and Probation say they already have a replacement in the works. Tim Lisante, senior superintendent of alternative schools for DOE, described the change as positive. Despite an “influx of really talented teachers,” he said, ATD is “a tough model … Pulling kids out of school is very disruptive and very hard to manage.” A smarter approach, he explained, would be community-based and individually tailored to meet each student’s needs. In some situations, for instance, an after-school reporting program might suffice.

Probation spokesperson Jack Ryan said his department was working with the Criminal Justice Coordinator’s office to develop “a completely new strategy.” In the interim, he said, arrested kids would continue to attend their neighborhood schools, which he described as a “much better scenario.”

ATD English teacher Lee Gabay isn’t so sure. “Some of them can’t read or write,” he said. “If they send them back to school, that’s basically setting them up for failure.”

Tanya, a 14-year-old arrested for assaulting a fellow student, said it took her a while to adjust to the rules at Manhattan ATD: no jewelry, for example, or iPods at school. But she came to like her smaller, all-girls classes. “You can’t fall asleep,” she said. She also credits ATD with quelling the anger that landed her there in the first place. “If I would have just gone back to school, I probably would have gotten in trouble again,” she said.

Another former student seemed perplexed when told that ATD was closing: “Why? They don’t have the money?” he asked. “They don’t want to give kids a second chance?”

Sitting in her abandoned classroom, Matthews was quick to admit that ATD was flawed. “But in the Board of Ed, if a school is failing, you fix it,” she said. “You don’t just close it down and say ‘Sorry, you don’t have a school anymore.'”

Yet she’s encouraged by the idea of a replacement. “By closing this program down, the discussion has come up,” she said. “They have to do something and maybe it’s a chance to do something better.”

–Cassi Feldman

Name has been changed.