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Smith in jail but not out of class

Thursday, November 3, 2005

LONELY CLASSROOM: Murder suspect Stephen Smith works alone on his school work. Photo/Cox
Murder suspect still does school work while in Fulton County jail

The newest student in the Salem School District looked down and answered softly, almost imperceptibly, "I've been charged with first-degree murder."

The interviewer thought the shy teenager misunderstood the question: "Why are you enrolled at Salem instead of Mammoth Spring?"

Stephen Smith resided within boundaries of the Mammoth Spring School District, where he attended school until his arrest in May for the shooting death of his best friend, Joshua Mullins. After his arrest he was held in a juvenile detention center in Batesville.

But, after he turned 18 in September, Smith was transferred to the Fulton County jail in Salem. That automatically made him a student in the Salem School District.

Salem Superintendent Ken Rich explained, "The state's interpretation of that is, wherever you lay your head at night is your permanent residence. He resides in Salem (where the jail is located)."

Smith understood the question, after all. Although he is soft spoken, his speech is direct.

Despite his enrollment in the district, no other Salem student ever sees him. He does all of his coursework at a computer -- provided by the school district -- via Internet in an office in the sheriff's office.

Fulton County Sheriff Walter Dillinger said Smith works alone in the office but a deputy is always close by. "He seems to be doing pretty good," the sheriff said.

Two days a week, Tuesday and Thursday, Smith spends two hours at a computer with a self-directed curriculum studying math, English, science and social studies. The curriculum is a program called JEDI (Juvenile Education Inc.) developed specifically for juvenile inmates.

"So far, so good," the superintendent said of Smith's progress after three weeks. Rich said the program has a strong track record. "They've shown remarkable progress with juveniles in other facilities."

Smith said some of the program's directions are difficult to understand. "It teaches you how to do it a completely different way," he said.

He said that before each lesson he takes a pretest. If he scores 80 percent or higher -- which he said he does occasionally -- he can skip the lesson and go on to the next one. Otherwise he does the reading and assignment online and then takes a post-lesson test to determine whether he has mastered the material. In English, for instance, he reads five paragraphs and then has to answer comprehension questions based on the reading.

Johnny Smith (no relation), the special education teacher at the school, monitors his performance, but they have had no direct interaction, Stephen Smith said.

The inmate/student said he is in 11th grade and hopes to complete his high school coursework via Internet.

"Mr. Rich is trying to get me to graduate early since I'm doing so good on this," he said.

Will he take the GED? "No, a diploma," he insisted with the directness that characterizes his speech.

Privacy law prevents school officials from commenting on the progress of any student but Rich said, "The district's goal is to graduate all our students."

Smith's former teacher, special education instructor Janet Smooth of the Mammoth Spring School District, testified at his pretrial hearing in August that Smith functioned at the 3rd- to 5th-grade level.

At the time of the shooting, Smith had lived alone in rural Fulton County since his father died of cancer three months earlier.

Mullins was shot in the head at close range with a 20-gauge shotgun. Smith has admitted to the shooting but said it was an accident.

He doesn't know how long he will be held in the Fulton County jail; although his trial is set for December, he says it may be postponed. In the meantime, Smith plans to continue with his coursework.

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