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Foundation Honors Champions of Juvenile Justice Reform

Starcia Ague

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Arrested and convicted as a teenager, Starcia Marie Ague made a decision to escape her present and her troubled past by focusing on her education. She finished high school and began taking college courses while still incarcerated. Upon her release, she completed an associate’s degree at a community college in Spokane, Wash., and went on to graduate from Washington State University with a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice in 2010.

This afternoon, Ague, who once spent six years in secure juvenile facilities, became the youngest person honored as a Champion for Change by the John T. and Catherine D. MacArthur Foundation, an award reserved for people who have demonstrated a commitment to improving the way things work in the juvenile justice system and who have creatively used the resources provided by the MacArthur Foundation’s Models for Change initiative to push for system reform.

Six other people received the awards, announced today at the 7th annual Models for Change national conference in Washington, D.C. They are Lisa M. Garry of the Maryland Department of Juvenile Services; Laura Cohen of the Rutgers School of Law-Newark; Gene Griffin of the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine; Arthur D. Bishop of the Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice; Sharon Guy Hornsby of Northshore Technical Community College, Florida Parishes Campus; and George D. Mosee Jr. of the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office, Juvenile Division.

While still an undergraduate student, Ague began to work on improving protocols for keeping records in schools and courts, and for interviewing children and their guardians. She now works for the University of Washington, offering her expertise on matters of juvenile indigent defense and working to reform the way juvenile offender records are accessed by the public.

Ague choked up when describing why she continues to represent the interests of at-risk youth in her state.

“I have chosen to do youth advocacy work both to help myself overcome my past and also to help others in comparable situations who are striving to overcome” obstacles, Ague said while accepting her award.

Through her tears, she called upon conference attendees to face “the tragedy of redeemable lives that are lost in our punitive juvenile justice system.”

“Kids who made bad mistakes should not have to pay the price for those mistakes repeatedly,” Ague said.

Sexual Trauma Marks Girls’ Path to Juvenile Justice System

Crystal Contreras, who served five years in a juvenile justice facility in California, is now studying sociology in college and volunteering with foster kids.

When Crystal Contreras was seven and living in Los Angeles, her mother put her in the care of someone Contreras saw as a father figure. Instead, he pressured the little girl for sex. For the next three years, until she was 10, the man raped her regularly, often creeping into the house at night without her mother’s knowledge.

“I never said nothing to my mom,” Contreras told JJIE.org during an interview in July. “I was scared he would kill her or hurt her or hurt the animals that I had. I felt like I was protecting her. But what I did – I started acting out.”

Contreras, now 21 and in college, completed a five-year term at a juvenile detention facility in California last year, she said. Her history of sexual trauma echoes the stories of tens of thousands of girls who find themselves in the juvenile justice system, a history that advocates and professionals in the field say the states and federal government must take into account when designing rehabilitation programs to meet girls’ needs.

While the number of girls who had contact with the juvenile justice system in 2010 equaled only about 40 percent of the number of boys, girls are more likely to be detained for minor offenses related to their underage status, like truancy or running away, according to a report released Tuesday by the Georgetown Center on Poverty, Inequality and Public Policy. Less than 10 percent of juvenile arrests for violent crimes involved girls, the report said.

“Overall, the juvenile justice system is ill-equipped to serve girls effectively, having failed to implement the reforms called for by a growing body of research on the needs of the girls in its care,” said the report, “Improving the Juvenile Justice System for Girls: Lessons from the States.”

Malika Saar, executive director of the Human Rights Project for Girls, told an interagency gathering of federal officials in Washington, D.C., last month that the so-called school-to-prison pipeline applies mainly to boys. For girls, Saar said, the biggest funnel into the prison system is sexual abuse.

Liz Watson, a co-author of the Georgetown report, echoed Saar’s description.

“What really stands out about girls’ particular pathway into the system is that very often, the girls are in the system for things like running away and truancy, and sometimes, being picked up for prostitution, which is really exploitation for these girls,” Watson said. “So the reasons they get into the system are gender bias and exploitation and abuse.”

To add insult to injury, she said, “Once they’re there, girls have harsher penalties than boys for status offenses.”

Acting Asst. Attorney General Mary Lou Leary (left) and Acting Administrator of the OJJDP Melodee Hanes (second to left) listen to testimony from formerly incarcerated women and their advocates about the experience of girls in the juvenile justice system during the quarterly meeting of the federal interagency Coordinating Council for Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention last month.

Withelma "T" Ortiz Walker Pettigrew, 23, testified about her detention experiences in California and Nevada before a federal interagency committee, the Coordinating Council of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, in Washington, D.C., in September.

The council, an independent body created under the authority of the federal Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act of 1974, meets quarterly to coordinate the program efforts of federal government agencies. It includes cabinet members from the departments of Labor, Health, Housing and Urban Development, Education and Homeland Security.

Last month marked the first time since 2000 that the council had met to discuss the issue of girls in the juvenile justice system. The meeting 12 years ago led the U.S. Department of Justice to create the National Girls Study Group, a multi-year research effort into strategies for keeping girls from entering the system, Melodee Hanes, the acting administrator for Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, told the council.

Another outcome of the 2000 meeting was the creation of the National Girls Institute within the federal juvenile justice office in the U.S. Department of Justice, a clearinghouse for research and technical assistance, Hanes said. The institute recently released its own findings from a series of national “listening sessions” with girls in the system, their families and other stakeholders.

Although most cabinet-level members were not present at September’s meeting, their agency representatives listened intently as field professionals and women who had been incarcerated as girls testified about their experiences with the system.

Pettigrew told the council she was trafficked as a minor, coerced into sex and kept captive.

“I was sent to the juvenile justice system for a crime that technically, according to the law, I did not have the ability or consent to commit,” Pettigrew said. “I was a victim of child abuse but I was the one put behind bars.”

Watson calls girls like Pettigrew and Contreras “the walking wounded” who are often re-traumatized in detention. Despite her history of sexual abuse, Pettigrew found herself in a facility with no doors on the showers or the toilets, and male staff members to watch the girls. The lack of doors in showers and toilets comes up regularly in descriptions of facilities by advocates and girls.

Withelma Ortiz Walker Pettigrew (center) speaking about her experience in the juvenile justice system in front of the federal interagency Coordinating Council for Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention in Washington D.C. last month. She hopes to attend college in D.C.

“Understanding the pathway for girls, and really the history of exploitation and abuse, is key to being able to undertake reform efforts that are really responsive to girls’ needs,” Watson told JJIE.org.

The Georgetown report came out of a meeting of experts and professionals last year where, Watson said, few knew of innovations by states other than their own. “It’s extremely important that states that are interested in reforms have the examples of other states to work on so they’re not re-creating the wheel,” Watson said.

The report outlines reform efforts by Connecticut, Florida and one California county, and offers recommendations for the federal government that echo those presented to the coordinating council by Pettigrew and other advocates.

The federal government must fund research and evaluation of girls’ programs, improve the assessment and data collection tools available for girls, and encourage states to develop programs that are geared toward girls’ particular needs and that take into account their history of sexual trauma, trafficking and exploitation, they say.

Back in Los Angeles, Contreras is now taking college sociology courses, working for a major health care organization and volunteering at a program for foster youth. During her last couple of years in detention, she said, she realized she had to take care of herself if she wanted to succeed.

Pettigrew is applying to undergraduate programs and trying to collect funds for college. It’s hard sharing her story in a roomful of people, she said, especially when few share her history. But she needs to do it, she said, so more people can understand what it’s like to be a girl in the system.

Photos by Kaukab Jhumra Smith

“Dear Juvenile Injustice” – Richard Ross on the State of America’s Youth Detention Facilities and Juvenile Justice Policies

A day before holding a lecture at Kennesaw State University in Georgia, Richard Ross visited his friend, Ronald F., in Miami.

“It was his birthday,” Ross said. “He’s 18 this past week, and they switched him over to an adult facility.”

Ross said that prior to his incarceration, he was a special education student in the sixth grade. He said that for 30 years, his mother was a crack addict.

“Before he got brought in on these charges, four and a half years ago, she tried to kill him, quite literally stab him to death,” Ross stated.

Ross said that the young man wound up falling through the cracks of the child welfare system, and began running with “the wrong crowd.” At 13, Ross said he was accused of some “heinous” crimes, which ultimately resulted in his incarceration at a juvenile detention facility for 51 months.

As of his 18th birthday, Ross said, “Ronald hasn’t gone to trial yet.”

The stories of individuals like Ronald have given Ross what he terms “the calling.”

“He’s a kid, who’s African-American, in Florida,” he said. “He has the least voice in a family with the least resources, from neighborhoods and communities with the least power.”

Through Ross’s camera, he said that he “speaks on behalf of these people” and “gives them lives.”

Ross, a New York native, has had his photographs published in The New York Times and The Los Angeles Times, among other print juggernauts. Prior to beginning his “Juvenile-in-Justice” project -- an endeavor that took Ross five years to complete -- he photographed a wealth of atypical architectural subjects, including underground bomb shelters in Montana and even his children’s high school, for a project he called “Architecture of Authority.”

Earlier this year, Ross’s “Juvenile-in-Justice” project was named as one of the year’s five best investigative reports on prisons by ProPublica. Ross’s photographs, which were featured in Harper’s Magazine, also garnered him the 2012 Best News and Documentary Photography Award by the American Society of Magazine Editors (AMSE) and the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.

Ross said that his project required both a social media and public arena aspect, which is why he created a blog and website for the “Juvenile-in-Justice” photographs. And unlike many photographers, he said he has no qualms about giving away his work to nonprofits, free of charge.

“The goal is to give the visual tools to advocates to change the current project and talk around at universities and frame the issue for the next generation,” he said.

Ross said he will be attending a hearing in Washington later in the week, where the American Civil Liberties Union and the Human Rights Watch will present a briefing regarding the hazards of solitary confinement on juvenile detainees. The organizations will be using his photographs as part of the testimony, Ross stated. His photographs have also been displayed during U.S. Senate hearings, and even used as “evidence” in several Supreme Court of the United States cases.

Ross recalls the 1990s, the era of “angry architecture,” as he describes it. He brings up the media images of “super predator kids” and youth boot camps and juvenile detention facilities modeled after adult prisons. He spoke about one detention center in Illinois, where young people were whisked away to holding cells in the dead of night.

“This is worse than a Stephen King novel,” Ross said. “Imagine if you’re 12, 13, 14, what it means to be brought to places like this?”

Ross notes that many neurologists believe that the prefrontal cortex of the human brain doesn’t fully develop until one’s mid-20s. The teenage brain isn’t developed, he said, which explains why kids do so many “stupid things.” Newfound biological information of the like has led to many states revamping their juvenile justice policies, but Ross singles out several state legislatures -- namely, Florida -- for pursing a “biblical sense of justice” as opposed to restorative juvenile justice approaches and techniques.

“A still image is a witness,” Ross said. He displayed images of constraint devices and solitary confinement cells.

“You can’t do this to kids,” he said. “You’ve created a situation that escalates violence instead of defusing the environment they live in.”

In Miami, Ross said he encountered children being held in isolation cells where the room temperature was 59 degrees Fahrenheit, with no blankets present. Ross said one detainee self-reported that he had been held in the isolation unit for almost an entire week, when Florida state law prohibits solitary confinement of juveniles for anything longer than 24 hours.

Ross brings up the problem of mixed populations in juvenile detention centers, specifically the housing of female status offenders with convicted male detainees. He said that most detention centers in the nation are ill-equipped to deal with gay and transgender detainees, and states that many detention center residents are still pre-adjudicated, sometimes held for years without having trial dates arranged.

Last month, Ross said he received an email from a mother whose son -- a 16-year-old, with no prior record, he stated -- had recently been charged with aggravated assault on a police officer.

“The kid was emotionally disturbed,” Ross said. “The kid was so pissed off, he peed in a wastepaper basket. The judge said ‘you’re not disrespecting my court, 50 years!’ and they walked him out the door.”

Ross said the incident made him wonder how the judge could sleep at night. He said he now gets letters from distraught mothers, many who address him as “Dear Juvenile Injustice” in e-mails. The power and responsibility he’s been imbued with via the “Juvenile-in-Justice” project, he said, is oftentimes “frightening.”

Ross discussed his disbelief in zero tolerance policies, citing such initiatives as “totally screwed.” He believes policing in schools should be limited -- in Texas, he said, armed guards often patrol the hallways of junior high schools.

“America’s heavy reliance on juvenile incarceration is unique,” Ross said.

Ross spoke about the juvenile wing of Orleans Parish Prison in Louisiana, which he said earned money for every young person held in the facility. “It’s a profit-making system to house African-Americans, a profit-making system using blacks as chattel,” Ross said. “It’s basically slavery.”

He showed two pictures, one of a cell in an El Paso, Texas juvenile detention center and the other a cell at Guantanamo Bay. “What’s the difference between Guantanamo and prison for kids in El Paso?” Ross asked. “In Guantanamo, they give the person a window.”

He briefly spoke about how uniforms “dehumanized” detainees, and praised Missouri centers for allowing teenage detainees “the dignity of wearing their own clothes.”

Ross described how many juvenile detention facilities conduct frequent pat-down searches on residents, sometimes as many as seven or eight times a day. He talked about how many residents are deprived of socialization opportunities, and brings up the fact that most juveniles held in detention have experienced severe child abuse.

“This is a damaged population that you put into these institutions without realizing they’re victims as much as they are perpetrators,” he concluded. “We have to determine who we’re afraid of and who simply pisses us off, and adjust our response.”

Photos by Richard Ross. 

Youth Justice Awareness Month Returns

Four years after a Missouri mother started a homemade campaign about the judicial system that led to her son’s suicide in prison, more than half of the states are hosting events aimed at increasing awareness of the treatment of youth in adult courts, jails and prisons.

“I couldn’t fathom the treatment he received. I mean I was really scared,” said Tracy McClard, originator of Youth Justice Awareness Month, marked every October. She started the awareness campaign in 2008 with a 5k run/walk. It’s in memory of her son Jonathan, who hung himself three days after his 17th birthday rather than face 30 years in prison.

It started with a girl and a love-struck boy. After their breakup, the girl played her old boyfriend off her new boyfriend, McClard said.  Jonathan abused over-the-counter drugs, which dulled his senses. Jonathan believed that the girl was being abused, was pregnant, and that the new boyfriend was going to kill mother and fetus. McClard told her son not to believe the tales.

But Jonathan shot the new boyfriend. In his mind, Jonathan aimed only to scare the other boy, not to kill him, she said. McClard explained: “He confessed to the police because he thought the police would understand why he did what he did, because he was saving two lives, he thought.”

The new boyfriend survived, and Jonathan was charged with first-degree assault with a deadly weapon.

“The day he was certified as an adult, he went straight across the street to the adult county jail,” said McClard. “I was always reassured that while he was in the jail ‘oh, yeah, he’ll be fine,’” she recalled. But on visits he was always beaten and bruised. He got a jail tattoo because the other inmates told him he needed it to survive.

On any given day, there are about 7,500 under-18s in adult jails, according to 2009 federal numbers. Another approximately 2,500 are in adult prisons.

Instead of Jonathan heading to the Missouri Dual Jurisdiction Program, which provides counseling and education to juvenile inmates in a residential dorm-type setting open to family visits, the judge sentenced him to 30 years in prison. He hanged himself rather than face that life.

His mother, a runner, held the first race, knowing she could reach a wider world of people who have no involvement in the juvenile justice system.

Last October, about 1,500 people joined a run or other event in about 15 states where events were held, said Liz Ryan, president and CEO of the Campaign for Youth Justice, a Washington, DC-based group that is helping people organize awareness month events nationwide. CFJY works to keep under-18s out of the adult criminal justice system.

“This year we expect more than double the number of people and close to double the number of activities,” she said, plus reach an untold number of people who see campaigns on Facebook or other social media websites.

Since last year, there have been shifts to funnel juvenile offenders away from adult systems in several states including Colorado, Ohio, Texas and Oregon. Next year, Ryan expects debate in at least four states on reducing child involvement in adult courts, jails or prisons.

The treatment Jonathan received “shouldn’t be happening in Missouri,” said McClard. “Because … A piece of our system is good. It’s just the problem with it, is not all kids that get into trouble get into this system.”

Jonathan passed assessment to get into the Dual Jurisdiction Program, but the prosecutor argued against it and the judge agreed.

“I was so mad that prosecutors and judges have this type of power to just tear families apart and just throw our children away,” McClard recalled.

New federal regulations require that children be separated from adults in adult jails and prisons but also specify that the youth cannot be put in solitary confinement or in their cells all day. “We know that that [long or solitary confinement] is what happens when kids get separated from adults,” said Ryan.

States must comply with the federal rule by next August.

Ryan is optimistic that both Democratic- and Republican-led states, despite tight budgets, will continue reforms. “Recidivism research is having an effect,” she said, pointing to studies that say putting children through adult courts reduces reoffending. Both blue and red states are beginning to channel more youth away from adult incarceration.

In December, McClard and other activists and some state legislators will re-file a bill that proposes to remove barriers to the Dual Jurisdiction program.

McClard said that since her first run, “things are changing, people are becoming more aware … Conversations are starting, people are changing.”

“The way we’re doing it now is so wrong and so horrendous we cannot keep doing it,” she said. Kids are “so amenable to rehabilitation if you give them what they need.”

Photo by Campaign for Justice.

Alleged School Bullying Victim, Mom Speak Out On Georgia’s New Bullying Law

dekalb county school bullying policy 1

LISTEN:

‘It Was Just Pretty Much Assault Every Day’: Alleged School Bullying Victim, Mom Speak Out On Georgia’s New Bullying Law.

Back to school season is in full swing and like so many other families around the country 13-year-old Alicyn and her mother Annise Mabry are busy keeping up with the demands of the school year.

http://jjie3.wpengine.com/alleged-school-bullying-victim-mom-speak-out-on-georgias-bullying-law/40307/2

However, instead of preparing to go to a local school, Ali takes classes at home. Instead of a classroom, she logs onto her laptop for online lessons. Instead of a teacher, her mom is her instructor.

“It’s a lot better, it’s a lot more fun and it really brings out a lot of the things I found enjoyable in school,” says Ali, decked out in a hot pink Hello Kitty T-shirt, rows of colorful plastic bracelets dangle from both of her arms.

She used to attend a public middle school near their Conyers, Ga. home just outside of Atlanta, but this year for 8th grade, she’s relying on the online Georgia Cyber Academy for her curriculum.

Georgia Cyber Academy 2
13-year-old Alicyn selects her course schedule for a new school year with the Georgia Cyber Academy, bully free.

Ali and her mother say excessive bullying from classmates on and off school grounds brought on Ali’s transition out of a traditional school.

“They were just really mean, the pushing, the shoving, hitting, slapping. Basically it was just pretty much assault every day,” she says. “With girls it was hair, my face, the way I dressed, the way I looked. The way I talked. Things that you really can’t help. I felt like that was my only reason for coming to school; just to be pushed around.”

Ali says as much as she loved learning, it was a struggle every day.

“I was a straight-A student, and I still was able to maintain straight A’s and still maintain on honor roll, but I was really considering dropping out.”

In addition to traditional bullying, texting and social media such as Facebook and Twitter, she claims, made her predicament worse.

“One could be in the classroom, two was Facebook, three was the bus and then four was the text messages,” she says, a dismayed look on her face. “And then it would go back to one. And it would get worse every time that you got back to one.”

Ali claims that she reported the incidents to her teachers and counselors and they did nothing. Her mom says ultimately it was too much for her daughter to take.

“Another suspension came when another student had been taunting her and hit her repeatedly with a book in the presence of a teacher and the teacher did nothing to intervene,” says Mabry of her daughter. “And Ali got mad, and she got tired of being hit, and she hit back. And that resulted into a two-day suspension.”

Ali says no adults intervened.

“They never did anything, never said anything; they never reported it, never even stepped in,” she says. “I was in and out of the counselors office frequently; more frequently than most students. I even had appointments there weekly.”

The incidents took their toll. At times she felt the bathroom was her only refuge.

home school front 1
After repeated episodes of bullying, both in and out of school, the Mabry's posted a sign on their front lawn: "This property under 24-hour surveillance."

“I went to the bathroom to eat lunch,” she says, a tinge of sadness in her voice. “Actually what I would do is I would take my binder to lunch. I would go to the bathroom. I would leave my binder in the bathroom intentionally. And then I would come back and do my work and everything else because I couldn’t sit at the lunch table because kids were so mean.”

She says the longer the bullying went on, the more she spiraled down.

“My self-esteem just dropped,” she says. “When I tried to get it up, it was like trying to throw paper in the air and expecting to catch it.”

Her mother says she knew something had to be done and she realized it was up to her to take action.

“When she got suspended the third time is when I finally said, ‘something has to change,’” says Mabry. “‘I can’t keep sending her through this.’ Ali was biting the skin off of her hands [because she was so stressed out].”

Decatur (Ga.) High School Counselor Ken Jackson says extreme examples like Ali describes are increasingly more common. He sees about two serious cases a year.

“Bullying by definition means that there's some kind of harm, it’s repeated and there is a power difference,” he says. “Somebody has social, physical power over someone else.”

He says students who don’t fit neatly into a student body’s established social structure are often targeted.

“I do think some of it is that [the bullies] feel that they have social permission to pick on some types of students,” he says. “Some kinds of student [behaviors] are seen as less acceptable. Likewise, students in these groups may feel the social stigma and not feel they can go anywhere for help.”

The number of bullying incidents that became more public in the past year was an impetus for changing the bullying law, he says. Still Jackson calls the new Georgia law a step in the right direction, but cautions that it is not a cure-all for the bullying issue.

“But we also know that simply establishing a law does not fully change a climate, a behavior in a person or a school,” says Jackson. “Setting a climate in which the expectation of what is good and appropriate behavior, what is inappropriate behavior responses to bullying is a necessary thing.”

Mabry feels not enough was done to protect her daughter. The former teacher resigned from her job as a dean at Devry University for medical reasons, then opted to home school her daughter for the past year. The Georgia Cyber Academy, she says, has been a great fit.

“And the beautiful thing about the cyber academy is that it falls under the charter school umbrella and it’s free for all Georgia students,” she says. “They ship your books. If your student does not have a computer they give you the computer. All of the supplies you need to go to school, they UPS to you. The only thing is it requires someone to be present for five hours a day to monitor the learning.”

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Alicyn and Annise Mabry 1

 

Jaheem Herrera’s Suicide Inspired Lawmakers To Beef Up Georgia’s School Bullying Policies

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Jaheem Herrera. Photo credit: smokenmirrors_photo/photobucketJaheem Herrera’s Suicide Inspired Lawmakers To Beef Up Georgia’s School Bullying Policies, His Mother Says She’s Still Fighting For Justice

It’s been two years since Masika Bermudez lost her only son Jaheem Herrera, but the heart-wrenching emotions are still raw as if he died yesterday.

“It was like a bad dream, you know,” says the metro Atlanta mother, tears welling in her eyes. “You have your son there after school and in a blink of an eye, he’s not there anymore. The last thing I can remember about my son is with a big smile on his face when I was looking through his report card and then to see him lifeless afterwards. That’s the last image I have of my son every time I close my eyes.”

Jaheem was just 11-years-old when she found him hanged in a closet in their Decatur, Ga., apartment in April of 2009. She says her dark-haired cherub-faced son known for his friendly smile, was bullied to death.

“He got bullied in school, he’d been taunted, he’d been teased, he’d been called gay,” she says. “And that really bothered him, because he used to tell me about it, that he’s not gay. Why [did] they keep calling him gay? It caused a lot of symptoms [for him]. He’d been going through anxiety, depression and he didn’t want to eat. He couldn’t even sleep, you know. And it hurt him very bad.”

Bermudez claims she went to Jaheem’s school, Stone Mountain’s Dunaire Elementary, in an effort to get help for her son seven or eight times in the same school year that he died, but she insists the problem persisted.

DeKalb County Schools hired retired Fulton County Judge Thelma Moore to conduct an independent review of Bermudez’s claims. After a 30-day investigation, the judge concluded that Jaheem was teased at school, but not bullied, and that Bermudez never reported any problems to administrators or teachers. Judge Moore’s review included interviews with more than 50 witnesses from Jaheem’s school.

Bermudez says she has the sign-in sheets from the school office to prove her claims. She also alleges that before returning Jaheem’s personal items to her, administrators cut out the pages from his notebook journal where he detailed the bullying he experienced at school.

“Their response was there was no bullying, you know, and my response to that is that there was bullying,” she says. “My son used to tell me what used to happen to him. There was bullying. There was bullying and he got choked in the restroom. And I’m not, I can’t let that go.”

DeKalb County School System representatives would not comment on the findings that Jaheem was not bullied. Its Department of Student Relations Director Quentin Fretwell, instead, would only comment about its system-wide bullying awareness campaign now in its second year.

“We’re bringing awareness to the entire community; not only to kids, not only to training kids, training administrators and others; but also bringing awareness to the parents, bringing awareness to community leaders, staff members, bring awareness to society in general and saying we all have responsibility,” contends Fretwell.

Jaheem Herrera. Photo credit: gapride2008/photobucketBermudez says in May 2009 her former attorney Gerald Griggs filed a neglect complaint against the school system. She claims that she has yet to receive a direct response. She and her colleagues also asked DeKalb County District Attorney Robert James to look into her claims, but she has not gotten a response, she says. Bermudez and her friend Annette Davis Jackson are working on a formal response to the school system’s review, which they say is seriously flawed.

“[DeKalb County Schools] have what is considered disciplinary referrals,” notes Jackson. “The disciplinary referrals [forms that teachers and administrators complete], they don’t even have a check mark that says bullying. So you can just document it as a classroom disturbance and this is very key.”

Jackson says when Jaheem was suspended from school, it was written up as a “classroom disturbance.”

“It said classroom disturbance, only to find out that this was actually a [another student] choking [Jaheem] in the bathroom,” says Jackson. “So, his infraction was classroom disturbance. And no one chronicled it, or documented it as bullying. So you‘ve really got to look at DeKalb County and say, ‘you didn’t really train your teachers and you administrators to properly document bullying.’”

In her report, Judge Moore indicates that in the December 2008 incident that Jackson describes, Jaheem was suspended for fighting with a boy in the school’s bathroom. “Jaheem came in swinging,” Judge Moore has said. She claims the alleged fight was reported to school officials a month after it happened and that it was one of several scuffles in which Jaheem was involved. Bermudez says Jaheem’s best friend told her about what happened – not the school.

“I went to the school the following day and asked the principal about the choking incident, and her response was, ‘oh that incident,’” says Bermudez, “I said ‘what do you mean that incident, my son could've died.’ And she said he was getting suspended for it. I asked, ‘why, when he was the one who got choked,’ she said it was because he swung and fought back.”

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Making Peace with the Dragon on One Atlanta Streetcorner – Heroin Stories, Part 3

Mona Bennett. Photo by Clay Duda

["Making Peace with the Dragon on One Atlanta Streetcorner" is the final part of a three part series on heroin addiction. Check out this page for parts one and two.]

Mona Bennett never leaves the house without her Braves baseball hat. The cap itself is hidden beneath dozens of buttons of all shapes and sizes pinned to every available surface with messages from “Rock the Vote” to “This place really cooks!” But Bennett is most proud of a series of buttons from the Atlanta Harm Reduction Center (AHRC) where Bennett is the program director. The buttons and the hat always draw curious stares and questions. And Bennett is always happy to answer.

Harm reduction is a public health strategy — a way of thinking, Bennett calls it — that helps people protect themselves from the dangers of illegal drug use, unprotected sex and prostitution. “It’s about making sure people know the risks of using drugs and how to reduce those risks,” Bennett said.

At AHRC, reducing risk takes a variety of forms, among them a hypodermic needle exchange, HIV and tuberculosis testing and condom distribution (Bennett's hat is pinned with condoms, as well).

The Atlanta Harm Reduction Center is located in an area of southwest Atlanta known as the Bluffs, one of the city’s most poverty- and crime-ridden neighborhoods. From the street, AHRC looks like a well-maintained residential, two-story duplex in a neighborhood filled with small homes and cracked, weed choked sidewalks. A paved driveway gives way to a dirt parking lot filled with a few cars and a large, white passenger van, all parked at odd angles without thought to creating orderly rows. Inside, AHRC is a mish-mash of donated and second-hand office furniture. The walls are covered with colorful posters and artwork promoting safe sex or HIV testing. One wall is painted with the message, “Safety counts! Wrap it before you tap it.” Educational pamphlets are everywhere — hanging in bins on the wall, lining every flat surface and in the hands of volunteers.

Just inside the main office door is a kitchen where volunteers prepare meals for everyone who attends group sessions at the house. Beyond that is a room filled with desktop computers that are available to anyone who needs Internet access. Another has telephones. At the far end of the house is a living room lined with soft sofas.

“Those towels behind you: we offer showers,” Bennett said as she showed us around the house.

An AHRC volunteer sitting in front of the sign-in clipboard. Photo by Clay Duda

Volunteers are at every turn signing visitors in, talking with them, giving them cold, bottled water or donuts and pastries. Moving on through the house, past the woman wearing a Run-DMC t-shirt and beyond an oversized, orange cooler, are stairs leading to the second floor.

“Monday was HIV testing day,” Bennett said, reaching the top of the stairs. “Sixty-seven people now know their HIV status.”

Upstairs, AHRC holds group sessions or watches movies. Visitors can also “shop” from a room packed with donated clothing.

“At least half of the people we deal with are homeless,” Bennett said. “People have a lot of needs.”

All of these services fall under the harm reduction label, but AHRC is most known for being the only hypodermic needle exchange in Georgia. Two days a week, the AHRC team conducts “street outreach.” They load the oversized, white van parked out front with new, clean needles and drive a few blocks away where they set up shop on a corner and meet with intravenous drug users. There, the staff hand out clean needles, accept used, dirty needles for proper disposal and provide information on safer intravenous drug use. In its 17-year existence, AHRC has conducted more than 750,000 needle exchanges.

Chasing the Dragon; Finding the Exit – Heroin Stories, Part 2

Chris Blum. Photo by Ryan Schill

["Chasing the Dragon; Finding the Exit" is part two of three part series about heroin addiction. Bookmark this page for updates.]

Editor's Note: The following story contains graphic language and images. It may not be suitable for all readers.

One day, long before he found himself wanting to die in a cheap motel, Chris Blum got caught shooting up heroin at work.

Needless to say, he lost his job.

“That’s when I started going sort of full time. I was going out helping my drug dealer get money,” he said.

And then, Blum said, he had an epiphany.

“Man, I know where my drug dealers keep their money,” he said, laughing quietly. “I can jack them motherfuckers, too.” So Blum got a few of his buddies together and planned the heist.

At a table in a quiet coffee shop in suburban Atlanta, Blum mimed holding two guns with his hands, pointing his index finger at me and sticking up his thumb like a child playing cops and robbers. A bit too loudly for the coffee shop patio he said, “Freeze!”

“Then we’d kick the fucking door down, take the shit and leave. It was a good day.” Blum chuckled. A man sitting at an adjacent table looked uncomfortable.

 

*****

 

It wasn’t long before Blum woke up in his motel room, still alive despite his wish to die. He broke down.

“I heard a voice, clear as yours sitting next to me, that said, ‘Get help,’” Blum said. He opened up the phonebook and called a treatment center.

Checking into rehab, Blum was about 50 pounds lighter than when he started using, all the while thinking he “looked like Hercules.” His face was skeletal; his blood counts, liver and pancreas were “all out of whack.” The treatment center kept him on IV fluids for eight days.

And he was about to feel worse.

“Oh man, detox,” Blum said, shaking his head. He inhaled and sighed heavily. “Dude, you’re hot. You’re cold. You’re delusional. You’re hallucinating. You’re angry. You’re guilty.” He couldn’t sleep. He was miserable.

According to addiction counselor William Parrish of the Gateway Center in downtown Atlanta, this is why many addicts never come in for treatment, even if they want to. It’s the “fear of the withdrawal,” he said.

Preparing heroin. Photo by Clay Duda

“It’s hell, dude,” Blum said. “It really is hell. At that point you don’t think it’s going to end. There’s no light at the end of the tunnel.”

For many addicts, he said, getting high is the more appealing option, even if they want to get clean. But for Blum, the discomfort was worth it.

“I was scared, I was ready to quit,” Blum said. “But you get to a point where you’re hollow, you’re empty. I mean I was ready to die.”

He stayed in rehab for 74 days. He spent eight going through detox. The rest of the time Blum was in counseling. If he wanted to get clean and stay clean, he needed an attitude adjustment.

“I liked being angry,” he said. “My anger was my way of intimidating you.”  But internally, Blum was scared to death.

 

*****

 

Blum was lucky, but for those who choose to keep going, shooting heroin means risking their life every time they get high. In the life of a heroin user, “health conditions come from prolonged use,” Parrish said. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, dangers include “collapsed veins, infection of the heart lining and valves, abscesses, and liver or kidney disease.” Because heroin dealers routinely cut their product with any number of toxic chemicals or additives, users are also at risk of clogged blood vessels that could lead to permanent vital organ damage.

Photo by Clay Duda

In the past, Parrish said, users progressed over a long period of time from snorting and smoking heroin to shooting up. But the majority of new heroin users — mainly white kids from the suburbs, he said — are going straight to the needle, shooting heroin intravenously, something Parrish said he had not seen before. Heroin is dangerous enough, but injecting intravenously presents its own set of unique dangers, he said.

“The primary transmission of HIV is through sharing syringes,” Parrish said. Dirty needles also expose heroin addicts to other blood-born diseases such as Hepatitis C and to physical risks such as skin abscesses from injecting under the skin rather than into a vein. But where do heroin users get clean needles?

A report in the Journal of the American Pharmaceutical Association says 10 states, including Georgia, prohibit pharmacists from selling syringes for “illegal purposes.” Heroin use clearly falls into this category. This has proven to be a “significant obstacle” to the public health goal of reducing the transmission of viral and bacterial infections. Without access to clean syringes from pharmacies, intravenous drug users are forced to either share and reuse needles or find a quasi-legal needle exchange.

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Bound by the Needle, the Dealer and the Drug – Heroin Stories, Part 1

 

heroin use-25["Bound by the Needle, the Dealer and the Drug" is part one of a three part series about heroin addiction. Bookmark this page for updates.]

Editor's Note: The following story contains graphic language and images. It may not be suitable for all readers.

Chris Blum is laughing again, each breath a small wheeze followed by a noise that cuts through the surrounding sounds of the coffee shop patio. It’s full and rich, staccato and guttural; four beats long, the laugh of a man who sees the blessing in having anything to laugh about at all.

He’s a big guy, tall with a softness that comes with the newfound freedom to eat food without vomiting it back up again. Not long ago, Blum was a heroin addict. On this hot, sunny afternoon, Blum is sitting under an umbrella, dabbing perspiration away with a napkin and telling me about one of his jobs when he was an addict: a money collector for his dealer.

“I was a nice guy the first time,” he says, smiling. “The second time you didn’t see me coming.”

But then there’s the change, the dip from major to minor keys as he stops laughing. Sitting outside, I can’t see his eyes behind the dark sunglasses, but his smile quickly fades as he recounts one method of collecting a debt.

“The second time,” he continues, “you’d walk in the door and your girlfriend would be duct-taped and I’d have a gun to her head and a broomstick shoved up her ass.”

Blum pauses for a moment turning his face to mine, his last words hanging there awkwardly.

Chris Blum. Photo by Ryan Schill
Chris Blum. Photo by Ryan Schill

Heroin addicts will do anything for a fix, Blum tells me, things they never thought they were capable of. For Blum, that meant helping his dealer with the dirty work.

“You’re not a very nice guy if you’re collecting money for drug dealers,” he said.  “At that point, I did more drugs just to erase the memories of the crazy shit I was doing to people.”

“But,” Blum is quick to point out, his voice rising, “I’ve never killed anyone.”  Then he pauses, thoughtful. “At least, they never told me they were dead.” He raises his hands as if to say, "What can you do?"

And then the first quick wheeze as Blum starts laughing again.

 

“You feel me?” William Parrish asks again, arching an eyebrow as he asks the question, to emphasize the point.

Parrish, in his 50s, lean and boyish despite his salt and pepper hair and bald pate, is sitting across from me at a large, round table in a conference room in the depths of the Gateway Center. Gateway, a drab, modern building set amid the classic judicial architecture of the downtown courthouses in Atlanta, houses a homeless shelter and rehabilitation services.

Parrish has been around, watching the ups and downs of opiate use over the decades. His experience came first as a user and now as an addiction counselor, the needle scars dotting his thin arms evidence of more than two decades of injecting heroin.

Long regarded as a hardcore drug plaguing inner cities, experts such as Parrish are saying heroin has found new life as a drug of convenience for suburban teenagers addicted to opiate-based prescription painkillers such as OxyContin. For those young addicts, heroin has grown beyond merely a threat; it’s a cheap, dangerous and highly-addictive alternative.

Recent news headlines point to an increase of heroin abuse among teens in the unlikeliest parts of the nation:

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution recently reported how the city’s affluent northern suburbs were shocked by the death of three young men from heroin overdoses.

“The trajectory of it is eventually going to be of epidemic proportions,” Parrish said, looking at me squarely.

“You feel me?” he asks.

An intravenous drug user injecting heroin. Photo by Clay Duda.
An intravenous drug user injecting heroin. Photo by Clay Duda.

Police are seeing a different picture of heroin, however. According to Agent Daniel Dillworth of the Marietta/Cobb/Smyrna (MCS) Narcotics and Intelligence Unit in Cobb County, Ga., heroin is not a significant problem. It’s the “least likely of the whole spectrum” of drugs, Dillworth said.

“If I see more than one arrest a month [for heroin possession] it would be unusual,” he said. “It’s way down there.”

Statistics bear that out. A White House Office of National Drug Control Policy report showed heroin use among high school kids nationally drop from 3.3 percent in 2003 to 1.3 percent in 2008.

So why the discrepancy? The demographics are shifting, Parrish said. Overall the number of heroin users may have gone down, but the users have changed from inner city youths to middle class and affluent suburban kids.

And it all begins when kids start raiding their parent’s medicine cabinet, he said. They know the names of the drugs. They know what to look for: among them OxyContin, Vicodin, Loratab, dilaudid and Percocet.

“And then,” he said, “they start experimenting with it. But little do they know you can become physically or psychologically dependent on it in a number of days. When they can’t get the prescription drugs there is only one other option: [they] got to go to the streets.”

The issue is availability, said Dr. Joe Gay, an expert in opiates and executive director of Health Recovery Services in Ohio.

“[In the Midwest] we’ve seen an influx of black tar heroin from Mexico,” Gay said. “The people dealing black tar decided what they wanted to do was to make money and not have gun fights. So they made it a point of marketing to areas without an established heroin trade.” They began marketing in the suburbs, Gay said. Dealers even began delivering to the buyer much like ordering a pizza.

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From the Editor: Caution, Graphic Material Ahead — Our Heroin Series Contains Some Ugly Reality

John Fleming

Drugs in this country come in and out of style. Some of them leave the scene pretty quickly, thank goodness.

Then there are the ones that always seem to linger unwelcomed, sometimes quiet in the background, sometimes bursting into the open.

That’s heroin. Like a drunk at an otherwise pleasant gathering, it’s there around the fringes, making people uncomfortable. But then the party goes into a real funk when the drunk gets a mean on and proceeds to ruin everyone’s evening.

Heroin may be about to get a mean on. That’s what JJIE’s Ryan Schill writes in a three-part series this week. Though statistics don’t show an enormous surge in heroin arrests, both current and former users, as well as counselors report an upsurge in use among teens, mostly white, mostly suburban. Increased supply, its relative low cost and the prevalence of opiate-based prescription medications all play a role in what seems to be going on.

These aren’t happy stories Schill tells, and these aren’t pretty pictures photographer Clay Duda offers. So, you should know, this series may not be suitable for all readers. It is sometimes difficult to stomach. It is rife with profanity and disturbing details. Some of the images are graphic. But it is, quite simply, the brutal reality of a life with heroin.

For the most part, it’s a sad story. Yet even in this nightmarish place, there is some hope and in this case it is recovery. One character, hopeless in the shackles of heroin for years, found a way to claw his way to sobriety.

He offers something, not only to others still struggling with addiction, but to all of us. With the help of society, friends, family and loved ones, souls long thought to be lost, can be salvaged.