SCHOOLS

CLASS OF 2024: After spending most of high school in juvie, Roberts junior graduates early

If not going to class was an assignment, Liberty Rodgers would have earned an A.

She arrived at Roberts Middle School, Salem’s alternative school, in seventh grade. Rodgers, 17, employed her ample creativity to secure passes so she could loiter in the bathroom, or leave with a friend to flatter teachers into giving them water.

“At the same time these two would show up to drink water in my office. They were like, ‘It’s good, you have the best water, it’s always cold,’” school counselor Jeanette Aguirre said. Aguirre caught on and got rid of the water dispenser.

But Rodgers also struggled with more serious challenges. Often angry, she picked fights and once threw a trash can at Aguirre when the counselor tried to get her to go to class. Efforts to help her calm down escalated her further.

“Her fight, flight or freeze was always fight,” Aguirre said.

“I would hang around people that I would be influenced to do stupid things. I wouldn’t listen to nobody. I would just do what I want to do,” Rodgers said.

Rodgers eventually ended up in the juvenile justice system. She was charged with assaulting a peace officer and put on probation, then ran away to La Grande. She returned and was put on house arrest, but left again with friends in the middle of the night.

After she was caught, she ended up at Oak Creek Youth Correctional Facility in Albany, the state’s only prison for girls, where she spent about a year and a half.

There, she again used her creativity to get in trouble. Rodgers said she enjoyed finding ways to get items she wasn’t supposed to from around the facility, just to see how long she could hold onto them. She disassembled a soap dispenser in the bathroom, taking the large spring out. She was caught after showing another girl how to do it.

“We went into lockdown, and then we got our soap taken away for like six months,” she said. (Oak Creek provided soap without dispensers, as well as hand sanitizer, as the facility installed new dispensers without springs, OYA spokesman William Howell said.)

At Oak Creek, Rodgers found some classes she enjoyed and new outlets to keep her hands busy. One class focused on the Harry Potter books. Rodgers wasn’t much of a reader, but signed up because there were snacks in the class. She ended up loving the series, relating to the antics of the protagonists sneaking around their wizard boarding school at night.

“I think it was just like, the stupid s—- Harry Potter would get in trouble for,” she said.

“You related,” Aguirre laughed.

Rodgers also took sewing, creating a quilt made of patches showing things she liked — various animals, Star Wars for her dad, flower arrangements because of her mom’s love of pioneer women. She made a baby blanket intended for a staff member who had a kid, but sent it home after learning staff couldn’t accept gifts. She learned to crochet.

When she got in trouble at the facility, she was sent to another unit where she put together puzzles.

“If you go into the classrooms, the puzzles on the wall, a majority of those I did,” she said.

Rodgers said her time at Oak Creek eventually made her realize she wanted more out of life than getting into fights at school.

“I realized that I want to do things with my life and I don’t want to live how I had been,” she said. “I’ve got a lot of goals I want to meet …I have to do things to accomplish those goals.”

At Oak Creek, she attended school year-round. By the time she was released, it was early in her junior year of high school. Rodgers realized she was close to having enough credits to graduate.

She decided to return to Roberts in late 2023, but had to convince school administrators and counselors to take her back. Aguirre said the staff weren’t sure they could accommodate her because she had taken so much effort to manage. Her probation officer advocated for her, and Aguirre said Rodgers advocated for herself.

When she returned, Aguirre said, “She looked different. Her aura was different. Her presentation was different. And the first thing she says is, ‘Can I give you a hug?’ ‘I’m so sorry for everything I put you through.”

Before Oak Creek, Rodgers said she never had hobbies. She wants to continue sewing and hopes to buy herself a sewing machine.

Her eventual goal is to become an underwater welder. Her father welds, and she said it’s a “badass” job that pays well and lets her work with her hands.

It also gives her a chance to do something else she loves: proving other people wrong.

“Not a lot of females are welders and guys are like, ‘Oh females can’t do things we do,’ so I was like, ‘You know what? I’m gonna do it,’” she said.

She graduated from Roberts on June 7.

“She’s very resilient. She’s proof that you could change,” Aguirre said. “The whole stigma within the community: ‘Roberts is a school for bad kids,’ that really gets to me.” 

“It’s just kids misunderstood and needing a little more guidance,” Rodgers said.

This article was updated following publication to add a comment from the Oregon Youth Authority about soap access at Oak Creek following a disciplinary incident.

Contact reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.

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Rachel Alexander is Salem Reporter’s managing editor. She joined Salem Reporter when it was founded in 2018 and covers city news, education, nonprofits and a little bit of everything else. She’s been a journalist in Oregon and Washington for a decade. Outside of work, she’s a skater and board member with Salem’s Cherry City Roller Derby and can often be found with her nose buried in a book.