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A Thanksgiving Reflection: How Advocacy Can Make a Difference

John LashEarly this week, I was having Thanksgiving dinner with my fiancée. She is on her way home for the holiday, and I am staying in Georgia to work on my final paper for school and take care of a few other tasks, so we shared the meal a few days early. Before we began to eat, we took a few moments to talk about what we have been grateful for this past year. It was a pretty long list for both of us, and touched on our relationships, our work, good health, and many other things.

It seems that gratitude has been coming up a lot in my life lately, in discussions with friends and online. People on Facebook have been posting each day about what they are appreciating in their lives. I have been enjoying reading their reflections. It is easy to overlook the many blessings that we have, and to focus on what is missing or what could be just a little better. Intentionally bringing our awareness to what is going well in our lives is a great remedy for a lot of our imagined problems.

My own life is remarkably different than it was just a few years ago. Thanksgiving of 2009 saw me still in prison, unsure of whether the parole board would give me another chance at life on the outside. For many years I had lived with the assurance that I would never be released, and then in 2006 a tiny bit of hope appeared to me, literally. It was the Refuge of Hope, a Christian home (not a half-way house they will adamantly insist) for men being released from prison. I went there in December of 2009, got my feet under me, and then in 2011 enrolled in the Masters in Conflict Management Program at Kennesaw State University near Atlanta.

Today I work at the Georgia Conflict Center in Athens, Ga. I share communications skills and conflict management strategies with a diverse group of clients, including school kids and volunteers from impoverished neighborhoods in the city. We are working to develop a restorative justice program for juveniles that will meet the needs of crime victims as well as the kids who harm them. Wednesday night I facilitated a three-hour mediation involving a dispute between couples and friends.

I am grateful to be able to do this work, and especially to be able to write for JJIE and Youth Today. When I was in prison, very few people were concerned with my opinion, but on these pages what I have to offer is valued by many readers precisely because of my experiences with the criminal justice system.

I am not an indifferent observer of facts. My views, shared here for more than a year, are born of my own life. I was a deeply disturbed and harmful person as a teenager. I was a prisoner, and I learned not only to survive, but to grow and change. Now I am a man doing the work I am called to do, hopefully making a small impact on this world, and, I pray, on the lives of the young people I am coming into contact with. From someone who lived violently, I have become an advocate for peace.

It is strange to reflect that 25 years ago the state contemplated killing me as punishment for my crime. Later, when I had a life sentence, the state contemplated letting me die in prison. Neither of those things happened, because a few people decided to take a chance on me.

I don’t need a scientific survey or brain scan to know that young people can change, because I have lived that change. I advocate for young people now because I have an unshakeable faith that they too can change and become productive members of this world on the outside of prison. I believe in mercy because it was extended to me when I most needed it. For that I am thankful, and I hope and pray to see the same mercy extended to as many children as possible. Happy Thanksgiving.

New Rules: Isolation, Handcuffs, Hogties

Schools cannot put children in seclusion rooms as a form of punishment anymore, and must limit the use of physical and chemical restraints. The State Board of Education approved new rules Thursday for handcuffing children, controlling them with prone restraint tactics, and giving them prescription drugs to control their behavior. These measures are now limited to situations where students are an immediate danger to themselves or others, or when calming techniques don’t work.

Parents of 13-year old Jonathon King of Gainesville pushed for changes after their son hanged himself in a seclusion room in 2004. Jonathan was a student in the Alpine Program, a public school in Gainesville, Ga. for students with emotional and behavioral problems. A few weeks before his death, Jonathan told his parents that teachers had been putting him in time out.   They testified last month at a hearing at the Board of Education.  “After he died, we found out that Jonathan wasn’t in there for minutes,” Don King said. “He was in there for hours at a time every day.”

For decades, Georgia schools have used seclusion and various types of restraints on children with autism and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder to prevent classroom disruptions. “I’ve seen handcuffs, hogties, kids being tied up with Velcro. I’ve seen kids locked in storage closets. And I’ve seen, very recently, a plywood box in a principal’s office,” says Leslie Lipson, spokesperson for the Georgia Advocacy Office, who also testified in June.

The new rules apply to all children in public schools, and get praise from Randee Waldman, director of the Barton Juvenile Defender Clinic at Emory Law School. ”Georgia is trying to address this. Georgia is one step ahead,” She adds, “Handcuffs shouldn’t be used to punish a child,”

But educators and child advocates admit they’re not sure exactly how often children are placed in seclusion, or handcuffed, or even how many are arrested in Georgia schools. Data from the Education Department indicates approximately 1,900 children statewide were referred to juvenile court during the 2008-2009 school year.  However, numbers from Atlanta are missing from the count, and some experts believe the total may be significantly higher.

“We’re having a hard time figuring out how many kids are referred to Juvenile Court much less handcuffed,” says Waldman. “Schools are not required to maintain data on how many times children are handcuffed. “

That may soon change. Brad Bryant, the new state schools superintendent, tells the Atlanta Journal-Constitution he expects a data collection system to be put in place. And for the first time, parents must be notified when their children have been restrained by a school administrator or teacher.

The Board approved the new policy on the same day school officials in New Orleans were slapped with a federal lawsuit for shackling a 6-year old boy to a desk.

The first grader was arrested, handcuffed and chained up by school police after arguing with another child over a seat in the lunchroom.   The Southern Poverty Law Center filed a class action lawsuit Thursday in Federal Court, claiming the arrest for a minor violation of school rules is unlawful and a violation of the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution.

The complaint names the elementary school principal, school superintendent and security director, and was filed on behalf of all children in the school.  SPLC Attorney Thena Robinson says, "We’re hopeful this [lawsuit] will send a powerful message. We have to treat kids with dignity.  There are ways to keep kids safe and treat them with dignity."

The boy’s father, Sebastian Weston, says his son was treated like an animal is now terrified of school.

A spokesman for the Recovery School District confirms the incident happened May 6, and two security officers were fired, but would not comment further.

The suit alleges the officers were not properly trained “about developmentally appropriate responses to elementary school children who fail to follow school rules.”

Attorneys also contend that under state law, a 6-year old child cannot be arrested, but the school principal had a policy of handcuffing children who violated rules.  When the officers chained him to the furniture “they subjected him to an unreasonable and excessively intrusive seizure that was calculated solely to punish, humiliate and intimidate. “

“We cannot wrap our heads around why the principal thought it would be okay to shackle a child to a desk,” Robinson says. “So many things could have been done, even if he was getting out of control. Six-year olds throw temper tantrums.  It’s up to adults to redirect them.”