A look into juvenile sex offenders
The Pegasus School in Lockhart, Texas
December 6, 2019
Sitting in the wood-paneled portable office with symbols of Christianity, pictures and memorabilia placed sporadically on the walls, it is clear Robert Ellis is two things: a man of faith and a lifesaver.
Ellis has had his last name changed on his birth certificate four times. He was taken in by his stepmother at the age of 14 after running from his mother and her boyfriend who hurt him, sexually and physically.
His biological mother fought his adoption by the Ellis’ up until the day he turned 18, leaving young Robert with no choice but to undergo the adult adoption process to finalize his last name change.
Ellis attended The University of Texas at Austin in 1985 with the goal of graduating with a certificate to teach English on a college level. Soon after working with kids struggling with behavioral issues in Dripping Springs, Texas, Ellis realized the need for a specialized treatment program not centered around punitive action, but positive reinforcement.
Four years later, Ellis took an opportunity to create his newfound dream of treating adolescent boys with sexual behavior problems. The Pegasus School—named as such since “Phoenix” was taken, Ellis joked—was born in 1990 out of Lockhart. He is still 12 hours short of attaining an English degree.
Pegasus opened with 15 boys in residence. Ellis wanted to create a space to house youth aged 10-17 who experienced neglect and maltreatment similar to his own. Twenty-nine years after its inception, the school has grown to hold approximately 170 boys, seven dormitories, a charter school, specialized treatment and more, all sitting on 105 acres.
“Beginning Pegasus, my motto was ‘Me and my friends taking care of my kids,” Ellis said. “It stayed that way for a long time, but we grew considerably. Now, it is to the point where I know about half the staff’s names and only a few kids.”
After nearly 30 years, Ellis’ position entails mainly dealing with the facility’s finances while his highly qualified team handles everything else.
“We thrive off of our extremely eclectic group here,” Ellis said. “Everyone brings a different mindset to the table. Everyone brings a different skill set.”
The technicalities of the juvenile system
Acting as an alternative to state-run juvenile detentions, Pegasus maintains about 75% of its population from juvenile probation and 25% from Child Protective Services. Private placements are rarely made by parents or guardians. According to the Texas Juvenile Justice Department, the current daily rate contracted for fiscal year 2020 at Pegasus is $198.45, often too costly for anyone but the state. Youth’s residency and treatment are covered in the fee.
Ellis attributes the percentage differentiation to the criminal justice process boys go through via CPS and probation.
“Juvenile probation kids are just easier to deal with,” Ellis said. “They have a hammer over their head and have already been adjudicated, but CPS kids come here and have never been held responsible for their actions. They play the ‘treatment center hop’ because they just do not care the same.”
Boys are referred to the center with no charges, deferred charges or pending charges depending on the offense. Agencies look to how minors perform and behave at facilities like Pegasus before charging boys with sexual assault and crime.
Jerome Reese works within the juvenile probation department in Bastrop County and directly facilitates adolescent boys between programs like Pegasus and state-run juvenile detentions.
“Pegasus is not for high-risk juveniles,” Reese said. “There is no barbwire or guards. Aggressive kids that like to fight will not comply with Pegasus ideals. It is not institutionalized, meaning it is much more peaceful and soothing for non-aggressive kids.”
According to Reese, rehabilitation has shown to consistently roll out better results for juveniles in preventing them from offending as adults.
“Our whole goal and purpose is to prevent the cycle of offending,” Reese said.
Once picked up for their crimes, juvenile sex offenders undergo psychological exams to determine whether state-run detentions or residential treatment centers are better suited to fit their needs. Unlike the philosophy and purpose of Pegasus, detention facilities do not provide treatment.
The Pegasus treatment
The Pegasus School offers various types of treatment services, focusing on sexual behaviors, trauma, chemical dependency, anger management and emotional disorders. Oftentimes, the majority of residents come from abusive, traumatic homes.
There are four phases of Pegasus treatment and each stage takes about three months to complete. Orientation is the first step for the boys in residence. During this phase, boys grow comfortable talking about their inappropriate sexual behavior.
“Teenage boys don’t want to talk about sex with some stranger, especially about what they’ve done, be it abused by somebody or abuse somebody,” Gilleland said.
Therapists work closely with the juvenile males to acclimate them to therapy terminology, thinking errors, coping strategies and triggers.
During the second phase—honesty—the boys reveal the entirety of the sexual contact they have experienced. Pegasus caseworkers and therapists know about roughly one or two instances upon boys’ arrival. Each resident is required to fill out a sexual history questionnaire toward the end of the phase, revealing all sexual encounters.
“By the time we’re finished with this phase, we know anything and everything the kids have done sexually, or all the things anybody has done to them sexually,” Gilleland said.
Following the questionnaire, the boys undergo a polygraph test regarding their sexual histories. Pegasus staff refers to the test as a clinical polygraph to try to prevent courts from using the results against the boys.
“As therapists, we’re looking for patterns of victimization, remorse, empathy or lack thereof,” Gilleland said. “Kids get asked standard ‘yes’ or ‘no’ questions about their honesty and force used. We’re just trying to figure out if these kids are predatory, opportunistic or just curious about sex and want to explore but got caught and are now in trouble. There are different reasons kids act out.”
Once the boys pass the polygraph portion, boys move on to phase three: empathy. It is here therapists work to place the boys in their victims’ shoes.
The goal of this stage is to stop the offenses and number of victims. By implementing the offender cycle—where boys plan and scout for opportunities before choosing a victim and setting up the offense—the program enables boys to understand at any point, they can stop. If children can identify the problem with certain behaviors, they can cognitively understand what is happening before getting themselves into trouble.
The fourth and final phase is prepping for the transition to go back into the community. Throughout the course of about one year, residents are taught how to behave, comprehend what to do in a risky situation and identify safety plans so they will no longer be triggered to act inappropriately.
Understanding the juvenile sex offender
Ashley Hewitt is an assistant professor in the school of criminal justice at Texas State University. She specializes in profiling sex offenders. Hewitt’s research focuses on the sex offender population and how the environment impacts and reduces opportunities for offenders to commit crime.
Parallel to Pegasus staff, Hewitt believes it is vital to find and treat the cause for inappropriate sexual behavior so youth do not recidivate as adults.
“These boys are human beings who have done a bad thing,” Hewitt said. “They should not be treated as offenders first and humans second, though. We have got to try to find the cause of sexual behavior. Pegasus feels strongly about not giving the boys the label of ‘sex offender.’”
Having negative labels constantly attached to boys, like shadows, leads to a stigma hard to ignore, which isolates the kids from peers to friends and family.
However, opposing the phrase, “once an offender always an offender,” a small percentage of juvenile sex offenders continue to engage in future crime, and fewer commit additional sexual offenses, according to Hewitt’s research.
“Criminal justice policies do not reflect what we generally know about juvenile sex offenders,” Hewitt said. “System enforcers try to take the community protection approach of incapacitating these kids for longer periods of time and giving them harsher sentences. By the time boys are out and have faced so much negativity, they will not want to engage in inappropriate sex acts again. These laws cast the net too far in applying such penalties to juveniles who, generally, are very unlikely to recidivate and continue committing sexual offenses.”
Rehabilitation ideology contrasts the state-run juvenile detention system, where treating the cause is less important than understanding how to prevent recidivism upon release. Youth are subjected to harsher conditions, including heavy supervision and stoic environments.
While over 200,000 youths are charged with crimes in adult courts—where judges tend to be tougher and punish harder—Reese views juveniles today as rougher around the edges, with a lack of respect for authority. States try to match punishments to the ever-growing severe crimes adolescents commit.
While juvenile judges do not automatically mandate boys to register as sex offenders, they opt to work on a case-by-case basis depending on the youth and his offense.
Offenses juvenile sex offenders commit can range from indecent exposure to intercourse and rape. Gilleland blames easy access to the internet and porn as the main reason boys as young as 10 years old commit sexual acts.
“Everywhere kids go there is porn or pornographic images,” Gilleland said. “Lately, the majority of kids coming here have been offending due to high exposure to porn. They show each other graphic images at such young ages, and all have electronic devices, so it is easy to stumble across sexualized content.”
The charter school
Keely Reynolds has worked with and encountered every kind of child: the gifted, gangster, abused; kids with happily married parents to kids living with no parents. She taught at Lockhart High School for 11 years before realizing she was doing more counseling than teaching, prompting her to attend Texas State to get a master’s in counseling. She found adolescents with no foundation at home—ones considered “at-risk”—she enjoyed working with the most.
This desire led Reynolds to Pegasus. When she was hired as a school counselor in 2012, students were being educated by The University of Texas charter school. At the same time, Robert Ellis was in talks with Trinity Charter in hopes of moving to its services, as the UT system took an umbrella approach in teaching the boys. According to Reynolds, catering to each campus the same way was not beneficial to the Pegasus kids and thus, Trinity became the official charter school on Pegasus grounds.
Trinity is an accredited charter school under the Texas Education Agency and specializes in educating kids in residential treatment facilities. It encompasses 12 campuses with 430 students in total. Once boys struggling with behavioral problems get removed from public school, this is where they go.
Reynolds now serves as the principal of the charter school and has her LPC, which she stressed has come in handy more times than not.
Pegasus and Trinity, while separate entities, work hand-in-hand to deal with poor behavior problems. Pegasus staff sits in classrooms with the teachers if behavior gets out of control or a boy needs to leave class due to extenuating circumstances.
Kevin Smith is the coordinator of transition services at the Trinity-Pegasus campus and works closely with Reynolds to help kids adjust to the school. He said teamwork between the facility side and educational sector keeps day-to-day routines running smoothly.
“We talk as a team about a problematic kid then go together to meet with him,” Smith said. “Information is pretty powerful out here. If a kid just found out they’re not going home, their mother gave them up or a family member went to prison, that’s pretty impactful news. If a kid is shut down in a classroom, education is the last thing on their mind. By being informed about that, we can spread that news and give him a pass for the day.”
By informing teachers and staff about what may be going on with the inner workings of a student, Smith said this creates the best dynamic in the classroom, behaviorally. True fist-fights rarely occur, as physical altercations get broken up immediately. Smith and Reynolds only get involved in classroom problems if troublesome behavior is continual.
“I’ll have to take my principal hat off and talk to the boys about what is really going on and why they’re not behaving in class,” Reynolds said. “This is helpful because talking to the principal normally correlates to consequences. I want to provide as many positive experiences as possible. Starting day one, we let them know we are a very positive-energy environment.”
No negative attitudes are allowed, Reynolds said, as she showed off her unicorn collection amidst the leopard-print, pastel backdrop of her office. If her words fail to get through to students, her space might do the trick.
“These kids have just been constantly torn down; they come from abuse and trauma and need to experience success,” Reynolds said. “We want them to leave here saying, ‘I’m good at math, science and I want to get my high school diploma.’ While they’re here, they know they’re going to receive positivity and get celebrated for everything good they do.”
Pegasus boys are mandated to attend school just like any other child their age. Students take the STAAR test, are provided curriculum and receive grades. Even the school start time and class schedule throughout the day is the exact same so once boys successfully complete the program, their adjustment back into “normal” school is a smooth one.
“We are a real school, and kids will leave with a transcript and report card,” Reynolds said. “The things boys do and learn here gets transferred easily to wherever they go next.”
The school administration implements a restorative discipline approach—no detention or punitive action—as the boys are thought to be punished enough having to be away from what is familiar.
Each boy follows an individualized learning plan. Within 10 days of enrollment, students are given a diagnostic test in math and reading so they may learn—for the first time—on the right level. While one child may technically be a ninth-grader, they could test at a fifth-grade math level or third-grade reading level. According to administration, most students going through Trinity charters have about a two-year gap in their education from being in and out of school so often.
“Some parents will pull them out and ‘homeschool’ them, which doesn’t help; they just want to keep them out of trouble,” Reynolds said.
The majority of the kids Reynolds and her team see should have been identified as special education or 504, meaning a student must be determined to have a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities. Since the boys are, more often than not, unable to hold down one school for long, they have not been coded for special services. Trinity provides necessary resources so boys can be protected and acquire services they need to learn successfully.
Smith said boys with behavioral problems, on average, have been in government or placement agencies since they were six or seven years old. He understands the impact constant instability may have on youth; he emphasized—darkly—kids know how to play this game. However, in more ways than not, Pegasus is the best place a lot of the boys at the facility have ever been.
Robert Ellis still has nightmares from his youth, and his memories of abuse will never go away. However, he believes everyone has their own issues demanding to be addressed and he deals with his every day.
“I wouldn’t have survived without His hand on me,” Ellis said. “God was with me the whole way and helped lead me in the right direction. I can not only sympathize but empathize with these boys. I’ve been through the gamut.”
Ellis wants only one sentence written on his tombstone once his time comes: God helped him, and he tried to help others.
The Pegasus School is not religiously affiliated.