Leader of Civil Rights March Shaped By Exposure to Segregation, Racial Bias

POUGHKEEPSIE, New York — When she was in the sixth grade, when she still wanted to be a pediatrician and not a lawyer for revolutionaries, Soffiyah Elijah entered her first integrated school in Hempstead, Long Island. She remembers that in response to integration the administration of the school then segregated the classrooms. So she spent her first day in an integrated school among all black students.

That didn’t last long.

That afternoon after school was dismissed she went home and told her parents.

“My mother marched up to the school the next day,” Elijah recollected. “And she moved her little girl over to the other class. It was like either my daughter will be in this other class or you’ll wish she was. My mother was a no-nonsense mom.”

When asked if she feels some of her mother’s sense of justice helped shaped the woman she has become, she bursts out into laughter.

“I think a lot of her rubbed off on me,” she said. “And my dad was a no-nonsense dad.”

Elijah was looking to explain what inspired her to organize and lead the March for Justice. In order to do that, she reached back to her childhood. She needed to explain the ubiquitous system of segregation that touched her life starting as a toddler.

Major events of her childhood

It wasn’t just her professional life as a lawyer or her work leading the Correctional Association of New York, but a lifetime of exposure to rampant segregation that shaped the 62-year-old to organize a 21st-century civil rights march in the state often considered one of the most progressive in the union. That’s a misconception she hopes to dispel by the time she reaches Albany, New York, at the end of her 180-mile March for Justice.

“The assassination of John F. Kennedy, the assassination of Malcolm X, the assassination of Robert Kennedy, the assassination of Martin Luther King, the assassination of Medgar Evers, the Cointelpro program, the brutality of the civil rights workers that they went through,” Elijah said, listing the historical forces that shaped her youth. “That’s a lot, right, to shape someone’s formative years. I watched the political assassination of Adam Clayton Powell Jr., I grew up when black people were never depicted on television in a positive light. So, it’s rooted in my DNA.”

By the time Elijah had reached sixth grade she had already become inured to the ubiquitous racism that defined her neighborhood. She grew up on the border of Hempstead and Garden City. Garden City was all white back then, but Hempstead was segregated between black and white residents. Her house was near the border of Garden City. So she and her black playmates grew up knowing a lesson that wasn’t taught at any school.

“So I knew,” she said “As black kids growing up there we all knew. ‘Do not ride your bicycle past this block.’”

As a black child in Long Island, segregation was as much a part of her life as someone in the deep South. Elijah grew up hearing her parents tell the story of moving day. Her neighbors were white. Someone had painted “Go Home NIGGER” on the picket fence.

“Now I was too young to see that or to understand it because I was only 2, but my parents, as I got older I would hear them talking about that,” she said. “So, I didn’t have to wait until I got to the sixth grade.”

When her parents took her on trips to Delaware to visit her godmother or farther south into Maryland to visit relatives, Elijah became accustomed to a routine: Her parents would always pack food and a portable toilet. She learned on those trips that because she and her parents were black that they couldn’t use any public accommodations.

“That was just the norm,” she said flatly. “You packed your food; you packed your port-a-potty, and that’s how you traveled. And so I learned that well before I got to sixth grade. The idea of stopping at a rest stop on the road to D.C. to go in and use the bathroom and buy something to eat — I didn’t learn that until I was an adult.”

First step to fix justice system

As the founder and executive director of the Alliance of Families for Justice, Elijah now works with many families with loved ones behind bars. But in 2001 she had her own close call. Elijah’s son was arrested by the Boston Transit Police for a graffiti charge. She attended the court hearing in Boston, but did not reveal she was a criminal defense lawyer who had once taught at Harvard. Her son’s defense lawyer came up to Elijah and told her to relax.

“‘Mom, you don’t have to worry, we’re going to get him six months probation,’” Elijah remembers her saying. “I said, ‘Oh no, you’re not. You’ve got yourself the wrong little black boy.’ And I gave her my card. And I said, ‘Now you fix it or I will.’”

The head of the gang violence unit of the Boston police came into court and swore out an affidavit that she witnessed him doing graffiti at a train station, Elijah said. The headmaster and the dean of her son’s private school went to court and swore out an affidavit that he was in school.

“I’m sure the only reason he didn’t go on the adult track is because he had a criminal defense lawyer as a mother,” she said. “It was like, ‘You are not going to screw up my son.’ If it weren’t for that, I’m sure his life would have been very different.”

She said there is no fixing the criminal justice system without first repairing a broken juvenile justice system.

“I don’t think you can fix mass incarceration unless you address the juvenile justice system,” Elijah said. “And you can’t address the juvenile justice system without addressing the education system. They are feeder systems.”

She had just taken a quick cat nap on a beat-up sofa in the lobby of one of the many churches that offered her marchers shelter. She was on the eve of reaching the halfway point between the beginning of the march in Harlem to the terminus in Albany.

She remained steadfast in her belief that this civil rights movement for the 21st century she is trying to jumpstart is essential in influencing a generation of young people to make as big a difference as the activists of the 1960s did to transform the country.

“This is part of how we can touch the next generation. This why I am doing this,” she said. “Lord knows, I could be doing something else at 62 years old besides going down the block in some strange neighborhood with a megaphone, OK? But it’s like a moving classroom. It’s like an interactive moving classroom for young people. And that’s really important. There’s no university they can go to on this planet where they can go to that can teach them this.”

Check out previous New York March coverage

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Maryland’s High Court Turns Fate of State’s DREAM Act Over to Voters

The highest court in the state of Maryland has cleared the way for voters this fall to determine the fate of a 2011 law allowing certain children of undocumented immigrants to pay in-state tuition at Maryland universities. Maryland is among a dozen states to have passed such a law, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

In a brief order  released Wednesday, the state Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court, upheld a ruling by a lower court judge that a voter referendum on the law be allowed to appear on the November ballot. The law remains suspended until the public votes on the measure.

Lawyers for the immigrant rights organization CASA de Maryland had unsuccessfully tried to convince the state supreme court’s seven-judge panel that the law was an appropriations bill as it dealt with tuition rates. Under Maryland’s constitution, bills dealing with expenditures and budget cannot be put to a public vote.

Dubbed Maryland’s DREAM Act and supported by Democratic Gov. Martin O’Malley, bill SB-167 allows students who have attended high school in the state for at least three years, graduated with a diploma, and whose parents or legal guardians have filed state income taxes throughout the student’s high school years, to qualify for in-state tuition rates at community colleges and public universities. In-state tuition rates at Maryland universities for the 2011-2012 school year are about $8,655, compared to $26,026 for out-of-state residents.

Under the law, students must enroll at a community college within four years of graduation, and apply to state universities only after completing their associate’s degree or 60 credits from a community college.

“This law is primarily intended to help children of immigrants who were brought to the U.S. by their parents at a very young age and who have worked hard throughout their academic careers with hope of going to college to further contribute to this country which they call home,” CASA says on its website.

Only an estimated 135 students in the state would qualify under the legislation at this time, making it unlikely to adversely impact state schools, argues CASA. Moreover, CASA points out, the law does not make such students eligible for scholarships or student loans. Critics of the law maintain that DREAM Act students would displace students who bring in the highest revenue, like foreign and out-of-state residents, and would force taxpayers to subsidize their attendance.

After the legislation’s passage last year,. Del. Neil Parrot(R)started a petition that garnered tens of thousands of signatures above the 55,736 required to trigger a voter referendum. CASA de Maryland and some students promptly sued in an effort to avert a public vote. In February, an Anne Arundel County Circuit judge ruled that the referendum be allowed to proceed, and on Wednesday, the state Court of Appeals agreed.

Public opinion on the law appears divided in Maryland, making the outcome of a November referendum uncertain. In January, the survey firm Gonzales Research polled 808 Marylanders who vote regularly: 48 percent agreed that in-state tuition should be granted to students who qualified under the law, while 49 percent disagreed. The poll had a margin of error of 3.5 percent.

In what could be bad news for supporters, however, the strength of opposition to the law appeared to outweigh strong approval. Thirty-seven percent of regular voters “strongly disagreed” with the law, compared to only 21 percent who “strongly agreed.”

Photo from DC Guide

Swimming Pools, Not Prisons

John Last 1Until I was in the sixth grade my family lived on an Air Force base in South Georgia. The base was a great place for kids. From the time I was six or seven I could ride my bike to wherever I wanted to go. Trips to the movies or the library were a lot of fun, and my parents didn’t have to worry about whether or not I was safe. In the summer my favorite bike ride was to the swimming pool. My friends and I would spend the whole day there, jumping off the high dive, eating ice cream, and just horsing around. It was the perfect way to spend those hot South Georgia summer days.

Last week, I was in Maryland and Washington D.C., where I met a lot of people involved in restorative justice and other human rights issues. In many parts of Maryland there are problems with poverty, gangs, juvenile delinquency, abuse, drugs and the whole gamut of social ills that plague many urban areas. Several of the people I met on my trip are involved in gang intervention, creating peaceful schools and obtaining services for young people in need of health care, counseling and other services.

One friend was telling me how miserable the summers in that part of the country are. They have a lot of days in the 90s, and often even crossing the 100 mark on the thermometer. The humidity is oppressive. I told my friend how much it sounded like the place where I grew up, and I was reminded of this when I read a recent story at, a Baltimore area news site, titled, “Schools and pools shuttered while city officials advocate for cells and bells.

This is a pretty catchy title, and it nicely encapsulates what is happening there. The mayor, Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, ran on a platform that included new schools and increased funding for education and youth services. Recently though, she has called for the closing of Baltimore’s seven public swimming pools, while at the same time continuing high levels of funding for city police and supporting the construction of a new youth jail, even though crime has steadily decreased and homicide rates have dropped to their lowest levels in 30 years.

This kind of thinking points out a fundamental flaw in the way that most people think about justice issues, including policy makers. Monday I spoke about restorative justice to Georgetown students enrolled in a class that focuses on Social Justice and Conflict Studies. These young people are very sharp, and they asked some tough questions. We spent a lot of time talking about how restorative justice systems can be implemented in the present society. It is not possible to separate justice policy from social policy, and to try is folly.

I am not saying that the closing of these pools will lead kids directly to crime and prison, but there is a link between how society chooses to allocate its resources and what happens to its citizens. If we put money into prisons instead of schools what can we expect? If Baltimore buys more police cameras on the backs of school kids, what will be the outcome? How these kids are treated now is important. Resources are limited, so it is important to consider where to invest them. This is a big question on a national level, but it goes all the way down to city politics and even to individual citizens. If we build prisons or fund other, more traditional, law enforcement options, we can expect an increase in incarceration. I would rather we worked on ways to spend our money that would help kids get a decent education in a decent school and that we gave them viable alternatives to running the streets. Maybe that is an arts program, maybe it is a baseball team, maybe it’s a mentor and just maybe it’s a swimming pool on a hot Baltimore day.

Disparity in Treatment of Girls, Boys by Maryland Department of Juvenile Services

About 80 percent of girls accused of misdemeanors in Maryland were committed to residential treatment centers compared to 50 percent of boys, according to statistics from Maryland’s Department of Juvenile Services (DJS).

The statistics, part of the Female Offenders Report, show more than two-thirds of girls sent to residential treatment centers were committed for offenses such as fighting and shoplifting or for drug offenses.

“That disparity between boys and girls is troubling and quite large," Juvenile Services Secretary Sam Abed told Capital News Service. "It's something I'm concerned about. It's a very complicated question, but it's something that merits explanation.”

The Maryland Legislature in 2011 passed a law requiring DJS to provide statistics breaking down services for boys and girls. Lawmakers grew concerned because DJS has the authority to make decisions about how youth committed to the juvenile justice system are treated.

"I was concerned to learn that there were a lot more opportunities available for boys in the juvenile facilities than for girls," said state Sen. Jamie Raskin, the Montgomery County Democrat who sponsored the bill that resulted in the Female Offenders Report.

The report also found 45 percent of committed girls in the system had a history of physical or sexual abuse.

A spokesperson said DJS is aware of the disparity and is exploring additional options for girls, including some community-based options, according to Capital News Service.

Southern States Must Address Middle Grades Education Immediately, Report Warns

SREB Middle Grades Report 2011 cover image

2011 SREB Middle Grades Report - click to viewOnly about a quarter of rising ninth graders in the Southeastern United States will graduate high school on time, according to a new report from the Southern Regional Educational Board (SREB).

“The middle grades are the make-or-break point of our K-12 public school system,” SREB President Dave Spence said in a press release. “If states are serious about raising graduation rates and preparing more students for postsecondary study, work has to begin now on the middle grades.”

The SREB is a non-profit, non-partisan organization established by regional governors and legislators to improve the public education system. The organization covers 16 states in the South and Southeast, working directly with state leaders, schools and educators to improve learning and student achievement from Pre-K to higher education.

The 16 states covered by the SREB have made “good” progress in early grades achievement in recent years according to the report, but a number still lag behind national standards.

Meanwhile, nation-wide, the likelihood an American teen will graduate from high school increased from 2006 to 2009 according to the 2011 KIDS COUNT Data Book, an annual report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation on children’s well-being throughout the nation.

While some 1.1 million teens between the age of 16 and 19 didn’t graduate high school or failed to enroll in 2009, the number represents about a 50 percent decline in the dropout rate since 2000, according to Kids Count.

Today, students entering high school in the South have about a 50/50 shot of making it into some sort of postsecondary education by age 19, according to the SREB report, yet research has shown the job sectors expected to grow fastest in the coming years will require some sort of college degree or technical certificate.

Out of the SREB-district students that enrolled in a four-year college directly after high school in 2003, little more than half (53 percent) graduated within six years. Those enrolled in two-year colleges within the same period fared worse, with less than 20 percent graduating within three years.

According to 2009 figures, adults with a high school diploma earned an average of $8,500 a year more than adults without a diploma. Those with a bachelor’s degree average $26,000 more per year and tended to make healthier life choices, with a lower likelihood of becoming involved in the criminal justice system, according to the SREB report.

Fourteen other nations already exceed the United States in the percentage of 25- to 34- year-olds who have completed at least two years of education beyond high school, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

It’s a worrying trend, even for President Obama. At a July 2011 roundtable, the president called education “the single most important factor in determining not just whether our kids can compete for the best jobs, but whether America can out-compete countries around the world.”

Throughout his presidency, Obama has pushed for a greater focus in the areas of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). The SREB report supports these initiatives, calling for an increased focus on both STEM studies and student literacy.

“Focusing on the middle grades curriculum to emphasize STEM in every subject means that more students will master these skills than in the past,” the SREB report notes. “They provide a foundation for continuing study in high school and for nearly all careers.”

To improve the states' graduation rates and help prepare students for high school, postsecondary study and even a future career, the 28-page report “A New Mission for Middle Grades: Preparing Students for a Changing World” offers a detailed, six-point roadmap to improving educational outcomes in middle school and beyond:

  • Communicate and clarify the mission in every middle grades school.
  • Focus the middle grades curriculum on literacy and STEM disciplines.
  • Identify middle grades students likely to drop out of school and intervene with increased learning time and accelerated instructions.
  • Require middle grades students to complete individual academic and career plans.
  • Refocus professional development for middle grades teachers, counselors and school leaders.
  • Hold districts and schools accountable for meeting the middle grades mission

According to the report, the middle grades are pivotal years for shaping a student’s future.

A phenomenon known as the “ninth-grade enrollment bulge” -- a chronic trend throughout the Southeast in which more students are enrolled in ninth grade than were enrolled in eighth grade due to being held back -- directly contributes to graduation rates, according to the report. Students cited not being on track to graduate with their peers as a critical factor in their decision to drop out of school.

Identifying those students at risk of dropping out or significantly lagging in the academic sector before they reach high school can reduce the “ninth-grade enrollment bulge” and ultimately the dropout rate, the report suggests.

“What we do to engage today’s sixth-grade students will have serious consequences for the strength of the economy in SREB states and the nation for years to come,” said North Carolina’s Gov. Beverly Perdue, former chair of the SREB Middle Grades Commission that produced the report.

Maryland has also started to develop a STEM resource clearinghouse with the hopes of bolstering early academic achievement in the state and facilitating an exchange of expertise and resources. Three county school districts are already online, but once completed the clearinghouse will act as a gateway for teachers to share knowledge, resources, and exchange ideas with STEM professionals and other academics.

“Part of the challenge is to move Maryland students to become world-class in STEM,” said June Streckfus, Executive Director of the Maryland Business Roundtable for Education and Co-Chair of the 2008 [Maryland] Stem Task Force . “In order to do that we took a two-prong approach,” focusing on motivating students to enroll in harder classes while fulfilling the needs of the teaching staff in areas like professional development and resource availability.

Findings from Montgomery County, Md., one of the few school districts in the nation to start putting the SREB’s vision for effective middle school practices to work, supports the work being done to improve education in the state. Data, based on student achievement in the district suggests students who pass Algebra I in the eighth grade are twice as likely to continue on to college.

In North Carolina, state legislators have pledged to create 10 anchor schools with a focus on STEM curriculum. Three high schools focused on STEM curriculum have already been established, with more expected in the coming years. Students choose whether to attend a STEM-centric high school while still taking middle school classes.

The anchor schools aim to lead the state’s efforts to develop exemplary STEM curricula while serving as centers for professional development and lead the state in innovative teaching and learning practices, according to the SREB report.

States Respond to Budget Shortfalls with Hodgepodge of Juvenile Justice Cuts

Around the nation, states continue to grapple with the reality of budget shortfalls with a hodgepodge of cuts to various programs, including juvenile justice.


North Carolina’s Department of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention is being forced to cut spending by 10 percent while eliminating roughly 275 positions, a 15 percent decrease in work force, under the new FY 2012 budget.

Also gone are 75 beds from the state’s seven youth development centers, raising concerns that serious offenders may end up back on the streets to make room for new juveniles entering the facilities.


Alabama’s Department of Child Abuse & Neglect Prevention has a FY 2012 budget a little more than half that of FY 2011. The department saw a 74 percent drop in general state funding and significant cuts from the federal-level.

“I don’t see the system being able to recover in my working lifetime,” said DCANP Director Kelly Parris-Barnes. “When you take the community level programs out you don’t have the capacity at the state level to do it.”

Not a direct service provider themselves, the DCANP allocates funds for community-based programs around the state. Of the 174 programs the department funded in FY 2011, just 101 are slated for FY 2012, according to Deputy Director Greg Smith.


On the surface, Idaho’s Department of Juvenile Corrections has seen an increase in funding heading into FY 2011-2012. The budget has increased, said Chief Fiscal Officer Scott Johnson, but the department also absorbed the now defunct Office of Drug Policy.

“The impact is huge,” Johnson said. “All we got was the money. We didn’t get any additional personnel for managing a $4 million program. We’re basically having to design a substance abuse program from the ground up.”

Overall the department saw a $1.1 million decrease in its operating budget, but has largely been able to offset the shortfall due to cost-cutting measures and a decrease in state population.


Maryland added $3.2 million to its Department of Juvenile Services for FY 2012, but the increase is expected to restore employee furlough days, according to a budget analysis outlined by Youth Today. The department still expects to see a reduction in evidence-based services.

Down 12 percent since FY 2011, Louisiana’s Department of Youth Services has seen more than a 20 percent decline in funding since FY 2008.

Texas has begun the closure of the Al Price State Juvenile Correctional Facility in an effort to bridge a $117 million shortfall over the next two years.


States around the country have dealt with the decline in available funds for juvenile justice and other related programs in their own ways. This article is merely a snapshot of some of the realities on the ground.

Youth Today has started an open-ended compilation of state-by-state spending on juvenile justice, child welfare and youth to help make sense of all the numbers.



“Scared Straight” Programs Suspended in California and Maryland

scared_straight_seriesTwo states suspended Scared Straight programs on Friday.  California and Maryland prison officials, who welcomed producers of Beyond Scared Straight into their high security facilities, are now backing away from the show and the confrontational diversion program for troubled teens.  South Carolina is also reviewing the issue, according to

The U.S. Department of Justice is warning state officials that scared straight techniques don’t deter young people from crime, and may make them more likely to offend in the future.  An op-ed piece published in the Baltimore Sun this week and written by two Justice Department officials says the agency discourages funding for scared straight-type programs, and states that operate them risk losing their federal funding under provisions of the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act.

Episodes of Beyond Scared Straight were created inside prisons in California, Maryland and South Carolina for the show that debuted in January on the A&E network.

The Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services began a review of its diversion programs after inmates were shown touching and grabbing kids in the episode. No complaints were filed but J. Michael Stouffer, Maryland Commissioner of Corrections, decided to review the programs as a precaution, according to the Hagerstown Herald-Mail.

Another Maryland program that gives teens one-on-one counseling sessions with inmates has also been cancelled. reported on Tuesday that Rhode Island suspended its “Scared Straight” program after state officials learned that children as young as 8 were involved.

A nationwide petition drive is calling on the A&E Network to cancel the show and educate the public on the potential dangers of the program.