Class in Session for Santa Clara County High Risk Inmates

School has started for many in the Bay Area, and one classroom in the South Bay is anything but typical, with students wearing handcuffs and shackles.

For the first time, the Santa Clara County Sheriff's Office is offering a high school education to inmates classified as high risk at the Elmwood jail in Milpitas.

The hope is that what's happening behind bars will make everyone safer at home. On Thursday, a teacher announces to the students in red jumpsuits these particular classes can be transferred to a four-year university. The red indicates an inmate who either used violence while in jail or committed very serious crimes.

"Anything violent, from assault to battery, murder, attempted murder," sheriff's Sgt. Reginald Cooks said.

It's the first week of high school classes for the high risk offenders. Previously, only low risk offenders were offered the opportunity. But the sheriff began opening the doors to more serious offenders through the Five Keys Schools program.

"They're getting the full continuum of high school courses, everything from math and English and different types of elective courses," Five Keys Principal Ashley Koch said.

Because these students are considered high risk, the classes are small, students are shackled and there is always at least one deputy in the classroom, so the teacher can focus on teaching and not on her safety.

A study by the Rand Corp. says if inmates are educated, there is a 43 percent chance they will not return to jail once they're freed.

"Education is one of the keys to breaking the cycle," Koch said.

The sheriff's office says an educated ex-con also means safer streets.

"If they have jobs and can monetize their education, then they won't have to turn to a life of crime," Cooks said.

The move is part of Santa Clara County Sheriff Laurie Smith's efforts to meet her own reform requirements and those of a Blue Ribbon Commission after a slew of jail mishaps and blunders.

The jail teachers say they're encouraged by their nontraditional students. But after graduation, the teachers hope to end their relationship.

"No, I don't want to see them again," Koch said, "and that's why we're here."

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