The first Georgia After School and Youth Development Conference is taking place in Athens, Ga. January 9 – 11. The event was organized by GUIDE, Gwinnet United in Drug Education, Inc., and supported by the state’s Department of Human Services, the Governor’s Office for Children and Families, and the Department of Education. I was fortunate to be able to attend part of the conference on Thursday, and to sit down with a few of the presenters.
The focus of the conference, embodied in the theme “Together towards Tomorrow,” is a set of unified standards for after school and summer programs that will enable the government, providers, and grant makers to make decisions based on the latest evidence about what really works. Collaboratively developed by several government and nonprofit agencies over nearly a year, the standards are comprised of eight Quality Elements:
- Programming and Activities
- Linkages with the School Day
- Health, Nutrition and Physical Fitness
- Environment and Climate
- Relationships, Culture and Diversity
- Staffing and Professional Development
- Organizational Practices
- Evaluation and Outcomes
Each of these elements are viewed as important in developing programs that are engaging, mesh with and support school activities, develop skills outside the scope of the school curriculum and that rely on evidence-based practices and measurable outcomes of targeted traits.
Thursday morning Judge Steven Teske (a frequent contributor to JJIE) spoke to the gathering about the innovative approach Clayton County has taken to reduce the number of kids declared delinquent. A big part of his talk focused on the negative outcomes of youth involvement with police and courts. The deeper into the system the kid goes, from handcuffing to incarceration, the odds of dropping out of school and participating in future crimes goes up.
Another speaker I was able to sit down with was Jill Riemer, Executive Director of the Georgia Afterschool Investment Council. GAIC is a nonprofit whose mission is to increase the quality and availability of after school programs around the state. They serve as a resource for programs of all types, and provide networking, training, curriculum development, and other assistance.
GAIC played a role in the creation of the state wide standards and Jill was excited to see the level of energy that was palpable among attendees. There are thousands of programs around the state and it is difficult to track what they do and how effective they are. The common standards are a huge step towards increasing the effectiveness of programs and allowing those with the mission of supporting such programs a way to decide where and how to invest their resources.
Now the concern for kids that motivates so many of those who attended the conference will be augmented by tools that will help them select what really works.
I was sitting with my brother in law watching television a few nights ago. It was late and we had been busy all day with Christmas stuff. I had made some hot apple cider with a little Irish whiskey, and we sipped it as we watched an old movie. A long commercial came on advertising the benefits of a national chain of cancer treatment centers. I remarked on how strange it seems to me that something like medical care is treated like a commodity, to the point of needing a slick ad campaign.
Don’t get me wrong. I am not a communist, socialist or even an anti-capitalist. But I am also puzzled by the way that certain societal problems are addressed economically. It seems reasonable to me that some needs of society might not fit a profit driven model of development.
This was driven home to me a few days ago when I learned that a large grant the Georgia Conflict Center has been awaiting was not awarded. We had planned on using the money to fund a restorative justice program with the Athens Clarke County juvenile court. Initially, the program was to be targeted at kids from low income neighborhoods, and would team them with community volunteers in an effort to support the young people’s reintegration into the community.
The hard part of establishing a restorative system is making connections and getting agreements from the various stakeholder groups. In our case this includes the court, the Department of Juvenile Justice, the police, and several other players. Once these connections are in place, any number of approaches will work to bring together offenders, victims and community members.
In our case all of these facets are in place. We only need money to train facilitators and cover our expenses. None of the governmental entities we are engaged with have any money to spare, so we have been seeking grant funding.
Consider that we are looking for this funding even though restorative justice approaches have been demonstrated to work more effectively at reducing youth involvement in crime as well as generating more satisfactory results for victims. Numerous studies have reached these conclusions, and to top it off, community based restorative approaches are typically more cost effective than traditional criminal justice strategies like incarceration, fines and probation.
Why is it that a more effective way of doing this work has to go begging for money? In the long run, there is no overall monetary gain to be had by society at large when it comes to dealing with crime. We can only hope to address individual crimes and societal conditions in an effort to minimize damage and reduce future crime. This means that a capital model doesn’t work very well.
This isn’t unique to my work. It applies to a lot of work done by non profit organizations. Even though the work of these groups is often lauded, it is not well supported financially. The upshot of this is that groups end up spending more time on fundraising and grant writing than on doing the work that we count on them to do.
This will be the case with me as I commence the new year by researching and writing grant proposals and looking for ways to monetize more of our services. I think there has to be a better way to fund this work, and I will be looking for it this year. All suggestions are welcome!
Today, if I can manage to get myself together, I will drive to Kennesaw State University and receive a master’s degree in conflict management.
Yesterday, I hurried to work at the Georgia Conflict Center, scrambling as usual to get my final plans in place for the day’s work. I spent nearly two hours at the high school where my colleague Gwen O’Looney and I have been meeting with students this semester. Only three students were there, but we had a great discussion about the effects of anger and its impact on our ability to communicate.
Later that day, I was at the local diversion center, talking with 12 residents about the different styles we tend to adopt when we are in conflict. The more styles we can use the more adaptable we are to the varied situations that arise in our lives. These guys understand the need to communicate, and many are interested in learning more.
Last Monday, we met a counselor at another school and talked about how to get kids to intervene when they see bullying. Later, I talked with two folks who help people with disabilities meet members of the community who will help them navigate the difficulties they face. We discussed how communications training might be of benefit.
Conflict, which I have been studying for 16 months, is often related to communication. And communication, especially dialogue, is collaborative in nature. The ability to effectively communicate is an example of working together to achieve a mutual result: understanding. That concept was first planted in my mind more than 20 years ago by Professor Art Williams, who taught college classes at the prison where I lived in Atlanta.
Art (not incidentally funded by the Pell Grant) was one of a long line of people who have helped me get to where I am today. Family, friends, counselors, teachers, employers, and many others have given of themselves, and continue to do so daily. I have been transformed from an angry and hopeless teen into a man who is pursuing work that is not only personally meaningful, but also has the potential to contribute to many others.
This transformation has been supported by my community, none of whom deny the impact of my crime so many years ago. The acts that led me to prison are rightly condemned, and I have done my best to accept responsibility for them. I have not been condemned; instead I have been restored.
The same is possible for the other kids involved in the criminal justice system today. These kids are the reason JJIE exists. They are the reason I write. Restorative justice, even though it isn’t easy, is a real possibility.
“All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing,” is perhaps the most often quoted statement of Edmund Burke, an Irish philosopher and politician. In fact, the origin of the quote is unknown, and no definitive source can directly attribute it to Burke. Nevertheless, it matches the spirit of much of his writing. In some versions of the quote “few” is placed before men. I like to think that this version is true, that just a few people standing up for what is right can make a difference. But in many cases even a “few” fail to step forward.
I am not sure what particular situation Burke was referring to, but the quote reminds me of something called the bystander effect. This phenomenon is well known to researchers, and many dramatic cases have been documented since it was first identified. The most famous, perhaps, is the case of Catherine "Kitty" Genovese. In 1964, returning from work in the early morning hours, she was attacked and stabbed. For about 20 minutes she yelled for help, but none of the dozens of people who heard her called the police until it was too late.
In kids, this phenomenon is seen in a less dramatic fashion and is often associated with bullying. Most people today know something about bullying. Programs, videos and zero–tolerance policies abound. Experts view bullies in different ways. Some see them as sociopaths, others as victims of dysfunctional families. There is also no common agreement about what constitutes bullying.
Kids who are the victims of bullying are being examined as well. They are often different in some way than the majority of kids. They may be smaller, less assertive, less accepted, or from another culture for instance. Any kid can be a victim of bullying, but some kids tend to get picked on more than others.
It is fine to study the phenomenon from these vantage points, but for my money, the best interventions will come from other kids who witness bullying behavior. Most bullying behavior is done in the presence of other youth, and it is they, not adults, who will be in a position to stand up for what is right.
Many excellent resources exist for this kind of work. Here is a list of strategies from one source, the Active Bystander Program at MIT:
- Name the offense
- Point to “the elephant in the room”
- Interrupt the behavior
- Help calm strong feelings
- Call for help
- Report the incident
Even if the psychology behind the bystander effect is complex, the solutions are not. The best way to overcome it is with training that includes discussion, support and most of all, practice. If you are involved in the lives of kids, check out some of the resources on training active bystanders. You may end up doing a lot of good. You may help a kid to become one of Burke’s “few.”
Early 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.
On Monday I spoke via Skype with a group of students enrolled at Georgetown University. Some friends of mine teach a class on social justice and conflict studies. Twice I have joined the class to discuss my own experiences with the criminal justice system, restorative justice, my current work, and any other insightful (and difficult) questions they come up with.
Several wondered how prison could be changed to address issues of safety and violence, and whether or not restorative responses still allowed for incarceration. These are interesting topics to me, and I am able to talk about them with ease, but a few questions left me pondering the limits of criminal justice reform. These were questions that addressed what I think of as structural issues.
For instance, why does the average prisoner have an elementary school reading level? Is he in prison because of that, or are people with that level of education more likely to be incarcerated? Why are African Americans disproportionately incarcerated? It is not because they are more likely to commit crimes. Even when the circumstances of a given crime and background are accounted for, they are more likely to be sent to prison and to receive longer sentences. The same is true for Latinos, poor people, Native Americans, and other traditionally disadvantaged and marginalized groups.
One of the greatest writers in the field of conflict studies, Johan Galtung, introduced the concept of structural violence in a 1969 article for the Journal of Peace Research. For Galtung, structural violence is an “avoidable impairment of human needs.” This definition includes a lot of “isms” including racism, classism, sexism, and others. It doesn't take a lot of investigation to see how these phenomena can be connected to the current system of justice.
Even if we were somehow able to create the perfect prison, with programs that are effective, safe living conditions, supports for maintaining family connection, and relevant educational classes, it still would not address the issues that lead to incarceration in the first place.
I don’t wish to ignore personal responsibility, but I also recognize that environment and other factors outside of the individuals control have an impact on their perception of choices and ability to transcend hardships. Consider a November 4th article in the New York Times entitled "After the Violence, The Rest of Their Lives".
The article tells the story of The Chicago Project, led by Northwestern University psychiatry and behavioral sciences professor Linda A. Teplin, a study of 1,800 youth who entered the juvenile justice system at an early age. The youth, interviewed between 1995 and 1998, have been tracked ever since.
Consider a few statistics from the study. Over 80 percent of the juveniles who enter the system early are gang members, 70 percent of the males have used a firearm (starting at an average age of 14), 20 percent of the participants on a given day are incarcerated, and 71 percent of the men and 59 percent of the women are unemployed. The youth surveyed in the study die, usually violently, at a rate three to five times as high as comparable residents of the county.
All of these statistics do not flow from personal choice, and to ignore that fact is to hide from reality. Do some individuals rise above the circumstances? Of course, but these exceptions to the rule, while admirable, do not excuse the rest of us from considering the realities of stark contrasts in equality, opportunity, and risk that exist between most Americans and those that live in the worst areas of the nation. Until these structural issues are fully faced and dealt with we will always have injustice, no matter how much we “improve” the criminal justice system.
People don’t smoke in school anymore – at least they aren’t supposed to. My office is near an open campus high school, and I see a kid sneaking a cigarette from time to time. Nobody chews tobacco either, or (presumably) has a knife in their pocket. At my high school in south Georgia some kids had gun racks in their trucks, and they had real guns in them. One thing we lacked, unlike today, was a police presence in the school. Another was an alternative school.
I am not saying things were better then. It is good that we have less smoking, and after so much highly publicized school violence I understand the zero tolerance policies that have been adopted regarding weapons. I even understand having police officers in the school, and I am sure they are doing the job they have been asked to do. What I don’t like is criminalization of behavior that at one time would have been seen simply as misconduct.
Part of the response to this has been wider adoption of alternative schools across the country. The idea of an alternative school seems logical. Kids are provided with a lower student to teacher ratio, more self-paced study, and a curricula and teaching methods that addresses their deficits. In a lot of places though, this idea is not fully realized. Instead the schools, sometimes filled with the best teachers, become dumping grounds for kids with problems.
The kids with the most needs, instead of being helped at their home schools, are gathered together, and the sheer volume of needs overwhelm the staff and their limited resources. It is, to me at least, reminiscent of a prison environment, and many of the same dynamics begin to play out. Taxed administrations simultaneously ignore many “lesser” disruptions of order, while excessively punishing others. To the students it seems like capriciousness, but it is really a symptom of a system pushed beyond its ability to respond.
Recently, a local school district here in Georgia took this paradigm to the next logical step. Officials in Bibb County, as reported by Georgia Public Broadcasting, opened an alternative school for elementary aged children.
The director of alternative education, Alisha Allen–Carter, explains how the children are controlled: "They enter and exit through one door, there is one rest room. Lunches and breakfasts are brought to the classroom – they don’t go to the cafeteria – giving students less physical space to act out, lessening the stimuli." According to Allen–Carter, teachers demanded the school.
This sounds to my ears like a prison. Combine this kind of setting with the presence of police officers, criminalization of misbehavior, and the already existent school-to-prison pipeline and I have a hard time seeing what good can come from such an experiment.
University of Georgia Professor Cynthia Vail also has reservations, and her’s carry more weight. Vail, of the Department of Communication Sciences and Special Education, points out that these types of schools don’t fall within accepted “best practices” for dealing with students who have behavior problems.
"There are some models out there for high school where we can get some alternative kinds of curricula going, and some more supports that might be needed for safety reasons," Vail said. "But specifically at the elementary school, it seems very odd to have an alternative school for kids with social/behavioral problems."
This doesn’t mean the needs of the teachers shouldn’t be addressed, but that other ways can be found to deal with disruptive students. Teachers need the training and resources to perform that task, and adequate support in their own schools. With these the teachers can do their jobs and the kids can stay in a mainstream school. As Vail points out, only in such a school can they learn more acceptable behaviors, through modeling other students. We shouldn’t “put them away” merely for comfort or convenience. They deserve better, and we can give it to them.
Frequently writing and speaking about youth justice issues, especially restorative justice, has at times seemingly put me at odds with those who advocate for victims’ rights. Earlier this year I was in Washington, D.C., and met with members of a well-known group that lobbies for juvenile justice reform. They have opposed juvenile life without parole, harsh sentences, and adult transfer, while advocating for community based approaches and rehabilitation efforts to youth who have committed crimes.
As we were discussing my own interest in restorative justice, one of them expressed to me his doubts that those working for victims’ rights could ever work together with those seeking reform of the justice system. I was surprised, since one of the foundations of restorative justice is supposed to be that it is victim centered, and that harm to the victim is what must be addressed first in any attempt to respond to crime.
Last week my column on the resentencing of juveniles who had received life without parole drew a comment from the National Organization of Victims of Juvenile Lifers (NOVJL). The commenter had a legal argument in opposition to my own view, but more striking, at least to me, was the sentence that asked how I am going to, “support, inform, and not re-traumatize the devastated victims’ families left behind in these horrible crimes.”
I continue to reflect on that comment, and to ponder indeed how I am going to accomplish these goals. In moments of doubt I wonder if they are indeed incompatible. The way in which policies are changed is often adversarial, and such positioning can lend itself to demonization, even the demonization of victims of crime. This goes beyond civility, as important as it may be, to what values we as a society want to embody. I want to help create a society that cares for the needs of everyone affected by crime, most importantly of all the victims and their loved ones. If those needs are ignored then justice is not done.
Many members of NOVJL are in support of Restorative Justice, and their website points out many areas of policy where advocates of both juvenile offenders and victims can come together in agreement. Jennifer Bishop, the leader of the group, in an interview with Youth Radio, said that restorative justice isn’t applicable in cases of murder, since the victim cannot be restored, but also went on to say, “There’s another term -- transformative justice -- that seeks to transform the experience for both offender and victim. I’m a strong supporter of that.” This approach is about finding ways to transform what has happened, and is not dependent on the offender’s release.
I am heartened by these signs that there is indeed some common ground between those who support victims and those seeking juvenile justice reform. I intend to keep these considerations in mind in my own attempts to bring restorative justice to my community, and to encourage others to do the same.
The recent decision (reported here by the L.A. Times) by the U.S. Supreme Court to ban mandatory juvenile life without parole has been rightly celebrated as a victory by activists and others interested in progressive policies. The ruling has left many scratching their heads in its wake though, mostly because the court ruled the sentences unconstitutional, but did not directly assign a process for revisiting the cases, many of which are decades old.
A few opponents to the ruling are even contending that it cannot be applied retroactively. Youth Radio interviewed Jennifer Bishop, the President of the National Organization of Victims of Juvenile Lifers. Ms. Bishop, who has previously written for JJIE, is a victims’ rights advocate whose group focuses on those most affected by juvenile murderers: families. The group’s website, teenkillers.org, offers links to analyses of the court’s decision that argue for letting current sentences stand, a very narrow interpretation of the ruling.
In Michigan, second only to Pennsylvania in the number of affected prisoners, the court of Appeals is hearing a case that, “may shape the fate of 368 prisoners serving mandatory life sentences…” committed as juveniles. Jonathan Oosting, writing for MLive, details the difficulties facing the court. These same difficulties will be faced in jurisdictions around the country. Some states will use legislation to move into compliance, as Reuters explained in a September article on California’s new law covering relevant cases.
Others, at least for a time, will depend on courts to solve the problem. This will have its own difficulties, since in many ways this is asking the court to create law. The presiding appeals court judge in Michigan, Michael J. Talbot, points out that it is unclear whether or not the Supreme Court’s decision was substantive or, “merely a procedural issue.” If it is substantive, it affects all cases. If not, then the ruling would only apply to the cases before the court and to future cases. Talbot, speaking about the decision, said, “If Kagan had the votes, she would have said it was substantive. But it's not clear because she didn't."
This confusion is unfortunate, and it means that advocates, both for and against the ruling have a lot of work left to do. It is likely that these cases will drag on for years. For me the decision is easy. I favor resentencing of all affected prisoners. I realize that this will put a burden on the courts and everyone else involved, most unfortunately of all on the victims.
I see no other way forward though. The trend in the court’s recent decisions is clear, and argues for taking into account the differences between juveniles and adults. This way of viewing young people will likely continue, and it is in fact supported by science and research. Let’s take the time, and the trouble, to look at these cases now. The states will still be allowed to implement life without parole if they deem it necessary, but those serving the sentences, most of whom are adults now, deserve the chance to have their cases looked at through this evolving lens of understanding into how the adolescent mind works, and how it can change.
The first time I saw a stabbing victim was my second day in prison. I heard screams coming from the hallway, and then an officer came into view, dragging a prisoner by his shirt. The victim was moaning in pain and the officer was asking him who “stuck” him. I stood holding the bars, watching the scene with a kind of detachment that made it surreal. I was terribly frightened.
Over the next 24 years I had a lot of other scary experiences; too many to count. In a way I became used to them, or at least learned to repress the fear. I haven’t experienced much fear since I got out of prison in 2009, not beyond the usual fears of daily life. That changed a few weeks ago though, and it was all because of the teenagers.
I have been doing some teaching work at a high school near where I live in north Georgia. The initial idea was to share communication skills and strategies for resolving conflict more effectively. The kids had issues with various aspects of the school system: attendance, performance, altercations with other students and teachers. The school brought my colleague and me in to help the kids have a better chance of success in school, and perhaps even in life.
I had a lot of ideas about what to teach. I know what works, what connects to people’s basic needs and desires. Not only does it work, it is empowering. Knowing these skills is a way to get what we want, and who isn’t interested in that? These are skills that everybody wants, or at least I thought they were. Now I am not so sure.
I was in the middle of an extremely interesting (to me at least) exercise about how we respond to conflict. There are basically five different styles, and it pays to know which ones we, and others, are using. This concept can be represented spatially, using two axes. One represents self-interest, and the other represents investment in relationship. As I was sharing this with the kids, they showed their interest in different ways. Some began conversations with their peers, some began to look at their phones, and some lay their heads on the desks and closed their eyes. Things were not going as well as I had hoped.
I began to feel afraid. Here I was trying to do the work I feel called to do, wanting to share something that might help these kids to achieve something in life besides unemployment, poverty, and maybe even prison or death, and I was failing miserably. My partner noticed that we had forgotten a handout we wanted to share, so I quickly volunteered to go get them, seizing the opportunity to escape from my increasing fear.
Going to the office and back was about a 10-minute walk, and as I came back down the hill I took the opportunity to calm down and connect with my own intentions. I noticed the tension I was carrying in my body, born of my fear, and I reflected on all of times I had been in really dangerous situations. I have had people threaten to kill me, and knew that they meant it. I reminded myself that I wasn’t in that kind of danger.
Instead it was fear of not connecting with these kids, of what could happen to them without the skills we were offering. It was a fear of not being able to connect with them in a way that would lead them to listen to me. They were good at blocking out adult voices, they do it all day long, and I didn’t want them to do that with me.
By the time I was back at the classroom door I was calm and even energized. I entered, not knowing what would happen, but willing to see. If what we tried worked, then we would keep doing it. If it didn’t, we would stop. The main thing was that we wouldn’t give up on them.
I think this attitude is vital to dealing with young people. If I want to do this work then I have to be ready to adapt my delivery, to try new things, and to engage them where they are in the moment. Too often adults give up on kids who are “difficult.” It is easy to write them off as unable or unwilling to learn and grow, but this just isn’t true. Usually we don’t move forward because we, the adults, don’t know exactly what to do. This isn’t a good enough reason to stop though, and I can’t fool myself into thinking that it is.
As a colleague once told me, “Anything worth doing is worth doing poorly.” If I have to do things poorly before I can do them well, then I will. There’s nothing to be afraid of.