HUNTSVILLE ITEM: TDCJ’s Windham School District: Safe, successful stories being told here now

By Winston Spencer Jr.

Posted: 08/02/2014 9:44 PM

 

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Time heals all wounds, or so it’s been said. Some say time covers wounds with scar tissue. The pain lessens, but it’s never truly gone.

Forty years have passed since the world shared the city of Huntsville’s wounds caused by the senseless losses of Julia “Judy” Standley and Elizabeth “Von” Beseda, employees at the Texas Department of Corrections.

What have we learned as a result of those tragic events? What’s it like to teach inside prison walls in Texas today?

“Today we provide security training to all Texas Department of Criminal Justice new hires,” said Veronica Casanova, director of instruction for the Windham School District, TDCJ’s school system for its offender population.

“We get a minimum 12 hours per year of security training. Most of our staff gets far more than that, but everyone gets at a minimum those 12 hours. The training we receive as part of the Windham staff is tailored to  fit our specific needs.”

Those particular training needs are designed to help teachers maintain a high level of awareness of the culture of their surroundings, so they can identify levels of threats and most of all, remember where they work.

During the 11-day siege that began on July 24, 1974, inmates seized the education and library areas inside the Huntsville “Walls” Unit. Three armed convicts captured 11 employees along with five inmates. The convicts then negotiated their own release while threatening to execute the hostages.

When the inmates planned to use the hostages as human shields, Standley and Beseda volunteered to take the most dangerous positions — in front. They died when they were shot by their captors.

On Aug. 26, 1999, 25 years after the violent ending of the siege, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice formally named the Standley-Beseda Education Facility after the fallen educators.

Today, Windham officials say Standley and Beseda live on in every educator who endeavors to make the effort to change the lives of offenders. The facility in the “Walls” serves as a constant reminder of their legacy and sacrifice.

Casanova, who spent 20 years teaching in the public school system, feels “more secure” within the correctional classroom than she did in the public sector.

“I think I can speak for many of our instructors when I say we feel more secure in our setting than we did in our former classrooms,” Casanova said last week. “Part of it I know is because of the training we receive. (However) we are taught to engage the inmate with instruction and that keeps everyone focused on the goal.

“From the time our teachers come here they learn about the history here, and other teachers and staff lend a hand with their experience to give better perspective.”

Before coming to Windham District, Casanova had her concerns.

“I asked questions, I sat in on a correctional class and talked with teachers, all to make sure this was the right place for me,” she said. “I was transitioning from elementary school to men. What I found was that here, we have to be a team. We have a very positive team; it’s a great team effort here.”

Casanova says Windham teachers enjoy being a part of the many successful stories inside the district that was knocked to its knees on this date 40 years ago.

“We are able to see success much more than many of us did in the public sector,” Casanova said. “Many of these inmates are experiencing academic success for the first time ever in their lives,. Dreams are established.”

Casanova has a few suggestions for the public school system, as well.

“First, regardless of the subject or its content, we (teachers and administrators) must engage students to think — critically. Secondly, we have to develop partnerships between schools, family, students and industry.

“Huntsville is not so big that this can’t become a realistic goal.”

 

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