Social Media: The New School-to-Prison Pipeline for Black Youth

The school-to-prison pipeline is gaining fuel based on inappropriate behavior on social media. The pipeline is the trend of funneling students from public schools into the criminal justice system. African-American youth have been the most impacted by the pipeline.

Even worse, the U.S. Department of Education has new research that shows the pipeline starts at preschool for black students. According to the American Civil Liberties Union, black students represent 31 percent of school-related arrests. It started with the zero tolerance policies of the 1990s that saw students being criminalized for minor school infractions such as improper dress, disruption of a public school, obstruction, etc.

Although zero tolerance policies have started to fade away, inappropriate conduct on social media is bringing new fuel to the pipeline. New issues such as cyberbullying have traditionally been perceived as an activity that takes place online in the comfort of the cyberbully’s home.

New research indicates that cyberbullying is now crossing over from the online world to the offline world. Guess where those incidents are taking place? At your local school system. School systems have noticed this trend and have started to put in place measures to address these issues.

More than 45 states, plus local governments, have laws and policies that protect victims from bullying and cyberbullying. Some state cyberbullying codes protect victims on the school ground and outside school grounds.

For example, Georgia laws on cyberbullying covers events within the walls of the school, during extracurricular activities, on the school bus and even at designated school bus stops. Therefore, a kid who is engaged in cyberbullying at the bus stop is in violation of the law if caught and turned in to the school administration. Missouri has a new law that considers inflicting emotional distress a felony. Cyberbullying incidents fall under this new law, which requires school systems, under mandatory reporting statutes, to refer incidents to law enforcement.

Unfortunately, most of these laws do not have specific guidelines for schools to follow. Principals are handicapped in determining when to handle a cyberbullying incident at school or when to refer it out to law enforcement. One principal of a Title 1 school in Clayton County, Georgia, told me about a similar situation. He said:

“Man, I get these students that get involved in this cyberbullying beef over the weekend on Instagram. When they come to school on Monday they are ready to fight. I had two young men in my office that I literally had to stand between them to prevent a fight based upon something that happened on social media.”

No school wants to be subjected to a civil lawsuit from a family for not following the law. Thus, most schools refer out to law enforcement and allow juvenile courts to sort it out, which only cements the school-to-prison pipeline.

In most cases, this pipeline causes nonviolent offenders to be introduced and admitted into the criminal justice system. Students can spend up to 72 hours in a juvenile detention center before coming before a judge. That’s 72 hours of meeting and being introduced to antisocial peers at the detention center. That’s 72 hours of learning new criminal activities or a hustle to try when you return home.

In 2004 Clayton County decided to act on their school-to-prison pipeline. Juvenile court Judge Steven Teske noticed a heavy increase in referrals to law enforcement from school officials. This trend started around the same time the Board of Education stationed school resource officers in the school system.

To decrease the number of youth coming to court for school-related nonviolent offenses such as disruption of a public school, the Clayton Juvenile Court collaborated with the juvenile justice system, the school system, social service providers and law enforcement to create a memorandum of understanding (MOU) to limit the number of referrals made to juvenile court.

Minor delinquent acts such as obstruction, disorderly conduct and disruption of public school have to go through a three-step process before the filing of a complaint. For the first complaint, youth receive a written warning based upon their behavior. For the second, youth are referred to school mediation to resolve the problem. A third complaint results in the filing of a complaint to be referred to juvenile court.

Director of Court Services Colin Slay told me “the MOU with the school system has eliminated the school-to-prison pipeline in Clayton County.” Students who are engaged in internet “beefs” that cross over to school are handled through normal school disciplinary procedures and the outlined MOU.

More counties should create policies that mediate social media “beefs,” conflicts, etc. before formal charges are filed and youth end up in the juvenile justice system. As we know, teenagers will be teenagers, but it is also time for adults to be adults and shut down this emerging pipeline that is impacting black youth.

Sedgrid Lewis is the state director of Community Solutions, a nonprofit organization that specializes in evidence-based programs to prevent the school-to-prison pipeline.

This is the Season of Redemption

Christmas is synonymous with redemption to me.  Christmas a few years ago expanded that belief to a higher level.  My 16-year-old son would not be joining us for Christmas for the second year in a row. He would be serving time in a federal juvenile correctional facility instead.

In September of that year, he was charged with stealing a gun from a local pawn shop.  He was questioned for hours. He made the police mad, so he was arrested.

My son did not act alone and law enforcement knew it. However, he is of a strong and stubborn determination and would not give information they wanted. He instead would hide emotions behind attempts at what he thought was intelligent wit. Instead this came off as immature sarcasm and could anger even the most patient adults.

In a detention center 90 miles away, he sat day after day in his cell staring at the walls. He learned to stuff socks down the toilet and flood his cell for excitement; Typical behavior of kids in a cage with no treatment, inadequate educational structure and surrounded by anti-social peers.

On one visit I witnessed a young boy sitting in a chair in the detention center, shaking and waiting for “his tour.” I asked my son why the boy was there.  He told me the staff prepped the kids in detention encouraging them to bang on the doors and scare the “tourists” under the guise of a failed scared straight program. My son couldn’t do it. I was proud of him.

In November, my son was told he was being released. Puzzled, he was led out of the front door in street clothes and was immediately handcuffed and placed under arrest by federal agents. He was transported downtown to the adult jail. The feds don’t have to follow laws regarding site and sound separation of adults and juveniles or any other state regulations. The reasoning for taking his case federal escapes me to this day.

In the middle of the night, my son was taken to federal detention center 180 miles away. He was allowed to attend classes for school. He quickly moved up the point system to earn privileges. I visited often and we would try to piece together a future that did not include prison, and it was so hard to watch my son lose hope in the future. He had no thoughts, plans, or dreams beyond surviving his punishment. He felt constant anxiety waiting for his day in court.

Without warning, three months later, they moved him back to the original county detention center, again in the middle of the night. When I called and found that he had been moved, the detention officer commented, “I don’t know why your son is in here. He doesn’t belong here. I really wish him the best.”

After six months in detention, my son pleaded guilty and was sentenced to a year and a half in a federal juvenile correctional facility in a neighboring state. We received no phone call asking input for his rehabilitation . He served his time and we visited faithfully, but there was no family counseling.  He was a skeleton of his former self in form. But he progressed in his schooling graduating nearly a year early.  He took the ASVAB test and the ACT test; he scored exceptionally well on both.

The following January, nearly a year and a half after he was charged, he was released. We received no communication regarding a transition plan, living arrangements, treatment recommendations, or progress made while incarcerated.

In February, my son, now 17, wanted to attend college. He didn’t return to his home town. He didn’t want to see his “old friends.” We helped him get an apartment.  A week later, he had a job and was registered for school. He accomplished this without a car and in 20-below weather.

On his 18th birthday, he had a transition hearing where the state was to decide whether to transfer him to adult probation. He showed up with a restitution check in hand and not a mark on either his state or federal probation records. They grudgingly released him from state probation after implying that his check was probably not good.

The military wanted to recruit him – remember those outstanding ASVAB scores -- but he was on federal probation. He didn’t quit. He applied for early release despite the prohibition against releases before one year. With help from his probation officer, the judge let him off for 90 days to enlist. After dogged attempts and nothing but praise about him from his recruiter, my son was not granted a contract. He returned to probation.  He was crushed.

As he was trying to get into the military, he continued to search for better jobs. He decided he wanted to work for a veterinary clinic. He wanted to work with animals and it would fit his class schedule perfectly.  I encouraged him to look up every veterinary clinic in town and put in an application. A week later, he had a job as an assistant at an animal clinic. Six months later, he found another job that paid even better.

My son has accomplished all of this despite the fact that he has suffered from relentless bouts of strep throat since his release, which I attribute to poor nutrition and stress that wreaked havoc on his immune system.  He was extremely underweight carrying 148 lbs on a 6’1” frame.

Ironically, I work in a juvenile court where I have helped secure services for a Second Chance Court.   Boys who have committed violent crimes that make my son look saintly are offered intensive treatment instead of incarceration.

I secured Thinking for a Change, a 22-week evidence-based cognitive behavioral therapy program, to help change thinking errors that delinquent youth often possess. These youth receive family therapy, individual therapy, and attend court every Tuesday. I watch over countless weeks as their facial expressions soften, they start to smile, they hold their heads up, they speak out about successes, they start to speak of a future and their parents talk about the positive changes they are witnessing. I watch them graduate after a year or more and go on with their lives, no strings attached. My son even served as a guest speaker at Second Chance Court this summer and spoke about the strength from within that it takes to make positive changes in life.

This year, my son is coming home for Christmas, and we are on a new chapter. We will figure it out together. I wonder how tough it must have been for him to speak to the Second Chance Court participants and watch them being given the grace of redemption that he was never afforded.

My prayer this Christmas is redemption for my son and a change in the juvenile justice system-with a focus on restorative justice -- not punishment. I remember my son’s first words to me when I saw him after his release. He said, “Mom, it is so strange. I walk up to doors and just stand there. I still assume they are locked.”

I cry now at those words, because in many ways doors do remain locked for him as he is haunted by the scarlet F for felon and the words redemption and juvenile justice remain an oxymoron.

From Behind Bars, the Capacity to Change

John Last 1When I started doing time in 1985, I was not a model prisoner. I was young and not particularly respectful of authority.

I had a buddy, Pat, who worked with me in the kitchen. Pat was not usually interested in doing anything against the rules, but we had other things in common and managed to develop a friendship. Both of us had life sentences and were looking to do a lot of time.

One day at work an older prisoner told Pat that he should not associate with me. He said I was a bad influence, and that I would never change. Older guys were rare at Alto, the notorious north Georgia prison where I spent a lot of my time. At that time, I guess there were fewer than 10 men over the age of 25, and only two or three over 50. Most of the more than 1,500 prisoners were in the 17 – 23 range, and the older men received a certain respect not only because of their age but because of the time they had done.

It hurt my feelings to be judged so harshly, but it also challenged me. His comment spurred me to look at how I was being perceived by others, and to recognize that other’s perceptions were sometimes an accurate reflection of who I really was.

This incident came back to me as I was reading about Jonathan Bun, a 17-year-old Clayton County, Georgia, youth accused of the murder of Deputy Richard Daly. Bun has a long juvenile record, and was often under the supervision of juvenile authorities either in community programs or in detention. In August, Judge Steven Teske wrote an article about his interaction with Bun as a juvenile court judge. He explored the possibility of identifying kids such as Jonathan Bun at an early age and focusing more intervention on the “eight percent,” the portion of kids who were shown in an Orange County, California study to account for a large percentage of repeat offenses and who demonstrated a high likelihood of committing serious crimes.

Judge Teske’s piece outlines the problem and potential strategies for addressing it. He ends by saying, “The sad reality is that not all kids can be saved.”

This is a sobering statement, and undeniably true from a logical perspective. Some people will insist on going down the wrong road no matter how much help they are offered. Bun was heavily supervised, placed in programs of all sorts, and at one point escorted from school to aftercare, and then home.

From my vantage on the inside of prison, I often wondered about the ability of some people to really change. I worked as a teacher’s aide in various schools, was a mentor to younger prisoners, and interacted with prisoners of all sorts for nearly 25 years. I moved from the kid who, according to that old man, was “no good” to a positive and supportive human being. I became the one looking at younger guys and wondering if there was any help for them.

Over and over I made mistakes. Youngsters in whom I had invested time and energy would make bad choices, seemingly out of the blue. Sometimes the opposite happened; a kid I had given up on would suddenly change his ways. I came to believe in a pattern. There were some who would rise above the circumstances no matter how difficult it was. They would thrive even in the worst prison. Others would continue to do wrong no matter what, even when extraordinary help was given to them. In the middle was the largest group, the group that could go either way depending on what was around them.

This middle group became my focus. I would try to enlist the positive guys for my own efforts. I would steer clear of the ones who made trouble, and I would reach out to those I thought I could help. This kind of triage worked for my purposes, with one caveat. I was always ready to reassess my evaluation of someone. I remembered myself, and how many people thought I would never change. I suppose that I continued to have hope and faith in human potential contrary to the evidence.

This approach, with a similar caveat, may work in evaluating juveniles as well. The “eight percent” problem has an “eight percent” solution as well, which Judge Teske outlines in his piece. Applying these strategies can help some of these kids. Even if we can identify the eight percent, how can we identify the subset that will resist all efforts to help them?

I do not think we really can. All we can do is try to identify them, offer them help, and be ready to change what category we put them in.