A Nation Divided By Guns: Parents and Experts Weigh in on NRA Proposal for “Good Guys With Guns” in America’s Schools

Oak Park-River Forest High School senior Jack Cramer thinks that the presence of armed guards in school would only further the gun problem in America. Photo by Gideon Resnick/The Chicago Bureau

The Dec. 14 school massacre in Newtown, Conn. split the country, provoking dueling—and quick—responses even as gun control was already being considered in some areas of the nation, including Illinois.

From one side there has been a chorus for more security in our nation’s schools. More police. More metal detectors. On the other were strong calls to curb nationwide gun ownership, an idea that gained even more traction in the shooting’s wake while the nation’s largest gun rights advocate, the National Rifle Association, kept oddly quiet. A Dec. 27 Gallup poll found that although 58 percent of Americans favor strengthening federal gun laws, the NRA still has the support of 54 percent of the country.

The group, praised by many Americans and demonized by others, is usually fast with a response for greater leniency in gun laws to shore up against massacres and the street violence in cities like Chicago, which just recorded its 500th homicide in 2012. The toll included more than 100 people under the age of 21.

But by the time the NRA held its crowded and anticipated news conference, a week had passed since Adam Lanza brought his Bushmaster .223 semiautomatic rifle through the front doors of Sandy Hook Elementary School, killing 20 children and six educators, as well as his mother and himself. That Friday, National Rifle Association CEO Wayne LaPierre broke the group’s silence and went public with a plan to stem school shootings.

The idea: armed police, or “good guys with guns,” at every one of the thousands of schools across the nation. Called the National School Shield Emergency Response Program, the NRA’s plan would put an armed guard in or outside every public school in the United States. After a week-long national conversation about gun control, LaPierre argued that armed security is the only certain way to stop—or at least limit—the carnage from mass school shootings.

“You know, five years ago, after the Virginia Tech tragedy, when I said we should put armed security in every school, the media called me crazy,” LaPierre said of the 2007university shooting that claimed 33 lives. “But what if, when Adam Lanza started shooting his way into Sandy Hook Elementary School last Friday, he had been confronted by qualified, armed security?”

The news conference sparked a national debate, as well as a fierce back-and-forth in Chicago over what school security should look like on Jan. 3, when more than 404,000 students will return to 681 public schools across the city. Debate consumed national media, provoking a steady, and heated, stream of comments both for and against the idea across multiple platforms.

The NRA proposal invited a strong backlash from gun control advocates, including Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, whose office released a statement calling it “outrageous and unsettling that the NRA would choose to address gun violence not by taking assault weapons off our streets, but by adding more guns to our schools.” Other Chicago politicians, like Democratic Illinois congressional candidate Robin Kelly, said the NRA proposal fails to address the wider issue of gun violence that pervades Chicago and the country at large.

“Their ‘plan’ is offensive and would do NOTHING (emphasis original) to protect a single child on the streets of Chicago and the Southland,” said Kelly, who was referring to Chicago’s storied and violent South Side, in a statement. Kelly went on to propose an “anti-gun violence initiative,” however, with one of its components being to “ban the types of high capacity ammunition magazines that were used in the shootings in Aurora, Colorado and Newtown, Connecticut.”

The argument between the NRA and its critics—now including high profile conservatives like Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) and GOP pollster Frank Lutz—quickly added heat to a nationwide dialogue over how to prevent mass shootings in public spaces.

Meanwhile, as of Dec. 28, 277 Americans—including four in Chicago—had been killed by guns since the Dec. 14 shootings in Newtown, according to the Twitter handle @GunDeaths and Slate, who have worked in lockstep to keep a running interactive tally of gun-related deaths since Newtown.

Jack Cramer, a senior at Oak Park – River Forest High School west of Chicago, said of the increased presence of armed guards in school: “I think it’s idiotic. Armed guards only came into the picture because of the prevalence of automatic weapons. They’re trying to use guns to solve problems caused by guns, just so they can keep having guns. It’d be like giving more people cancer so there would be less people to get cancer or something.”

To Northeastern University criminologist James Alan Fox, forming legislation around the prevention of massacres like Newtown, rather than focusing on smaller, more prevalent gun crimes, could prove a fruitless effort.

“There’s any number of things we should be doing, like improving gun control and mental health services, to prevent ordinary crime and improve the lives of millions of Americans,” Fox said, echoing a wide call after Sandy Hook for greater mental health awareness, education, treatment and study. “But people have to understand that [mass murders] are rare events, and mass killers are very determined, and they’ll find guns any way they can.” Fox has published five books on crime research and statistics, including Extreme Killing: Understanding Serial and Mass Murder (Sage, 2006).

Will Police in schools be effective against school shootings?

In a Dec. 21 post in his Boston Globe blog “Crime and Punishment,” Fox pointed to the NRA’s School Shield program as missing the wider point about gun crime in the United States, noting that Columbine High School had a school resource officer (SRO) present on the day of the shootings that killed 13 people there on April 20, 1999.

The presence of SROs—whether they be private guards or city liaison officers—in schools, he noted, are nothing new. As of the 2009-2010 school year, 43 percent of public schools in the United States had security staffs on their campuses, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

That number is even higher in Chicago, where high crime rates—and a sharp increase this year in homicide—encourage stricter security measures in high schools. The presence of SROs has steadily increased in this country since 1994, when former President Bill Clinton’s administration crafted the “COPS (Community Oriented Policing Services) in school” initiative, which raised more than $60 million in grants to place armed security guards in public schools across the country. Re-funded in April 2000, a year after the Columbine shootings, the program placed more than 2,600 officers in hundreds of communities all over the country. As a result, the total number of government-employed SROs in American schools increased from 9,356 to 13,056, a 37 percent spike between 1997 and 2007, according to the Department of Justice.

But as Fox pointed out, SROs have many more responsibilities than reacting in the rare event of a school shooting.

“They interact with students and get involved in disciplinary action, and they’re stationed in offices inside the school,” Fox said. “The idea that they’re going to be standing guard at the door waiting for an attack is ridiculous—they have many more pressing responsibilities than the 1 in 7 million chance of a mass shooting.”

In 2000, Clinton announced that the purpose of the SROs would be to “heighten school safety as well as coaching sports and acting as mentors and mediators.”

Suburban Chicago mother Audrey Moy’s two children attend New Trier High School in Winnetka, Ill., where an SRO is employed full time. For Moy, the officer is a measure of safety and convenience. When her son’s iPod was stolen in school in September, for example, the SRO helped him fill out paperwork and file a report without having to go to the local police station. But when it comes to protecting against gun violence, Moy doesn’t think a security officer can offer much protection.

“The officer up there isn’t walking the halls and all that…he has an office there,” Moy said. “And for anything that may happen, we have to remember that it’s a huge high school and even though we have an officer there, something could be happening in a part of the building where he isn’t.”

To Wendy Katten, whose son attends a public school in north side Chicago, adding more SROs is at the bottom of a long list of priorities when it comes to preventing gun violence.

“We’re so under-resourced in terms of counseling, mental health services, psychologists, all the support our kids need…” said Katten, director ofRaise Your Hand Illinois, an education reform advocacy group. “I just can’t imagine that bringing more weapons into the building where kids are supposed to be learning is the right way to go about it.”

Aside from their unclear power against school shooters, many experts suggest that in the long term, SROs may be doing more harm than good. In a November 2011 study, the Washington-based Justice Policy Initiative found that the presence of law enforcement in schools coincides with increases in referrals to the juvenile justice system, in a process it says is “causing lasting harm to youth.”

“Generally what we’ve found is that there’s a high correlation between police in schools and kids getting referred to the justice system for minor offenses that would otherwise just be handled by the schools,” said Tracy Velazquez, executive director of the Justice Policy Institute. “All it means is that more students are being funneled into the juvenile justice system, who will then be funneled into the adult justice system, and that’s disruptive in terms of long-term safety.”

It’s a phenomenon the NAACP has called the “school-to-prison-pipeline,” saying it sends disproportionate numbers of minorities through the justice system while white students are more likely to get away with school-imposed sanctions.

What’s at stake?

As for what may change locally following of the events in Newtown, no new plans have been announced to increase the presence of law enforcement in schools in Chicago. But two years after the U.S. Supreme Court dismantled the city’s 28-year-old handgun ban, Emanuel isgearing up to challenge concealed carry laws in the city. Targeting especially loose regulations against gun ownership among the mentally ill, city officials are increasingly looking for measures to curb climbing citywide gun homicide rates.

Gun-related crimes, while especially frequent in and around Chicago, stand out in the United States to make it among the top nations in the worldfor deaths by firearm.

At the moment LaPierre mounted the podium in Washington to present the School Shield program, police in Blair County, Pa. were investigating a shooting spree that had left three people dead and three state troopers injured less than two hours earlier. That same evening in Waterford, Conn., an hour’s drive from Newtown, 34-year-old Kyle Seidel, a father of three, was shot and killed outside a bowling alley for unexplained reasons. About an hour later, a 15-year-old high school freshman died in Wendell, N.C. when his neighbor tried to show him his gun andaccidentally discharged it, fatally wounding him.

All told, 25 Americans all across the country were reported as having died of gunshot wounds on the day of the NRA press conference, according to Slate and @GunDeaths.

For Katten, the issue being addressed by the NRA—prevention of school shootings—isn’t the issue that concerns her most.

“Yes, I think at school we need decent security, absolutely…it shouldn’t be easy to get into a building without safeguards in place,” Katten said. “But [Newtown] didn’t make me worry any more for my son’s safety than I did the day before, when I still knew that there’ve been over 2,000 shootings in Chicago this year.”

The Chicago Bureau’s Gideon Resnick and Jenny Starrs contributed reporting for this story.

Illinois Governor’s Plan to Close Juvenile Prisons Nears Completion

CHICAGO -- Every morning in southern Illinois, 38 full-time prison guards board a state bus and ride 46 miles to the Illinois Youth Center and correctional facility at Murphysboro. The facility was built in 1997 with a capacity for 156 young people.

But when the guards arrive for work every day, no inmates are waiting for them.

Concurrent with a steady decline in youth incarceration, Murphysboro hasn’t seen an inmate in months. But a heavily disputed proposal by Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn to close Murphysboro and the under-populated juvenile facility at Joliet, consolidating their inmates with those in other facilities across the state, is nearing its final stages.

“Illinois is in the middle of a fiscal crisis, and we’re finding ourselves having to cut programs all over the

The fence outside the Joliet facility. Photo courtesy of suzphotofun on Flickr.

board,” said Illinois assistant budget director Abdon Pallasch. “And now that our juvenile inmate population is only 943, as opposed to almost 1,700 in 1990, we just don’t need these facilities anymore.”

Pallasch credits the declining inmate population to a new focus on “smaller, community-based” programs rather than centralized prison facilities. Alternative rehabilitation methods like Redeploy Illinois have led to a 50 percent reduction in reoffending among incarcerated youth since 2005, according to the Illinois Department of Human Services.

“When we look at the outcomes from juvenile prisons, we see that the recidivism rate is higher than for kids who go through Redeploy, which focuses more on community intervention,” said Nora Collins-Mandeville, director of policy and communications at the Evanston-based Juvenile Justice Initiative. “So we definitely think the prison closures are a step in the right direction — it shows us the state has been committed to investing in alternatives.”

Quinn’s plan, however, still faces strong opposition from labor unions and Alexander County legislators. Union officials like AFSCME spokesman Anders Lindall decry prison closings, arguing that such measures will lead to overcrowding and safety concerns at remaining correctional facilities.

“[The governor] uses the euphemism of ‘consolidation,’ but what they’re really talking about is cutting valuable services,” Lindall said. “Murphysboro is an exceptional facility that offers services unavailable at other centers, and we can’t afford to lose it.”

An overhead view of the Murphysboro facility. Photo courtesy of

But Murphysboro’s militaristic management style, considered a classic example for youth incarceration across the country, has long faced criticism as an outdated and overly-austere model. A June 2003 federal Department of Justice study, “found no significant differences in recidivism rates between boot camp participants and comparison groups,” continuing: “In some cases, boot camp graduates had higher rates of recidivism.”

In response to concerns that the closures will lead to overcrowding, Pallasch said the youth detention center in St. Charles, Ill. is being renovated to accept the remaining youth at Joliet, a facility designed for 399 inmates that currently houses 149 youth.

In order to push through his proposal, Quinn vetoed a 2011 initiative from the Illinois National Assembly, which in response to union pressure voted to re-fund the prisons in part by siphoning $56 million from the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services.

The Illinois General Assembly approved the governor’s decision last week. For Pallasch, that sum of money has many better uses than sustaining two nearly-empty youth prisons.

“Closing these facilities will save us $88 million per year we won’t have to cut from university scholarships, pre-kindergarten programs or health services,” he said. “Every state program is feeling the squeeze right now, and it’s important we have our priorities in line.”

The Many Examples of the Power of Innocence Projects

Joyce Ann Brown attends the Women’s Project event. Photo credit: Randy Belice

Four women stood at the front of a room, speaking before the small crowd with strong voices even though each had gone through a harrowing and emotional experience.

The women – Joyce Ann Brown, Audrey Edmunds, Tabitha Pollock and Gloria Goodwin-Killian – had all been wrongfully convicted and imprisoned for crimes they did not commit. In total, they spent 45 years incarcerated, knowing all the while they were innocent and clinging to some hope that this fact would come to light.

Now free, thanks in no small part to innocence projects around the nation, their testimonies before the crowd headlined the commencement of the Women’s Project at the Northwestern University law school’s Center on Wrongful Convictions this month.

“In the Center’s 13 year history, we’ve represented four women, all of whom were accused and wrongfully convicted of the murders of their children,” said Karen Daniel, a co-director of the Women’s Project and a professor at Northwestern University. “We at the Center got to thinking about these cases and we recognized that there were some startling similarities among these cases that we were dealing with that had not arisen in any of the cases with men.”

Northwestern University has a track record of addressing wrongful convictions from unconventional angles with success. The university’s journalism school houses the Medill Innocence Project, which is one of the only innocence projects in the world that works from a purely journalistic angle, and the law school’s Children and Family Justice Center has trained law students to work with attorneys and social workers to exonerate wrongfully convicted youth since 1992.

(Most recently, the Medill effort has taken on the study and investigation of Shaken Baby Syndrome cases, noting that science has taught many new lessons over the years with this diagnosis and that what were once open-and-shut SBS cases now warrant closer study.)

And at the law school, Daniel specifically noted the youth program’s success in changing police and prosecutor investigation procedure for minors. She hopes to mirror that success with the Women’s Project, which serves another specialized demographic with unique legal needs.

“We have a very successful project here at the Center on Wrongful Convictions of Youth,” Daniel said. “We’ll see where the research takes us.”

With these two projects as examples, the CWC is giving a nod to the fact that different sexes and different age groups pose sharply different legal concerns. And by separating them out, studying these groups in greater isolation without ignoring that there is, of course, much general overlap in criminal law, the CWC is more confident of success going forward.

“A lot of what takes place in criminal law and police practice is based on what they expect people to do, how a normal person would react under a different set of situations,” Daniel said. “We feel like we need to challenge those norms because they don’t apply across the board, but perhaps the generalities apply even less to women than they do to men.”

False Eyewitness Testimony

Joyce Ann Brown is an imposing figure who doesn’t speak so much as project. When she gets emotional, she doesn’t cry. She gets angry.

“Every time we talk about our cases, the emotions flow,” Brown said. “It’s been [23] years [since I was exonerated] and I still have that anger.”

Brown spent nine years, five months and 24 days in prison after two black women walked into a fur store in Dallas, shot and killed the owner and cleaned out the cash registers. Brown was convicted in 1980 largely on the testimony of a single eyewitness, who simply claimed that Brown looked similar to one of the two women. Another strike came from a jailhouse informant who testified that Brown confessed to the crime soon after she was incarcerated.

“The [district attorney] was able to ‘prove’ that I changed clothes, drove three and a half miles [from work], robbed the store, watched a man get shot down like a dog, changed clothes [and] drove three and a half miles back to where I worked in seven and a half minutes,” Brown said. “I had 13 co-workers testify that I was at work. I had time cards to prove that I was at work. But I was convicted and given a life sentence.”

Brown had no chance of obtaining an early release on parole because, in Texas, inmates must admit their guilt and show remorse before they can be paroled.

“Never was I going to say I was sorry, never was I going to say I showed remorse and I certainly was not going to admit to a crime that I didn’t commit,” Brown insisted.

Brown was freed in 1989 after her case was picked up by Centurion Ministries, an innocence project based in New Jersey, and CBS “60 Minutes.” Now, 23 years later, she has become one of the nation’s leading activists for wrongfully convicted women.

“When I read a letter, and it’s clearly another Joyce Ann Brown story – that you can see that person did not commit that crime – that makes me angry,” Brown said. “It makes me angry enough to get up, make some telephone calls, try to find an innocence project, try to find some kind of system for that person who’s still sitting in prison.”

Gender-Biased Convictions

“We [have] started to think that perhaps the most prevalent factors that contribute to wrongful convictions of

Attendees gather at the Women’s Project opening reception. Photo credit: Randy Belice

men are not the same factors that most commonly contribute to the wrongful convictions of women,” Daniel said.

Brown added that, “Women have a habit of getting complacent. They are afraid of rejection. So when they get that first note of rejection, it’s like they just shut down and won’t continue to fight for their freedom, and they end up staying in prison.”

Tabitha Pollock is not the orator Brown is. She occasionally stutters and pauses from time to time, as if to collect her thoughts. But she most definitely is not complacent.

Go back 17 years to Oct. 10, 1995. Pollock was sleeping when her live-in boyfriend, Scott English, killed Pollock’s 3-year-old daughter Jami Sue at their home in Kewanee, Ill. Police investigations revealed that English had been abusing Jami Sue while Pollock was asleep for at least weeks, maybe even months. Coroners determined the cause of Jami Sue’s death to be blunt force trauma and asphyxiation, indicating that the abuse was simply too much for the 3-year-old’s body to handle.

Throughout the murder investigation, Pollock fully cooperated. She told investigators about injuries to her children that she had noticed in the preceding weeks, saying that both the boyfriend and the children had told her the injuries were due to accidents.

These statements were used against her in court.

“They charged me with the murder of my daughter,” Pollock said in a pained voice. “[It was] based on the theory that I should have known that my daughter was being abused.”

A year after the murder, based on that “should-have-known” theory, Pollock was convicted of first-degree murder and aggravated battery. She was sentenced to 36 years in prison. Her appeal was shot down in 1999 by the Illinois Appellate Court, again on the grounds of “should-have-known,” despite the trial judge commenting that Pollock “did not commit the act of killing, nor did she intend to kill the child, nor was she present in the room when her boyfriend killed the child.”

Desperate, Pollock wrote to the CWC, who decided to review and investigate the case. In 2002, the Illinois Supreme Court unanimously reversed Tabitha’s conviction, holding that a defendant cannot be convicted on an accountability theory based on what he or she “should have known.”

“I wrote to Northwestern in ’99, and they took on my case because I knew I didn’t belong in prison. I didn’t do anything,” Pollock said. “[In winning my case,] Northwestern has gotten that law changed for everyone so that no one else can be charged under ‘should have known.’”

During the case, the CWC started to realize that gender played a seemingly large role in Pollock’s conviction, in that it’s more likely that a woman would be held responsible under the “should-have-known” theory than a man.

Once is chance, according to the saying, while twice is a coincidence and three times makes a pattern. Pollock’s case may have been an isolated incident, but the Women’s Project hopes to identify patterns.

In a follow-up email, Daniel said: “Women make up the majority of caregivers of children, so if something suspicious or unexplained happens to a child for which there is only circumstantial medical evidence of a crime (like SBS), then a woman may be more vulnerable to prosecution simply because she was there.”

Prosecutorial Misconduct

Gloria Goodwin-Killian, a victim of prosecutorial misconduct, was in the wrong place at the wrong time – and the Women’s Project sees room for research into the possibility that women, for example, could be more easily coerced by investigators and therefore become victims of misconduct.

Goodwin-Killian was a law student at the University of California when she was arrested in 1981 for a robbery and murder in Sacramento. The statute for murder in California allows for the death penalty, but the state had no solid evidence against Goodwin-Killian. In fact, the prosecutor on the case knew who actually committed the crime.

But the DA, who was later charged with misconduct, cut a deal with the actual perpetrator of the crime, exchanging a sentence reduction for false testimony and other undisclosed services. The DA spent months creating a case to implicate an unsuspecting Goodwin-Killian, a woman with limited resources to defend herself.

At the trial, Goodwin-Killian was blindsided by the mountain of false evidence against her. She was summarily convicted and sent to prison to await execution.

“The difference for women is often that women’s cases are the hardest cases to fight,” Goodwin-Killian said. “Luckily, I had some help.”

That help came in the form of an inmate visitor/advocate named Joyce Ride, the mother of America’s first female astronaut, Sally Ride. Over time, Ride became convinced that Goodwin-Killian was the victim of false testimony and prosecutorial misconduct. Ride financed the appeal and the investigation, incurring personal charges of almost $100,000, and an appellate court in San Francisco finally reversed Goodwin-Killian’s conviction in 1998.

The district attorney was eventually brought up on charges. But for Goodwin-Killian, it wasn’t enough.

“Seventeen and a half years later, after ruining my career, my life, forcing me to spend all my money fighting to stay alive,” she said, “the consequences of wrongful convictions can go on forever and ever and ever.”

Those at the Women’s Project understand there’s more healing to be done even after a wrongfully convicted woman is exonerated.

“The women who we know who have been exonerated are very interested in the issues of what kind of supports they need following their exoneration, to deal with the trauma that they’ve experienced,” said Judy Royal, the other co-director of the Women’s Project.

“Everyone who’s been wrongfully convicted and wrongfully imprisoned is traumatized. It’s obviously a horrible experience. But it just seems like for women, it seems to be even more difficult. There’s sometimes more to deal with emotionally, and that complicates things.”

Outdated Medical Evidence

Audrey Edmunds has dealt with such post-exoneration trauma. But she has persevered. She doesn’t just tell her story – she tells it with pride, standing tall and delivering her words in concise and powerful bites.

Pregnant with her third child in 1996, Edmunds kept herself busy by babysitting neighborhood children in her Waunakee, Wis. home. When an infant in her care started to make funny noises, Edmunds got concerned. The child went limp when Edmunds picked her up, spewing formula from her nose and mouth. Fearing that the infant was choking, Edmunds ran to her neighbor’s house, pleading for help.

Paramedics were called and the infant was rushed to a hospital. Despite the best efforts of the doctors, the child died that evening. During the examination initially performed when the infant was brought to the hospital, physicians found classic Shaken Baby Syndrome symptoms.

Coined in 1972, the term Shaken Baby Syndrome describes children, typically under the age of three, who are severely injured or even killed by violent shaking.

Victims of Shaken Baby Syndrome sometimes show no visible signs of harm, but have severe internal injuries due to undeveloped brains and neck muscles. According to the original 1972 theory, the victim would become unresponsive immediately following the shaking, making it obvious that the guilty person was the last person with the child. This was still the view held by most medical experts when Edmunds burst out her door, screaming, clutching an unresponsive infant.

Edmunds was immediately presumed guilty despite a mountain of evidence pointing to the contrary. The child had only come into Edmunds’s care an hour before the child’s body started to shut down. Doctors found much older hemorrhages inside the child’s brain. Nobody who ever knew Edmunds would have even imagined she’d be capable of abusing a child.

As one neighbor put it, “I never, ever even considered she might have done it.”

None of that mattered. During her trial, the prosecutor argued that Edmunds’ friends and supporters clearly “didn’t know the real her” and that the stress of being pregnant contributed to her presumed crime. But the medical testimony – based on outdated views from 1972 – was the most important piece of evidence. Due to the fact that she was the last person to be responsible for the infant before death, Edmunds was convicted of first degree murder and sentenced to life in prison.

Edmunds knew that new medical evidence would be essential to proving her innocence and securing her release. She just hoped that her case wouldn’t slip through the cracks and get lost.

“I was very, very fortunate to come into contact with the innocence project at UW-Madison, who picked up my case,” Edmunds said. “They came to me with evidence from a neurologist at UW-Madison, saying they knew I was wrongfully convicted. They told me that yes, there was definitely enough medical evidence to get me a new trial.”

By the time Edmunds finally secured a new trial in 2008, the mainstream medical opinion with regards to Shaken Baby Syndrome had shifted. There was new doubt as to whether shaking could have caused the brain injuries that the caused the death of the child in Edmunds’s care. After 12 years in prison, Edmunds’s conviction was reversed and the charges were dismissed.

If the Women’s Project is successful, wrongfully convicted women may feel more comfortable speaking out instead of relying on programs to find them.

“I went into prison two days after my youngest daughter’s first birthday,” Edmunds said, recalling eight years spent in a maximum security prison and four in a minimum security prison. “Prison was a culture shock; it was something I never got used to.

But now, she must acclimate to freedom.

“It was great this morning to take a shower and determine what time I wanted to shower, how hot or cold I wanted the shower and how long I wanted to be in that shower. It was wonderful to be in rush hour traffic, to get to a stop sign and say, ‘Do I want to go left or right?’ All of that is taken away in prison. Being free is wonderful.”

U.S. Senate Subcommittee Hears Testimony on School-to-Prison Pipeline

Edward Ward, Youth Leader, Blocks Together
Edward Ward, Youth Leader, Blocks Together

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Twenty-year-old Edward Ward, a sophomore on the honor roll at DePaul University, tried to describe to U.S. Sens. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Al Franken (D-Minn.), the only senators left in the room by the time he spoke on Capitol Hill Wednesday, what it was like to grow up in his neighborhood on the west side of Chicago.

“When I was 18, I witnessed a complete stranger's killing mere feet from me in a neighborhood restaurant," Ward said before the Senate subcommittee. "I was stopped by the police a few years ago. I saw them train their guns on me until I could show them the item in my hand was only a cell phone.”

Things didn’t get much better at high school, Ward said. “My school environment was very tense. The halls were full of security officers whose sole purpose seemed to serve detention. I felt constantly on alert – afraid to make the smallest mistake. I felt I couldn't go to them for general security issues because first I would be interrogated.”

schoolppipe_seriesMore than 400 people crammed into hearing rooms in two separate U.S. Senate office buildings to hear lawmakers, educators, federal and court officials, and Ward testify about how punitive disciplinary measures at schools were funneling children into the criminal justice system, often for minor offenses like truancy or dress code violations, and at much higher rates if they were minorities.

This was the first-ever Congressional hearing on the subject, according to Dignity in Schools, a coalition of parents, educators and students advocating for the end of zero-tolerance policies in schools. Ward, who also works as a community organizer, is a member of the coalition.

Although many of his classmates wanted to succeed academically, they were hobbled by financial struggles at home and the responsibility of caring for siblings, Ward said. A classmate was suspended for being late to school, he said, even though she was tardy because she couldn’t leave her little brother alone at home until her parents returned from work.

There were lots of instances where his classmates were suspended or expelled for minor offenses that should have merited “a stern warning or a reminder,” Ward said. When they were suspended, they often disappeared for days -- weeks if they were kicked out of school, he said.

[module align="right" width="half" type="aside"] 

Learn more about school discipline reform trends at the Juvenile Justice Resource Hub HERE.


“We have a discipline crisis in this country that must be ended,” said Judith Browne Dianis, co-director of the civil rights group The Advancement Projectand another witness at the hearing.

Judith Browne Dianis, Co-Director, Advancement Project
Judith Browne Dianis, Co-Director, Advancement Project

“Police are arresting youth for things like talking back. That’s now ‘disorderly conduct.’ Writing on desks is now vandalism.”

At the same time, racial disproportionality in school discipline can be such that, within the same school district, a five-year-old African-American girl who set off a fire alarm was suspended for five days, while a white ninth-grader who committed the same offense was suspended for just one day, testified Deborah Delisle, the assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education at the U.S. Department of Education.

Held by the Senate Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights, the hearing drew so much public interest that it was shifted to a 260-seat room, the largest available, in the Hart Senate building.

Other witnesses at the hearing included U.S. Reps. Bobby Scott (D-Va.) and Danny Davis (D-Ill.); Melodee Hanes, the acting administrator of the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention; Mike DeWine, the attorney general for Ohio; and Judge Steven Teske, chief judge at the Clayton County juvenile court in Georgia. (Judge Teske is a frequent op-ed contributor to the JJIE.)

By the time the hearing was to start, the first room was full. A mass of young people, many wearing Dignity in Schools t-shirts, was still lined up in the hallway outside, waiting to get in. Capitol Hill staffers soon escorted them three floors up in an adjacent building to a 150-seat “overflow room” equipped with a live video feed.

But that room soon ran out of seats too.

OJJDP’s Hanes told the senators that millions of children were suspended or expelled every year for minor infractions like truancy, classroom disruption or dress code violations. Fifteen percent were suspended 11 or more times, she said, and those were the kids who were more likely minorities and who were likely to end up in the juvenile justice system.

“We have learned that the minute a child sets foot in the juvenile justice system, their chances of becoming an adult offender go up 50 percent,” Hanes said. “As soon as they enter the juvenile justice system, their chances of completing their education, of getting a job, their chances of life, diminish significantly.”

The costs to taxpayers are significant as well, Hanes pointed out: It cost $10,000 a year to educate a child, and $87,000 a year to lock a child up.

“Research has clearly indicated that children exposed to violence in the home or in school or in the community, those children suffer trauma. The evidence is conclusive that those children don’t do as well,” Hanes said.

Ward said his classmates' experience bore that out. “A lot of youth from where I come from, they face huge struggles, huge difficulties,” Ward said. “We have to take into account the situations students face outside school to understand their actions when they’re in school.”

Any discussions of solutions had to include young people themselves, several witnesses said. “We can’t arrest our way out of this issue,” Dianis of the Advancement Project said. “Young people have to be part of this conversation.”

Witnesses on the third panel listen as Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine testifies.
Witnesses on the third panel listen as Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine testifies.

Solutions included developing greater consensus among experts about best practices, greater collaboration on research and data between federal agencies and better guidance for school districts and states on practices that maintain students’ rights. Other solutions proposed were greater public education on the necessity for appropriate responses to delinquent behavior, more training for police officers in crisis intervention and greater awareness on the part of the public and law enforcement on how to handle those from diverse social, medical and economic backgrounds.

“We’re basically using our criminal justice system as a substitute for a public health system and an education system,” Franken said during the hearing. “This is a bipartisan issue. There is no question about that.”

Senate hearing photos courtesy of U.S. Senator Dick Durbin. Photo by Kaukab Jhumra Smith.

Healing Words: Creative Writing Programs as Therapy for Kids in Detention

Coosa Valley Youth Detention Classroom. Photo by Ryan Schill.

ANNISTON, Ala. -- Mercy Pilkington’s classroom, at first glance, seems like any other in the nation’s public school system. Novels penned by John Steinbeck and Harper Lee are stacked over a U-shaped row of cubicles. The walls are lined with laminated posters; crayon-colored cutouts of chubby red robins and lime-green pigs are pasted on the room’s sole window.

Pilkington, 39, has taught for 11 years. For the last six, she’s been an English instructor at Coosa Valley Youth Services (CVYS), a facility for juvenile offenders in this northeast Alabama city tucked in the foothills of the Appalachians. After years of distress from discarding her students’ writing after they left the facility, Pilkington decided to give her students -- both former and current -- the ability to share their writing with the world at large through a blog called “Writers on the Inside.”

The blog gives students access to their essays, poetry and stories long after they leave CVYS, Pilkington said. “When you’re not here, you can call up this website and there’s the story that you wrote,” she tells her students.

On this day, Pilkington’s classroom is primarily an audience of young boys, all clad in neon-orange jumpers, a reminder that this is no ordinary school. She carries a chemical restraint canister at her hip, and a personal alarm is tethered to her keychain. Still, through six years at CVYS, she said she’s never had to use the chemical restraint, and used the alarm only once -- when one of her students experienced a seizure in class.

Although Pilkington has worked with several young people that came from “good homes,” the majority of her students have extensive histories of abuse and neglect, she said.

“If you live in a home where your stepfather rapes you,” she said, “or you live in a house where you come home everyday wondering if your mom is there -- let alone if she’s sober -- it’s not going to turn out well.”

She added: “People need to understand society created these kids. We turn them into the things they end up being.”

“There Are A Lot of Us Interested In What They Have To Say”

Pilkington’s program is not the only one of its kind in the United States. Many programs

Coosa Valley Youth Detention library. Photo by Ryan Schill.

incorporating elements of creative writing have been set up across the nation’s juvenile halls and treatment facilities, with the National Endowment for the Arts recognizing creative writing workshops like Massachusetts’ Actors’ Shakespeare Project and the Los Angeles-based InsideOUT Writers. Proponents of such programs believe not only can creative writing play a huge role in the rehabilitation of young offenders; they additionally serve as opportunities to instill both a sense of empowerment and consistency to a juvenile population frequently considered downtrodden and unstable.

David Inocencio, co-founder and director of The Beat Within, a San Francisco-based magazine that features essays and stories written by juvenile detainees, says creative writing can definitely be a therapeutic process for young people in the nation’s juvenile justice system.

“You’re going to get a young person that’s carrying a lot of baggage to put the baggage in thoughts on paper,” he said. “They’re going to get this amazingly thoughtful writing that speaks to a young person wanting to see a better life for him or herself.”

Inocencio started publishing the magazine in 1996. For the last 17 years, he’s held writing workshops inside juvenile halls across California. Currently, The Beat Within personnel serve more than 5,000 young people in California, and conduct multiple workshops across the nation, including programs in Arizona, Texas and Washington, D.C.

Making writing a habit for young people, Inocencio stated, is a tremendous platform for young people to express themselves and air their concerns about the environments they inhabit.

“We encourage the young people to keep on writing no matter where they go,” he said. “Whether it’s penitentiary, rehab, a group home or back into their communities -- that they keep writing to tell their story.”

Inocencio said writing programs like The Beat Within allow a population without a voice to speak up. The effects, he believes, also prove positive for adults within the juvenile justice field, as it gives attorneys, service workers and judges greater insight into the lives of young offenders.

“We’re able to get a window in the world of this young person,” he said. “In the end, when you read the publication, reading what these young people have to say through the workshops, you’re seeing what’s broken.”

He also believes writing workshops allow young people to develop trust for adults. “There are a lot of us interested in what they have to say,” he said.

The benefits of implementing creative writing programs in juvenile detention facilities are apparent, Inocencio said. “Seeing your writing, knowing that it’s going nationwide and read by folks in Washington, D.C., Alabama, Hawaii -- it empowers a young person.”

Creative writing not only changes a young person’s conceptualization of self, but also alters his or her life goals, Inocencio believes.

“It also helps the young writer realize that there’s more to his or her life than what got him or her in the system in the first place,” he said. “I don’t have to stay in the path of destruction [and I] do have the tools to get a high school diploma, or go on to higher education. Or that I am bigger than the label that has been placed on me.”

“I’ve Had Some Really Surprising Stories”

Coosa Valley Youth Detention classroom. Photo by Ryan Schill.

Pilkington says many of her students ask her if their blog entries have received any additional comments from website visitors. “They’re just blown away that people want to read it,” she said.

The Writers on the Inside entries consist primarily of in-class assignments, which, once redacted, are uploaded to the blog. “The students can’t use people’s names or their hometown,” she said. Additional safeguards ensure blog visitors cannot contact students, and students are not allowed to respond to comments posted on their entries. One of Pilkington’s greatest concerns is that individuals involved in some of her students’ charges may leave hateful or intimidating messages on the blog. She remedies this by setting the blog so all comments have to be pre-approved by her before being visible to visitors to the site.

“Almost everything that’s been put up there has been free writing,” she notes. “If you’ve got something in mind you want to write,” she frequently tells her students, “you’re more than welcome to.”

She said many times, her students just want someone to know what’s happened to them -- to have someone believe their accounts.

“It’s like they have this urge to get out and say, ‘Hey, this is what happened to me,’” she said. “I’ve had some really surprising stories.”

In one essay, titled “This is My Life,” one of Pilkington’s students reflects upon a long history of abuse suffered at the hands of her parents.

“When I hear somebody talking about how bad their life is just because they have a ‘fight’ with their parents, I get really mad.

“My real dad tried to kill me and now I’ll always have that big ugly scar on my stomach to remember it by. By the time I was seven my mom was a stripper/prostitute; she would do anything in order to get money for her drug addiction. Even if that meant selling her own daughter to grown men for support of it.”

Another essayist writes:

 “I have had a terrible life. My biological dad was in jail when my biological mother died, but he had two choices. 1. Find somebody to take care of me or 2. Put me in Foster Care.

“He decided to pick neither. Instead he tried to sell me and my other brother. My brother had some mental issues. He tried to kill me twice. Each time he had tried to drown me.”

Pilkington said although many of her students write about their own experiences, an equal number would prefer writing about more fantastical subjects. “I’ve gotten just as many that will not write about their personal life,” she said. “They want to write fiction short-stories.”

One of her students wrote of a fictitious inmate receiving a lethal injection, while others wrote about high school baseball stardom, earning their driver’s licenses and going fishing with explosives. The theme of guilt and punishment is common, even when the young writers dwell upon made-up worlds.

“As he left the scene of the crime, Victor was bawling,” begins one short story, titled “The Cry of Goodbye,” by a resident named J.F.

“He couldn’t believe his father had murdered that young boy.

“Victor had paid for the fine and the cars, but he new he could never pay for the little boy’s life. Victor had went to the little boy’s house so he could apologize to the little boy’s parents. The little boy’s parents were very happy that he had apologized.”

If You Like To Write, Or You’ve Got Something To Say, You Do It

Pilkington said she was initially surprised the CVYS administration wanted to start the program -- an idea she said was green-lit following an informal parking lot conversation.

“There are great facilities out there; there are some horrible facilities out there,“ she said. “And this happens to be one of the good ones that really cares a lot about what happens to kids.”

Pilkington said, gauging from their reactions to comments posted on her blog, her

Mercy Pilkington. Photo by Ryan Schill.

students believe they have something “worth saying” and something “that people want to know about.” During classes, she said she’s shown her students how to set up a blog, and demonstrated how she can update the site through smart phones and other mobile devices.

“If you like to write, or you’ve got something to say, you do it,” she said. “You don’t worry about what other people think about it or if just two people read it today. It’s your site.”

At the facility, Pilkington said some of her students have to write their essays using felt tip markers.

“I’m a writer myself, and I can’t imagine having to write my story on notebook paper with a magic marker,” she said.

Her students’ desire to write, even when having to resort to unconventional implements, demonstrates an emotional need to get their stories out, she believes. In some instances, Pilkington said, her students’ work is barely legible.

“We go through every single word and fix it to make it readable,” she said. “We sit there, and word for word, put a comma here, capitalize this.”

Pilkington said her intent with the blog is multifaceted, but at the end of the day, she just wants visitors to realize many of her pupils have a knack for the written word.

“I want people to read it,” she said, “and go, ‘Wow, the 15-year-old burglary suspect actually can write a decent story.’”