It is time for youth justice reformers to stop and take stock of how we pursue justice.
The racial disparities that pervade our youth justice systems from beginning to end are not random occurrences. Rather, youth justice reformers can directly track the development of our justice policies to government control of populations largely seen as “other” by the white majority. As such, our work to shrink the system is insufficient if we do not fully confront the racist roots of the youth justice system itself.
Well before the first juvenile court was created at the turn of the 20th century, we used the court and prison system as a mechanism to perpetuate racism. During Reconstruction, our adult justice system was used as a means to extend slavery’s chains to freed black men who were picked up on newly passed vagrancy laws and other laws that comprised the “Black Codes” — criminal laws solely applicable to black citizens. These men were rented out to nearby coal mines and plantations under the forced labor of convict leasing programs.
This ability of our court and prison infrastructure to serve as a tool for the extension of slavery was enshrined in the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which notably abolished slavery and involuntary servitude, “except as a punishment for crime.”
It's upon this history that in 1899 in Chicago white women, emerging from the progressive settlement house movement, which provided education and services for poor immigrants, created our country’s first juvenile court. The court was a response to the growing evidence of the abuses in the "houses of refuge" — essentially detention centers for poor and immigrant youth — and the use of the adult justice system for children.
These women believed that these poor children — largely immigrant youth — who were unschooled, unsupervised, filling the city’s streets and getting in trouble with the law — often precisely because of their poverty — should be treated in age-segregated courts that would provide the child and family with a guiding hand and instill in them white, middle-class values.
The definitions of misconduct that could land a child in court were broad and, pursuant to the noteworthy judicial precept of “parens patriae,” judges were able to usurp all parental control over the children appearing before them, allowing the judges to impose wide-ranging interventions. From the very beginning, black youth were overrepresented in these courts — a source of concern for some black advocates, who recognized that there were insufficient social supports in communities for black youth.
As a result, we created a system that was practically tailor-made to oppress and contain youth of color. We can see a court system that was grounded in an imperialistic view that white middle-class people had the knowledge and obligation to improve the lives of "other" (even "inferior") people, the understanding that the state knew better than families and was authorized to act in their stead and a promise of rehabilitation that was built upon community services that were lacking or nonexistent for black youth.
That today our system exhibits dramatic racial and ethnic disparities and is party to inhumane and unconstitutional abuses of youth should not, therefore, be surprising.
Jumping ahead to the 1970s, after the hard-won gains of the civil rights movement, we witnessed white politicians stirring up the public’s fear of crime to gain political points and white votes. They tapped into deep-seated, perhaps subconscious, concerns among white populations about the precariousness of their own supremacy in the face of legally protected civil rights for blacks. To this end, we saw a rise of “public safety” candidates who latched onto periodic increases in crime and mythic “super-predators,” enabling the subsequent cancerous growth of our justice system.
Over the last 45 years we have witnessed a never-ending war on drugs, unprecedented prison growth (often at the expense of public education), “three strikes and you’re out” laws, civil asset forfeiture, the annual charging of hundreds of thousands of youth in the adult system, the use of solitary confinement as default housing for prisoners, gang injunctions and databases and so much more.
So where does this bring us to today? Our youth justice systems exhibit intractable racial disparities at every decision-making point. This, in spite of the fact that youth of color and white youth self-report similar rates of offending.
And horrifyingly, our web of laws and community surveillance have led to fully one-third of adult black men being under some sort of court control (prison, probation, parole). We see our justice system binding itself to the immigration enforcement bureaucracy by collaborating with ICE to enable increased deportations of immigrants, and we see police officers stationed in schools, facilitating the arrest and court-processing of “disruptive” youth of color. After a century-plus of juvenile court development, our youth justice system has become a well-tuned tool for social control of black and brown young people.
While substantial advances and reforms have been made in youth justice in recent years — including dramatic drops in youth incarceration (there are fully 50 percent fewer youth held in youth prisons than a decade ago), greater awareness of the dangers of the school-to-prison pipeline and an increase in local and state efforts to stem this tide, fewer youth transferred to the adult court and a decrease in the use of solitary confinement — significant racial disparities in the system persist.
It is still youth of color who wear electronic monitoring devices, who get arrested at school and who sit in lock-up. In fact, in many instances, the rate of racial disparities has increased as the overall numbers of youth in the system has decreased. It is important to note here, that while youth of color bear the brunt of our system’s yoke, there are other groups of marginalized people who suffer as well. Youth who are LGBTQI, disabled, girls, First Nations’ people and others are disproportionately ensnared in and maltreated by our youth justice systems.
So what now? For we who seek justice, what is our path forward?
If the roots, trunk and branches of our youth justice system have grown out of the forces of white supremacy, then it is white supremacy that must be confronted. And by white supremacy, I do not mean the people who chant Nazi slogans in support of Confederate statues, although they clearly are white supremacists. I mean the white supremacy that lives in the structures of our society, in our organizations and in ourselves.
It is white supremacist culture that allows the implicit bias against youth and adults of color to which we all fall prey. It is white supremacist culture that reinforces the power imbalances that determines who gets funded, who serves as executive directors of our nonprofits, who speaks at conferences and who informs our policies.
What are we doing right now to dismantle these power structures in how we seek change? How do we run our organizations? Who are our leaders? Who are our staff? Have we partnered with and supported youth and families who are most negatively affected by our youth justice systems? Have we connected with and supported related movements for racial justice? Who holds us accountable? These and other questions should form the basis of our work ahead.
Yes, we must and we will continue to pursue policies that shrink our system and make what remains fair and effective. But this work — difficult as it may be — is insufficient if our goal is true justice. We must also simultaneously pursue our work in anti-racist ways. There is no simple recipe for a transformed society; it’s a journey that we engage in individually and collectively. So, let’s begin.
Sarah Bryer is executive director and president of the National Juvenile Justice Network.
NEW YORK — Twenty-three years ago, New York City Council candidate Anthony Beckford faced long odds when he spoke out as a precocious preteen against a school redistricting plan in central Brooklyn.
From what he understood at age 12, the plan would split the district into two — one for the rich, the other for the poor. He gave an impassioned speech at a school board meeting and members voted against the plan. The message he took from that experience was simple: If he just spoke passionately and eloquently enough, he could accomplish anything.
“I’ve always had this strength within me but it was from the things that I was taught as a child and from the power that I realized that even as a child I had,” he said in an interview. “With me being older, I’m bigger. I’m louder now.”
The longtime activist is hoping he can prevail against Democratic incumbent Jumaane Williams, a rising star in local politics who won election four years ago with nearly 100 percent of the vote. But these facts haven’t kept Beckford from waging a $1,500 electoral insurgency as passionately as he can against an opponent with almost 20 times more money.
Beckford shares stories on social media about his work leading the Copwatch Patrol Unit in Brooklyn. The group is known for its aggressive monitoring of police officers. “Complacency is the slave mentality of those who choose to be slaves,” reads its recent recruitment, an approach Beckford has deployed in his campaign.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions has steered the Justice Department away from Obama-era reforms to criminal justice. But in central Brooklyn, these ideas are seen as not far-reaching enough to many activists at the grassroots level. These are the people who pack the courts when police go on trial for shooting civilians. Or they are the activists who challenge the authority of police officers to curtail protests. Sometimes they run for elected office with popular ideas that eventually can gain the support of more centrist politicians.
Beckford wants to fire police officers who kill civilians, legalize marijuana rather than decriminalize it and end “broken windows” style policing. His lack of money and name recognition and his sometimes radical views may not win him a city council seat, but the message appealed to passersby as he canvassed alongside a busy intersection in the district on a Saturday afternoon in October.
An elderly woman stopped to hear Beckford describe his platform. Another woman turned back to the curb from the crosswalk to grab a leaflet. A 30-something man appeared surprised moments later to see the brochure’s photo matched the barreled-bodied man in front of him.
The dangers of policing were nothing new to one man who talked to Beckford about the school-to-prison pipeline.
“It’s a setup since Creation,” the man said.
“Mass incarceration is the new slavery. Broken windows is the new Jim Crow era laws,” Beckford replied.
His opponent Williams is not militant enough, Beckford said.
Williams, who did not respond to a request for comment, embodies a more pragmatic style of politics that has resulted in reforms to the city’s criminal justice system.
One bill he sponsored would eventually divert tens of thousands of people away from the criminal justice system; another was “ban the box” legislation that now prohibits city employers from asking job applicants about their criminal histories until after they’ve been offered a job.
These are still radical ideas in many cities within Middle America, but in Brooklyn they are the mainstream. A city council where only three out of 51 seats are Republican leaves plenty of space for incumbents to face challenges from the far left.
And that’s where Beckford continues to operate. He lives in the same apartment he did when he began his activism long ago. A degree from “Grunt University” — earned through his completion of Marine Corps basic training — hangs on the wall a few feet away from a 23-year-old letter.
That came from a school administrator who heard Beckford speak out against that rezoning plan 23 years ago. A single voice had stopped an unjust plan, wrote Harvey Garner, the community superintendent.
Beckford said in an interview that the recognition he received from this authority figure inspired him throughout the years that followed.
“It meant a lot to me,” he said.
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LOS ANGELES — For Jordan, growing up in Jamaica, Queens in New York City left much to be desired. One of the few places he could go after school were the youth arts programs in his neighborhood.
“It was the thing to do after school instead of being outside or doing something that could possibly get you in trouble,” he said.
“We did documentaries when I was a part of it,” said Jordan (who only uses his first name). “We did documentaries about kids dropping out and how it affects the community, teenage pregnancy and stuff like that.”
He was in Los Angeles as part of the Create Justice forum led by Weill and Los Angeles-based Arts for Incarcerated Youth Network (AIYN). The initiative brought together youth leaders from around the country to share their vision for the nation’s juvenile justice system.
Programs such as those driven by the Weill Music Institute are providing space for young people to engage in the arts in a way that they may not have had otherwise.
“Because music is inherently expressive, when you invite young people in to participate in musically, and in other art forms as well, we hear stories and we hear voices that we may not have heard otherwise, or we hear them in ways that we can take in differently,” said Sarah Johnson, director of the Music Institute.
Space for young people to engage in the arts is an essential part of discussions on juvenile justice happening across the country.
“The arts are uniquely good at creating a safe space and creating space for inclusion,” said Kaile Shilling, AIYN executive director. “A lot of the systems that young people butt up against are set up to be exclusionary, they’re set up to shut them out, make them abide by rules, and the arts gives young people, all people, really, a space to express themselves freely.”
The Create Justice event took place at the newly opened Campus Kilpatrick youth detention facility and the Armory Center for the Arts in Pasadena, California, on Sept. 25 and 26.
Campus Kilpatrick in Malibu, California is part of a recent initiative called the LA Model that aims to overhaul the juvenile justice system in Los Angeles County, which has one of the highest youth confinement populations in the state.
“It is a big shift in LA County probation from a custodial, correctional model to a restorative and supportive model and really seeing themselves as a continuum of care for young people,” Shilling said.
The LA Model is an initiative spawned from the Missouri Model, which focuses on rehabilitation and positive reinforcement to reduce recidivism rates. According to Shilling, what sets the LA Model apart is its focus on the arts.
“Arts should be a real partner in how we are thinking about transforming and supporting young people, not just a program coming in and out,” she said. “One of the things that’s really unique about the Kilpatrick Model, the LA Model, that they’re using here is a real commitment to integrating arts in the facility.”
While the use of art to heal young people exposed to trauma, who make up the majority of the incarcerated youth population, is not new, the integration of the arts to heal young people within the juvenile justice system has emerged only in the last several years.
The California Arts Council’s JUMP StArt grant program started in 2013 to support arts education programs for youth who have spent time in the juvenile justice system. Meant to be an intervention in the school-to-prison pipeline, it requires grant recipients to demonstrate a direct collaboration between an arts organization and juvenile justice program.
One such grant recipient is Street Poets Inc., a nonprofit organization in Los Angeles that uses poetry to build community and to heal at-risk youth and those who have been exposed to the juvenile justice system. Arts-based programs like Street Poets have been instrumental in changing the environment of juvenile justice facilities to foster healing.
“This practice empowers our youth to reclaim conscious control of their own stories, shifting them from the shadows where their stories may have previously controlled them,” Chris Henrikson, founder and executive director of Street Poets, said in an email.
Other youth leaders at the Create Justice initiative agreed.
“I do music, so it’s just another thing to relate to somebody,” said Brian, an intern at the Justice Scholars program in New York City. “It’s just another way to relate to a person. And the more you have to relate to a person, the more susceptible they are to opening up.”
Brian works with youth newly released from the juvenile justice system to give them support and help them find jobs.
“I feel like the problem with a lot of us is basically we don’t have an outlet,” he said. “Art can be used as an outlet and also art can be used as a vehicle to meet other people which will lead to internships, jobs, etcetera.”
The ability of the arts to help young people gain job skills is paramount to the healing process for those who have been in the juvenile justice system. It helps young people see a future for themselves beyond facility walls by giving them job skills in creative careers.
“They also develop really important skills that are essential in the world today,” Weill’s Johnson said. “Creative problem-solving skills, they build confidence, they build collaborative skills, a lot of those social skills and behaviors that are essential to success in life.”
Shilling agrees the arts are important in helping young people find jobs once they leave the juvenile justice system. She notes that one in every six jobs in Los Angeles is in the creative economy.
The support of this arts-focused model has been instrumental helping arts programs expand their outreach. As a result of collaborations with AIYN, and grantee of JUMP StArts’ statewide and regional networks program, Street Poets has been able to build its programming to reach multiple levels of the juvenile justice system.
“We have expanded dramatically our outreach in the LA Youth Probation campus – going from three probation sites once a week to close to as much as nine to 10 twice weekly,” Henrikson said. “We’ve also started training probation officers in our methodology and have led four trainings for approximately 300 probation officers over the past two years.”
Awareness surrounding the effectiveness of the arts in healing young people and reducing recidivism rates has not gone unnoticed.
“This year, the legislature included a line-item provision of $750,000 in the Senate Budget Act to expand the JUMP StArts program. That financial infusion clearly speaks to their belief in its value,” said Josy Miller, arts education program specialist of JUMP StArts.
Conversations about how the arts can heal young people who have been in the juvenile justice system continue to be at the forefront of the nationwide awareness of the ways institutions are failing young people, and how leaders can go about changing these systems.
“There’s a very, very, real struggle around how do we improve systems for young people and how do we really questions those systems in the first place,” Shilling said. “The arts are actually central and foundational to struggling with really hard, complex issues.”
This story has been updated.
Hello. The national Knight Foundation and the Democracy Fund like our work so much that they have agreed to match donations of up to $1,000 per person. They will spend up to $28,000 through the end of December.
So this would be an especially good time to donate to the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange. Any money you give us up to $1,000 will be doubled.
Our independent journalism on the juvenile justice system takes a lot of time, money and hard work to produce. But we believe it’s crucial — and we think you agree.
Thanks for listening.
The school-to-prison pipeline is gaining fuel based on inappropriate behavior on social media. The pipeline is the trend of funneling students from public schools into the criminal justice system. African-American youth have been the most impacted by the pipeline.
Even worse, the U.S. Department of Education has new research that shows the pipeline starts at preschool for black students. According to the American Civil Liberties Union, black students represent 31 percent of school-related arrests. It started with the zero tolerance policies of the 1990s that saw students being criminalized for minor school infractions such as improper dress, disruption of a public school, obstruction, etc.
Although zero tolerance policies have started to fade away, inappropriate conduct on social media is bringing new fuel to the pipeline. New issues such as cyberbullying have traditionally been perceived as an activity that takes place online in the comfort of the cyberbully’s home.
New research indicates that cyberbullying is now crossing over from the online world to the offline world. Guess where those incidents are taking place? At your local school system. School systems have noticed this trend and have started to put in place measures to address these issues.
More than 45 states, plus local governments, have laws and policies that protect victims from bullying and cyberbullying. Some state cyberbullying codes protect victims on the school ground and outside school grounds.
For example, Georgia laws on cyberbullying covers events within the walls of the school, during extracurricular activities, on the school bus and even at designated school bus stops. Therefore, a kid who is engaged in cyberbullying at the bus stop is in violation of the law if caught and turned in to the school administration. Missouri has a new law that considers inflicting emotional distress a felony. Cyberbullying incidents fall under this new law, which requires school systems, under mandatory reporting statutes, to refer incidents to law enforcement.
Unfortunately, most of these laws do not have specific guidelines for schools to follow. Principals are handicapped in determining when to handle a cyberbullying incident at school or when to refer it out to law enforcement. One principal of a Title 1 school in Clayton County, Georgia, told me about a similar situation. He said:
“Man, I get these students that get involved in this cyberbullying beef over the weekend on Instagram. When they come to school on Monday they are ready to fight. I had two young men in my office that I literally had to stand between them to prevent a fight based upon something that happened on social media.”
No school wants to be subjected to a civil lawsuit from a family for not following the law. Thus, most schools refer out to law enforcement and allow juvenile courts to sort it out, which only cements the school-to-prison pipeline.
In most cases, this pipeline causes nonviolent offenders to be introduced and admitted into the criminal justice system. Students can spend up to 72 hours in a juvenile detention center before coming before a judge. That’s 72 hours of meeting and being introduced to antisocial peers at the detention center. That’s 72 hours of learning new criminal activities or a hustle to try when you return home.
In 2004 Clayton County decided to act on their school-to-prison pipeline. Juvenile court Judge Steven Teske noticed a heavy increase in referrals to law enforcement from school officials. This trend started around the same time the Board of Education stationed school resource officers in the school system.
To decrease the number of youth coming to court for school-related nonviolent offenses such as disruption of a public school, the Clayton Juvenile Court collaborated with the juvenile justice system, the school system, social service providers and law enforcement to create a memorandum of understanding (MOU) to limit the number of referrals made to juvenile court.
Minor delinquent acts such as obstruction, disorderly conduct and disruption of public school have to go through a three-step process before the filing of a complaint. For the first complaint, youth receive a written warning based upon their behavior. For the second, youth are referred to school mediation to resolve the problem. A third complaint results in the filing of a complaint to be referred to juvenile court.
Director of Court Services Colin Slay told me “the MOU with the school system has eliminated the school-to-prison pipeline in Clayton County.” Students who are engaged in internet “beefs” that cross over to school are handled through normal school disciplinary procedures and the outlined MOU.
More counties should create policies that mediate social media “beefs,” conflicts, etc. before formal charges are filed and youth end up in the juvenile justice system. As we know, teenagers will be teenagers, but it is also time for adults to be adults and shut down this emerging pipeline that is impacting black youth.
Sedgrid Lewis is the state director of Community Solutions, a nonprofit organization that specializes in evidence-based programs to prevent the school-to-prison pipeline.
WASHINGTON — Black girls are nearly four times more likely to be arrested at school than their white counterparts and Latina girls are almost three times more likely to be arrested in elementary school than white girls, a new report says.
Researchers at the Georgetown Law Center on Poverty and Inequality and the National Black Women’s Justice Institute found that the explosion of police in the nation’s schools is forcing increasing numbers of black and brown girls into the school-to-prison pipeline.
There are police officers in nearly half the nation’s high schools — a list that grows with each new school shooting or move to zero tolerance disciplinary policies. Police find themselves being asked to intervene in routine disciplinary matters or end up haranguing young black and brown girls to be “more ladylike,” said the report, released Tuesday.
Officers are thrust into school systems with little training and even less structure: Fewer than half the states that allow police to patrol their schools require formal memoranda of understanding between police departments and school officials. Plus, many of the girls told researchers that the police in their schools were prejudiced against them and they couldn’t get a fair break.
In some cases, the school-to-prison pipeline followed a direct line, the researchers found. Broadly or vaguely worded laws making it a criminal offense to “disrupt school” landed some 29,000 South Carolina students in the juvenile justice system in the first decades of the century, the report said.
It recommends better and more thorough training for school police and a shift away from heavy-handed law enforcement and toward counseling and early interventions. The report is intended as a toolkit for school systems and police departments. But it also makes clear that its authors hope this is the beginning of a conversation, not the end of one.
It’s a discussion that’s long overdue, juvenile justice reform advocates agreed.
“It brings a really important perspective to the work and I think that the focus on girls of color in the school-to-prison pipeline isn’t nearly engaged in enough,” said Sarah Bryer, executive director of the National Juvenile Justice Network. “It’s critical to the whole debate and will provide really concrete ideas and actions going forward.” This report complements her organization’s work on implicit bias, she said.
Marcy Mistrett, the chief executive officer of the Campaign for Youth Justice, said she wasn’t entirely surprised by the report’s findings — she and her allies have been warning about the school-to-prison pipeline for years — but was frustrated by the complexity of a problem that didn’t have to exist in the first place.
“To me, the thing that just continues to befuddle me is why there are such loose guidelines around this,” she said. “There’s no mandatory training for these guys on youth development, on cultural competence, on appropriate responses to regular, adolescent behavior. These arrests — it’s kids talking back, it’s kids being too loud, it’s kids being late to class — that’s all typical, adolescent behavior.”
What’s especially frustrating, Mistrett said, is that the solutions are so easy. “If they took the money they paid those officers and actually trained the teachers and principals in de-escalation and conflict resolution, they wouldn’t need the police in these schools,” she said.
Michelle C. Thomas is a veteran family court lawyer in Washington and former chair of the National Bar Association Young Lawyers Division. For her, the report’s lessons are pretty straightforward.
“It matters a lot that young black girls feel safe at schools — like they matter, and not like a target,” she said.
Matt Fraidin, a professor at the University of the District of Columbia’s David A. Clarke School of Law who has been a longtime advocate for child welfare reform, believes the report points to larger racial problems.
“More than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, many of us live in segregated neighborhoods, which feed into segregated schools,” he said. “That’s the broader context in which these findings arise — a setting which makes it tragically unsurprising that girls of color experience disparate, harsh treatment in institutions that should be safe and welcoming.”
The school-to-prison pipeline refers to the streamlining of at-risk students from schools to incarceration or related correctional-type facilities that results from punitive discipline practices and criminalizing misconduct in schools. Ultimately, the school-to-prison pipeline is the consequence of zero tolerance policies that originally mandated schools to penalize students for bringing weapons and drugs onto school grounds.
This penalty has grown to include nonviolent offenses that do not pose an immediate threat or harm. An alarming rate of students have been suspended and/or expelled for noncriminal acts such as disruptive behavior, violation of dress code, displays of affection or defiant behavior toward authority. In the 2011-12 academic year, 260,000 students were referred to law enforcement and 130,000 were expelled due to minor infractions. During that same time, more than 3 million students were suspended at least once. It has been discovered that a student is 23.5 percent more likely to drop out of school after receiving exclusionary discipline.
With individual schools having discretion to apply zero tolerance, a recognizable pattern has developed of minority students being disciplined more harshly, and at disproportionate rates, for minor subjective behaviors that do not cause physical or mental harm, such as verbal aggression, being disrespectful toward authorities or cellphone usage. Students of color have been found to be lower academic achievers, overall, and are detrimentally impacted by the low expectations set forth by school systems.
According to the Civil Rights Data Collection (CRDC), African-American students represent 16 percent of the national student population, but 34 percent were expelled and 42 percent were suspended multiple times in 2014. Similar statistics are reflected for Hispanic and other racial minority youth nationwide.
Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) youth and students with disabilities are also found to be negatively impacted by this pipeline. LGBT youth are often victimized by their peers and blamed as the cause of problems by their teachers, and students with disabilities are often misdiagnosed and more likely to be held back a grade, which often leads to dropout. With such staggering statistics found in the available research, it is imperative that newer approaches to school discipline be considered and implemented to decrease the negative impacts such policies have on students and to decrease the streamlining of students into incarceration.
Alternative discipline strategies
While strict disciplinary actions such as expulsion are vital for punishing behavior that threatens the safety of others in school settings, it is not effective in correcting more minor problematic behaviors. Schools should instead use more positive-based strategies for addressing and modifying defiant behaviors.
Protecting the most vulnerable students from the dangers of incarceration and recidivism must be of primary concern. The school environment should be one of the main settings to help these students work on eliminating such undesirable behaviors, particularly for those who lack effective discipline at home.
Methods such as the On-Campus Intervention Program (OCIP) and Consistency Management and Cooperative Discipline (CMCD) program are alternative approaches to suspension and expulsion that have the ability to create a shift from a punitive learning environment to one that is warm and welcoming for all students.
OCIP provides counseling and support services to help students address and modify challenging behaviors by giving them opportunities to learn from their mistakes and focus on personal development. This program also emphasizes the development of essential life skills such as effective communication, goal setting, decision making and issues surrounding sexuality and healthy relationships. A Harvard report found that students enrolled in the OCIP demonstrated improved behavior and had a noticeable decrease in disciplinary referrals.
CMCD is another program that is an alternative approach to many of the harsh disciplinary actions associated with zero tolerance policies. Designed to improve the overall environment of inner-city schools, it has the primary goal of having teachers and students collaborate to set classroom rules. Such a method creates a fundamental shift in the ways students are disciplined and expected to behave and allows for a more shared power dynamic. This program also focuses on rewarding positive behavior, which is imperative for improving school climate, especially for schools that have poor attendance and poor academic performance. Such programs as these have made drastic changes within schools and helped to dismantle the pipeline.
Cultural competency training
As previously mentioned, there has been an alarming rate of students of color being suspended and expelled from schools due to minor infractions over the last decade. Several studies have negated the probable cause that the basis of race alone is the reason behind minority students engaging in negative behaviors.
In fact, there is no evidence that African-American students engage in more problematic behaviors than their Caucasian counterparts, yet they are expelled or receive more serious forms of punishment at higher rates. The racial disparity of the school-to-prison pipeline reveals a deeper-seated issue, systematic racism within American schools. While minority students and students from the majority may display the same behaviors, there’s an identifiable correlation with stronger negative perceptions and negative feedback for minority students.
America’s historic racial narrative has transformed into implicit bias, which is one of the main causes of the pipeline and helps to explain the disproportionate rate of minorities being disciplined for subjective behavior. Implicit bias training and cultural diversity training are potential solutions to resolve consequences from actions motivated by implicit bias. Implicit bias training allows professionals to self-report their innate decisions and teaches how these decisions impact the lives of youth.
Cultural diversity training allows professionals to become more aware of others’ culture, and prompts the exploration of how and why certain stereotypical and discriminatory beliefs exist. Being made aware of the potential stereotypes and biases that exist in the subconscious minds of professionals working with students can have a significant impact on the ways in which school personnel interact with students and can also help make the shift from making biased decisions to choices that are objective and more concrete.
It is up to schools and associated administrators to eliminate the cultural biases and conflicts prevalent in all school systems and work against the academic progress and successful development of all students, with at-risk students from minority groups in particular. Learning from such shifts has the potential to transform how students are disciplined into ways that better facilitate the necessary maturation to become successful adults and members of society.
Considering the impact policies such as zero tolerance have had on the school-to-prison pipeline, it is necessary to advocate for new policies that reconsider how to discipline problematic students in more effective and rehabilitative ways. The school environment is where students learn and grow, and it only makes sense that in this environment they are also exposed to and experience better approaches to development that occur outside of textbooks and classroom lectures. Students must learn how to act appropriately and how to respond to external stressors that can often provoke undesirable behaviors.
With evidence from research that proves zero tolerance and related policies that incorporate mandatory punishment for minor offenses do not work and, in fact, exacerbate misbehavior, newer approaches must be considered. Not only have studies found such policies to increase problematic behaviors, they also point to unsafe school climates and a lack of improvement in terms of students’ academic performance. School policies need to be revised to only use suspension and expulsions for the highest level of violent offenses and alternative effective methods for minor nonviolent offenses.
Some states have been diligently revising their code of conduct and rules. For example, Oregon replaced its zero tolerance policy with rules that only allow expulsion for conduct that threatens the safety and well-being of others within the school environment. Other schools across the nation have cleared up grey areas concerning disciplinary action and limited including law enforcement during disciplinary decision-making practices. While research is ongoing and necessary to track results from such changes, more needs to be done to increase the rate at which changes are being made to strengthen America’s youth and schools.
Schools have been a prominent cornerstone for youth’s overall development and the learning environment for them to become contributing members of society. However, far too many students have been robbed of their right to be comprehensively educated due to the school-to-prison pipeline. We dim the light for students and the nation's future when we continue to push problem students out of schools and funnel them into the juvenile/criminal justice system, thereby feeding the belly of mass incarceration.
School personnel and administrators, lawmakers, social workers and counselors must make dismantling this pipeline a top priority and consider this small sample of strategies for improving the lives of our most vulnerable students and our school climates. The utilization of such solutions needs to be incorporated into the future and advancement of all schools to strengthen our school systems and the educational experience of all students.
Kendra Cheek is a social work senior at Middle Tennessee State University with a passion for research and serving youth in marginalized populations. She’s an emerging leader, currently serving as the secretary for Phi Alpha National Honor Society in Social Work and vice president of the National Association of Black Social Workers.
Justin Bucchio is an assistant professor of social work at Middle Tennessee State University, with expertise in child welfare and LGBT foster youth. Justin’s experience with social work and the child welfare system stems from his early years in foster care, which ignited his passion for serving youth in out-of-home care.
It's not an easy task to keep disruptive kids in school because our inclination is to remove them like we do a tumor.
The intuitive thought when it comes to discipline is to punish the transgressor to deter future misconduct. Suspending students from the classroom has become the traditional response for misconduct, notwithstanding evidence that oversuspension causes dropout rates to rise.
For example, a study of absences among Georgia high school students beginning their ninth grade year through 12th grade found that those absent 15 days or more had a pathetically poor 30.37 percent graduation rate. Most stunning is that many of these absences were due to suspensions. This suggests that we pushed them out of school.
The advent of police on school campuses created another layer of push-out using criminal sanctions as a punisher. This has harsher results, as shown by a 2006 study showing that a student arrested on campus is twice as likely not to graduate and four times more likely if they appear in court.
Despite these harmful outcomes, there are those who ask why other students should have to endure the disruption caused by one student. In the words of Spock, spewing logic across the universe, “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.”
But what if the failure to address the needs of the few now will result in injury to the many in the future?
Consider that in Georgia, 70 percent of the adult prison population dropped out of school. Many of them were the disruptive kind who were suspended, expelled and arrested without any consideration given to why they were disruptive in the first place. Many of these inmates were once the same disruptive students in our schools who we are now unwittingly pushing out into the streets for quieter classrooms today.
Many of our intuitive thoughts make sense when we live for today. They are not so sensible when we reach the future, and realize that those we pushed out yesterday are now victimizing more of us in worse ways today.
What if we could create a system that identifies the reasons why, and the resources to ameliorate, the causes of disruptive conduct? The goal would be so that the misconduct dissipates so that learning improves, and so does the odds of graduation.
What if we could do today what it takes to make us safer tomorrow?
Like diseases, disruptive behaviors do not occur by chance and they are not randomly distributed. This means they can be studied to determine their causes in every case. Once these causes are identified, we can develop solutions to eradicate the cause just as we do with diseases.
I had the distinct honor recently to deliver a keynote address at Georgetown University to kick off the first program of its kind that certifies a multidisciplinary group of professionals in the mechanics of creating and implementing such a system, called the school-justice partnership. The program is the brainchild of one of our greatest champions for kids, Shay Bilchik, who is the founder and director of the Center for Juvenile Justice Reform at Georgetown University.
Shay has a long history of child advocacy as an attorney, administrator of the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, director of the Child Welfare League of America and now at Georgetown training professionals to become champions for our most vulnerable kids.
His venture into school-justice partnerships is one that I embrace. While we can never do enough to dismantle the school-to-prison pipeline, he is creating a coterie of experts to build school-justice partnerships at ground zero of communities throughout our nation.
Shay is not new to this. His work has touched the lives of many kids in so many ways and at so many levels by equipping so many with the skills necessary to reform systems at the grassroots level, where the lives of youth are mostly affected by adults making policy decisions. The continued practice of unhealthy zero tolerance policies underscores the need for more folks certified in best practices, like school-justice partnerships, to increase the army of reformers at ground zero — the local community.
When I convened educators and law enforcement in 2003 with the objective to create the nation’s first school-justice partnership, I instinctively knew it was the best approach to dismantle the school-to-prison pipeline, absent legislative enactments prohibiting zero tolerance policies.
God forbid if we passed laws that prohibited arresting students for minor school offenses, which would affect only those remaining school superintendents still ignorant of what works or too stubborn to change.
When did it become a crime to make adults mad?
More states, in their effort to reduce incarceration of low-risk youth, have passed laws prohibiting judges from doing just that (rightfully so). So why can’t the same occur to stop the flow of students from school to juvenile courts when students make an adult mad?
Until legislatures attain the political will to force change, the battle has to be taken to the local communities, championed by grassroots folks who have been trained in a grassroots model called the school-justice partnership.
Steven Teske is chief judge of the Juvenile Court of Clayton County, Georgia, and vice chairman of the Governor's Office For Children and Families. He is a past president of the Council of Juvenile Court Judges and has been appointed by the governor to the Children & Youth Coordinating Council, Department of Juvenile Justice Judicial Advisory Council, Commission on Family Violence and the Governor's Office for Children and Families.
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Fourteen-year-old Christopher Thomas pulled on his tan Dickies pants, white sweatshirt and blue and white tennis shoes as he got ready for school. He had been living at his foster home in Hephzibah, Georgia, for just six months, but already was close to his foster “brothers” Christopher Butts and RaShaan Eugene Bentley.
The threesome had just missed the school bus. They couldn’t go back home because their “mom,” Delores Simpson, locked them out each day until she returned from work late in the afternoon. What was about to happen on Feb. 4, 1999, would drastically accelerate the trajectory of Christopher Thomas’ life, which had been spiraling downhill since birth, and end up with him getting sentenced to 40 years in prison as an unarmed tagalong in a nonlethal shooting. Seventeen years later, he is in prison still trying to understand how he got such a harsh sentence in a life that was never really his own.
When he was 2 years old, Baldwin County made him a charge of the state after his mother Shirley Thomas abandoned him and his siblings. She was addicted to crack cocaine and spent most of her young children’s lives incarcerated.
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Christopher remembers, “My momma was in and out of trouble, so it’s not like I got a chance to be like her motherly son. But my momma was in the streets at the time, so it was like I see you, but then I don’t see you.”
The only anchors in Christopher’s life were his maternal grandparents, Calvin and Lillie Freeman. Starting at age 7, Christopher’s school and home behavior deteriorated enough that he would be removed from his grandparents off and on and sent to foster homes.
Over the years, doctors prescribed various drugs, including Tofranil for his chronic nighttime bed-wetting, which persisted through age 13. Ritalin for his Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and at other times Zoloft, for mood disorders.
According to Christopher, now 31, he didn’t need medication. All he wanted was someone to hear him out: “I know I needed some therapeutic help, but I didn’t know what kind.”
After several short-lived placements between May and December 1997, he was placed in the Bridge program of, Open Arms Inc., a "safe and structured" group home in Albany, Georgia. While there, he attended the Merry Acres Middle School.
On Dec. 9, 1997, at age 12, he would be pulled into the criminal justice system. It began in a classroom where he yelled, “[I don’t] celebrate Christmas, goddamnit.” Since he was brought up by Jehovah's Witnesses, this was probably accurate. His teacher called the assistant principal, but Christopher stormed out of the classroom, mumbling, “[I’ll find him] my damn self.”
“I acted up because I was trying to get back home,” Christopher explains now. “A child doesn’t want to be taken away from his people.” And to Christopher, his grandparents were just that, his people. “My relationship with them — that’s all I knew, so it was like, that’s all I wanted. I didn’t want nothing else.” Instead he would get legal strike one: “disrupting a public school.”
In the hallway, Special Resource Officer Ted Thomas, now in search of Christopher, came across a male student wandering the halls. When asked his name, the boy replied, “Jarvis Thomas.” The officer continued his search, unaware that he had just run into Christopher, who had given the officer his brother’s name. Legal strike two: giving false information to a police officer.
When he finally caught up to Christopher, Thomas advised him to go back to the front office. When Christopher refused, telling the officer “get [your] damn hands off of [me]”, the officer grabbed the 12-year-old and put him in a chicken wing hold, often used by police to subdue disorderly or drunk adults. What had been a verbal confrontation was escalated into a physical one by the officer. The chicken wing hold hurt, and Christopher yelled and cursed at him as he was escorted back to the office, where he threatened to kill Thomas and the school principal. Strike three, “terroristic threat.”
Christopher was handcuffed and placed under arrest. Frustrated, he yelled, “Take off the handcuffs and badge so [I can] kick [your] ass.” Then, according to Thomas’ written account: "He [said he] was going to come back to the school and kill me, stating they were going to find me in the hallway dead, bleeding from the head." That was the second count of terroristic threat.
That incident was a classic case of what today is called the “schoolhouse to jailhouse pipeline” that disproportionately affects black boys like Christopher. A school discipline matter, perhaps handled without a police officer, might have been treated as an internal administrative matter.
Instead, on Jan. 29, 1998, Christopher Thomas, now 13, was sentenced to Wrightsville Youth Detention Center, a boot camp for juvenile offenders. Then-Georgia Gov. Zell Miller used his experience in the U.S. Marine Corps to advocate for these boot camps as a molding experience for young offenders. However, many psychologists saw these military models, filled with confrontation and punishment in place of rewards, as "antithetical to treatment.”
That still didn’t change Zell’s mind. He told the New York Times: “Nobody can tell me from some ivory tower that you take a kid, you kick him in the rear end, and it doesn't do any good.”
It didn’t do Christopher any good; he continued to cause trouble and get into fights with other cadets. Nevertheless, after 60 days, he was discharged.
When he returned to the Bridge program at Open Arms, staff members recognized his strategy. "He doesn't care anymore. He does not try to please. He is purposefully trying to blow [placements] to get sent back to grandparents." The Baldwin County Division of Family and Children Services (DFCS) was becoming increasingly frantic to find a home that would take Christopher, given his behavioral record.
One solution was to have him admitted to Central State Hospital. Later in life, Christopher would say, “I looked around in there like I wasn’t supposed to be there. Because there were people in there on pills, and I know I didn’t need none of that.” A psychological evaluation on March 30, 1998 just after he left Wrightsville seems to back up that assertion.
Dr. Kelly Hern wrote: "Socio-emotional assessment revealed Christopher to be an immature and insecure youngster who longs for a stable family environment. He feels close to family members and likely reacts poorly when not in their care," and there was "no evidence of affective disturbance nor psychosis.”
Once the doctors realized that Christopher did not belong at Central State Hospital, he was placed with the Georgia Youth Advocacy Program (GYAP) in Augusta, Georgia. On July 28, 1998, GYAP, now the National Youth Advocacy Program (NYAP) wrote that Christopher needed to be placed in a specialized foster care home. That is what brought him into the home of Delores Simpson.
On that day in February 1999, after the three boys missed the school bus and were locked out, they went to the home of Cyrus James Rambo (also known as Lawrence Rambo Miller). The conversation there is in dispute, but one thing is certain. Rambo gave the boys a .380-caliber handgun, which they would call a “Baby Nine.” The boys said a robbery plot was planned; Rambo said he gave the boys the gun for their protection. The boys and Rambo piled into his girlfriend Shontel’s car. The boys were dropped off across from the A-Awesome Jewelry & Pawn shop. Rambo drove off.
Bentley had the Baby Nine in hand when entering the pawnshop. Manager William Lake was in the back behind a counter, with his two children in the front of the store and his wife, Grace, nearby. Bentley approached, shot Lake in the shoulder and then shot the gun case, shattering the glass.
Butts and Thomas began shoveling guns into the brown leather bag they had brought with them from Rambo’s house and fled, only to be caught two hours later. Christopher would later remember: “There were five or six police cars ... That’s when ... I knew I had really messed my life up.”
The three boys were in deep trouble, and given Georgia’s merciless SB 440 law, aimed at juveniles involved in serious crimes, they would be tried as adults. Armed robbery and aggravated assault are among the law’s “seven deadly sins.” Legally, their childhood was officially over.
Within hours of the shooting, they were interviewed by the police without any legal representation, and, given the similarities of their stories, there was little doubt that RaShaan Bentley was the shooter and Christopher Butts and Christopher Thomas were unarmed tagalongs.
Their first lawyer, Charles H.S. Lyons III, remembers, “The outcome was not going to be good. It was pretty clear that they were going to get convicted … and that they would get a lot more than 10 years.” He remembers wanting to try to get a 10-year plea deal, but says Simpson, Christopher’s foster mother, was not interested. Baldwin County DFCS notes do make clear that Simpson was probably most in charge of Christopher's legal representation decisions, an odd circumstance, especially since her own son was involved in the case as the triggerman.
Then Simpson told case managers to stop sending information to Lyons and to work only with Thomas and Butts’ new lawyer, David V. Weber. “Mr. Weber is going to help Butts and Thomas get out of this mess,” Ms. Simpson said, according to DFCS notes written by caseworker Cynthia Poole.
It’s difficult to know Simpson’s state of mind 17 years ago and how she ran her foster care home back then. However, today her house has books, clothes, paper and boxes scattered about, clothes draped over furniture and laundry and trash crammed into corners. She talks of her magic hands as a healer and says Thomas was the reason her son, who was the oldest of the three boys, got involved in the crime, saying, “Christopher Thomas just had a nasty mouth ... I feel like because of him that they got in trouble because he was like the ringleader.”
Though the three boys committed a crime under Simpson’s watch, the state still sends foster care children to live with her and in late 2015 each morning she locked them out until she returned in the evening, as she did with Thomas, Butts and Bentley in 1999.
The boys entered guilty pleas. The sentencing hearing took place on Feb. 11, 2000 in the Superior Court for the County of Richmond in Augusta. Their judge, Albert M. Pickett, was once featured in an Augusta Chronicle article as a tough judge who sent offenders to jail 63 percent of the time. Yet Weber, as he would say later, was relying on the mercy of the court.
Everything was further complicated by Weber defending both Christopher Butts and Christopher Thomas at the same time. Years later, Weber said he was uncomfortable doing this. However, “Their conduct was virtually identical with each other’s and there was no competing defenses in this case as far as Mr. Butts and Thomas.”
So identical that at one point in the trial Weber got the two Christophers confused and had to apologize to the judge.
Stephen M. Reba, director of the Appeal for Youth Clinic at the Emory University Barton Child Law and Policy Center, who is now involved in Christopher Thomas’ case, indicated that today this would not happen. However, “in these older cases, you definitely see more … sort of crazy stuff like this happening. Where a lawyer was representing two people,” Reba said.
Michael Carlson was the prosecutor at the sentencing hearing. Neither he nor Weber ever mentioned that the boys might have been coerced into committing the crime by Rambo, who provided the gun. Yet, just weeks later, in Rambo’s own trial related to the crime, Carlson told the court that Rambo, after taking out hollow point bullets, warned the boys on the day of the shooting, “If you don't do this, I’ve got one of these for each of you.”
When asked about this discrepancy 16 years later, the public information officer for the Cobb County District Attorney’s Office, where Carlson now serves, said they could not respond without being provided the complete “case file, trial, and hearing transcripts.”
Carlson’s strategy of describing 20-year-old Rambo as the adult manipulating the boys to do the crime worked. Rambo was found guilty and given a life sentence, which he continues to serve. Rambo continues to maintain his innocence.
During the boys’ sentencing trial, Bentley’s grandmother, Doris McCane, spoke for the boys, saying, “They have never been in [this] kind of trouble at all. They’re slow learners and plus they be at the church all the time with their mother.”
This is when Christopher Thomas’ very bad day at the Merry Acres Middle School as a 12-year-old came back to haunt him.
“I had his juvenile records here,” Judge Pickett said about Thomas. “This is the real world we’re looking at, not some fairy-tale world. Christopher Thomas, terroristic threats and acts, disrupting a public school, giving false name, information to the police.”
What every juvenile justice advocate fears about the consequences of criminalizing disruptive school behavior was coming together. Pickett gave Bentley, the triggerman, a life sentence and Butts and Thomas, the unarmed tagalongs, 40 years each.
“Unfortunately for Mr. Thomas and for Mr. Butts, they both received what I consider to be a pretty harsh sentence at the time,” their attorney Weber said years later.
The sentences were appealed. However, even though Weber said their cases were essentially the same, two separate appeals panels didn’t see it that way. One reduced Butts’ sentence to 20 years; the other left Christopher Thomas’ sentence at 40 years. Everyone involved, except the panels themselves, can’t understand why.
The most befuddled is Thomas, who continues to ask himself, “I had the same charges, same situation, I mean, what was different? Why wasn’t there a change in my sentence?” If nothing changes, Butts will be out in four years and Thomas may be incarcerated until 2039, when he will be more than 53 years old.
In 2009, after nearly 10 years of incarceration, Christopher Thomas would get another day in court. On his own, he had filed a writ of habeas corpus, asserting, among other things, that he had received ineffective help from counsel, meaning Weber. On this day, he appeared before Judge Michael P. Boggs at the Ware State Prison in Waycross, Georgia.
From the outset, it did not go well. Boggs seemed more concerned about Weber’s three-hour-plus drive to the prison than he did about the next three decades of Christopher’s life. Christopher immediately asked for a continuance. His paperwork with questions for Weber had not yet been transferred with him to Ware State Prison, where he had recently arrived. The judge’s response: “Mr. Weber has come all the way from Augusta to be here today. I don’t want him to have to drive all the way back. So we are going to proceed.”
Just before the hearing ended, instead of Weber needing to return, Boggs told Christopher to submit his questions in writing to Weber within 30 days so Weber could answer them. Christopher’s day in court was hijacked from him as David A. Zisook, assistant attorney general, took over the questioning. Afterward the case was left open until Reba got involved.
Today at age 31, Christopher Thomas remains in prison serving his 40-year sentence. His best chance now is via Reba and his team or perhaps a parole sometime after the 20-year mark, but Reba says Georgia parole boards are hard to read. Reba has been working on the case since 2011 and just recently was granted permission to enter an amendment to the writ of habeas corpus from the hearing at Ware State Prison, in which Thomas was asked to submit written questions. Now he’ll have another hearing in Hancock County.
Reba will argue:
- Christopher was deprived of his right of effective assistance given that one lawyer represented two clients in the same case.
- Christopher’s original guilty plea was not made with Christopher’s full knowledge of the consequences.
- Christopher’s sentence of 40 years is a violation of the ban on cruel and unusual punishment.
- The sentence review panel’s decision to reduce the sentence of Christopher’s co-defendant and co-client but not reduce Christopher’s sentence violates due process.
Reba says, “I’ve represented hundreds of kids like Chris who have been tried and convicted and are in prison and no case that I’ve come across is even close to as compelling as his case. From a culpability standpoint, I mean he was barely involved in the armed robbery. To his life history, he was put into DFCS custody when he was 2 or 3, many, many placements, sort of bounced back and forth, to his grandma’s house and then away. Just an incredibly difficult life for him and he’s been in prison for the last, going on 16 years.”
Still, he knows that because of the way the legal system works, getting Christopher Thomas’ sentence reduced is not a given. Reba vows to keep trying.
“Yeah, it’s never final … that should be our mantra here,” Reba said, adding, “If I can’t win this case, then I need to stop doing this work.”
Editor’s Note: Kennesaw State University students Claire Bohrer, Kassidy Callahan, Kevin Enners, Ariel Greenaway, Cristina Guerra, Jourdan McGhee, Camille Moore, Anastaciah Ondieki and Jackson Walsh contributed reporting and writing to this story under the supervision of professor Leonard Witt and virtual world expert Gwenette Writer Sinclair.
A special thanks for this project’s funding goes to the Online News Association (ONA) Challenge Fund for Innovation in Journalism Education, which administers the challenge fund with support from Excellence and Ethics in Journalism Foundation, the Robert R. McCormick Foundation, Knight Foundation, the Democracy Fund and the Rita Allen Foundation.
About the Project
The reporting and editing of Christopher Thomas’ story was an outgrowth of an applied research project that sought to demonstrate whether and how university students could use virtual world (VW) tools and avatars to produce true news stories. A group of 11 Kennesaw State University students shared the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange (JJIE.org) newsroom. The students were supervised by professor Leonard Witt and VW expert Gwenette Writer Sinclair in consultation with the editors of the JJIE.org.
As the students were looking for the right story, attorney Steve Reba pointed them to Christopher Thomas. His is a story of how a 14-year-old boy would be sentenced to 40 years in prison as an unarmed, tag-along in a nonlethal shooting in 1999. Seventeen years later he remains in prison. Most likely forgotten there if not for Reba, who had accumulated literally thousands of pages of documents, which he turned over to us. The 11 students had to pore over every page and travel around the state interviewing all the people involved in an incredible investigative effort to ensure Thomas’ story got to see the light of day. They were also working with Sinclair to figure out how to turn their reams of information into a virtual world production, while at the same writing, rewriting and editing the text story.
In its crudest form, the Thomas story is one of a troubled child, who the state could not figure out how to handle, who was passed among foster care placements. The state found its solution just after he turned 14. Put him in a cage for the next 40 years.
“Getting to tell Christopher Thomas’ story is one of the most gratifying teaching and journalism projects that I have experienced in more than 30 years as a professional and now as an educator,” Witt said.
It’s an example of the incredible work students can do when given real and important assignments, he said. The students included: Claire Bohrer, Kassidy Callahan, Kevin Enners, Ariel Greenaway, Cristina Guerra, Jourdan McGhee, Camille Moore, Anastaciah Ondieki and Jackson Walsh.
Now please spread the word so Christopher Thomas has a chance at justice, Witt adds, as we all ask ourselves: Has he been punished long enough?
To learn more about the project, its students and other accomplishments please see: http://virtualworld.jjie3.wpengine.com/
SchoolsNotPrisons, an 11-stop music and arts tour focused on both increasing spending for education and breaking the school-to-prison pipeline in California, wraps up in Stockton, California, on Friday.
But the events, which have drawn roughly 5,000 to 6,000 attendees overall since they began Aug. 6, were also a vehicle for elevating the ongoing work of local organizations in the state that advocate against harsh punishment in schools and the disproportionate incarceration of young people of color.
“What we have tried to do is shine the light on what is already going on,” said Mary Lou Fulton, the director of the Healthy California initiative at The California Endowment (TCE). “Almost all of the organizations are our grantees. We will continue to support them in doing this work.”
At the Youth Justice Coalition (YJC) in Inglewood, California, for example, that work includes writing legislation — such as the bill signed by Gov. Jerry Brown in September allowing individuals to be notified, and to appeal, if they have been added to the state’s gang database.
That work also includes convincing the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors to back off from its $2.1 billion plan to construct two new prisons.
“I felt like the tour itself was radical for The California Endowment,” said Diwaine Smith, a member of YJC who was added to the database at age 11. “I felt like it was pushing our narrative” of the issues to focus on.
In Fresno, one of the important issues is to urge the Fresno Unified School District to stop using flexible funding from the state for school resource officers and instead expand restorative justice throughout its schools. Californians for Justice (CFJ) used the Sept. 24 concert at Fresno City College to draw attention to its efforts on this.
They gathered signatures on a petition asking the Fresno school district to remove education code violations from the records of students who go through the restorative justice process, add counselors and make other changes that help create more “relationship-centered schools.”
“Every single student should know that this is something that exists and is a resource that they can go to when they have a conflict,” said Grisanti Valencia, a lead organizer with CFJ.
SchoolsNotPrisons, which got its name from an already trending hashtag, was inspired by a listening tour TCE began conducting in 2010 about building healthier communities.
“One thing we hadn’t understood was the impact of punishment and incarceration on the health of low-income communities,” Fulton said. “We turned our attention to what we can do as a foundation to raise awareness about these issues.”
She pointed to recently released data from Million Dollar Hoods, a research project based at the University of California, Los Angeles: It found that nonviolent offenses — DUI and drug possession — are the top two causes of arrests in the communities where the LA Police Department spends the most money on incarceration.
Recent Field Poll results, she added, show that two-thirds of voters say they want their local governments to increase spending on mental health services, job training and more support programs for youth. “We need to get our budgets aligned with our values,” she said.
While voting has been encouraged as part of the tour, Fulton said she doesn’t know how many new voters have registered as a result of the campaign. The foundation isn’t lobbying for particular pieces of legislation, she said.
YJC did negotiate to have voter registration tables outside their community center and to allow speakers to discuss specific causes, said Kim McGill, a YJC organizer.
“We wanted it to be music and art, but also message,” McGill said, adding that she hopes the foundation will “lead by example” by hiring formerly incarcerated people and inspiring other philanthropies to fund similar work.
In San Bernardino, Congregations Organized for Prophetic Engagement (COPE), a faith-based organization, registered almost 2,000 people to vote in the days surrounding the Aug. 27 concert.
“The tour was not only to highlight this issue, but to activate this young voting bloc,” said the Rev. Samuel Casey, COPE’s executive director. The event also helped launch a countywide task force that focuses on changing school discipline policies “from a culture of punishment to a culture that give students an opportunity to be successful,” he said.
Many of the tour stops were held in places that have the types of community-based youth programs the organizers view as models. The Oxnard Police Activities League (PAL) Teen Center, for example, offers free sports and enrichment programs, mentoring and tutoring. “Here’s a physical example of a building in a community that is safe and a fun place for people to come,” Fulton said.
Before each concert, the foundation and Revolve Impact, a Los Angeles-based agency that co-produced the tour, held a youth artists’ roundtable — a chance for the prominent rap, R&B and other performers to meet face-to-face with teenage and young adult attendees.
Fresno High School junior Destiny Harris, who is helping organize a CFJ club at her school, described the conversation as a “really open space” in which the students and artists shared stories about their school experiences. The concert was an effective way to focus community members on the issue, she said.
“It lets people know we’re really serious about the problem,” Harris said, “and we’re not just doing this to pass time.”
John Forte, a Grammy-nominated rap and R&B singer and songwriter who attended three of the concerts, says he is “indelibly attached” to the SchoolsNotPrisons cause and has even added the hashtag to a video project he currently has in the works.
“I don’t think I have a choice,” he said, “but to have this work be part of my work.”
The California Endowment funds coverage in California for Youth Today and the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange.
This story has been updated.
Many educators view a new school year as an opportunity for improvement, a fresh start and a chance to reset, especially with respect to student discipline. Several years ago, as a public middle school math teacher serving disadvantaged students in a large metropolitan area, I quickly learned that even the first few moments of the first class were critical to establishing an appropriate environment for students to thrive.
As educators everywhere prepare for a new school year and contemplate how they can improve their schools and the learning experiences of their students, I hope they think deeply about what changes they can make to keep students in school and out of the justice system while still promoting safe, orderly learning environments.
I also hope they think deeply about how they can reduce racial disparities relating to discipline and academic achievement. Strategies and tools to help educators with changes they can make this year are available for free in my recent article in the Arizona State Law Journal. “Dismantling the School-to-Prison Pipeline: Tools for Change” can be downloaded here.
All of us should remember that the consequences associated with detaining, arresting and excluding students from school are devastating for both the students and our society as a whole. Multiple empirical studies show that incarcerating a youth leads to reinforcement of violent attitudes and behaviors, mental health problems, limited educational, employment, military and housing opportunities, a decreased likelihood of graduating from high school and future involvement in the justice system.
The cost of incarcerating one youth is shockingly high, averaging about $149,000 a year. But even more shocking are long-term costs, such as lost future earnings, recidivism, lost tax revenue and additional Medicare and Medicaid spending, estimated by some to range between $7.9 billion to $21.47 billion a year.
Student arrests (even those that do not lead to incarceration), suspensions and expulsions also take a toll. They often lead to lower academic achievement, lower graduation rates and, eventually, more youth involvement in the justice system, all of which have profound negative consequences on the lives of youth, their families and our nation.
In addition, educators often fail to realize that overly punitive school environments generally do not lead to the student outcomes we want, even for the students who are better-behaved. Empirical studies suggest, for example, that overly punitive environments promote student disengagement, resentment, alienation, frustration and distrust. They can destabilize the learning environment, foster increased disorder over the long run and depress academic achievement, even for better-behaved students who remain at school. These environments generally do not attract experienced teachers and academically-minded students and families with other options, which can further depress school environments.
It is critical that educators create safe, orderly environments where teachers can teach and students can learn. But rather than overly relying on school resources officers, metal detectors and harsh disciplinary practices such as suspensions, expulsions and referrals to law enforcement, school administrators and teachers must focus on establishing trust among members of the school community, improving school climate and strengthening lines of communication among students, teachers and parents. In a study of student and teacher safety in Chicago Public Schools, Matthew Steinberg, Elaine Allensworth and David Johnson concluded that “it is the quality of relationships between staff and students and staff and parents that most strongly defines safe schools.”
There are several evidence-based initiatives that educators and lawmakers can immediately support and implement to construct the infrastructure needed to build safe schools where students thrive. In fact, educators can implement many of these recommendations without dramatically increasing their costs by shifting and prioritizing their current resources. These initiatives include social and emotional learning, restorative justice, School-Wide Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports and improving data collection.
In addition, school officials can create safer learning environments by improving the classroom instruction and management skills of teachers. Educators routinely blame students when they misbehave. While students must take responsibility for their behavior and actions and be accountable for wrongdoing, researchers frequently observe (and most educators know) that students who misbehave in the presence of one teacher often behave very well in the presence of another.
In fact, empirical studies document the strong relationship that exists between a teacher’s ability to engage students and manage a class and student behavior. Empirical studies also reveal the strong relationship that exists between academic underachievement and student misbehavior. Students often act out because they are frustrated with their inability to understand classroom material and meet academic expectations. When students realize that the traditional academic process may not benefit them (i.e., they may not graduate, attend college or get a well-paying job), they have fewer incentives to behave, stay in school and try to meet teachers’ expectations.
There are examples of educators who have turned around unstable and low-performing schools by focusing on improving the classroom instruction and teachers’ management skills. For instance, Ken Parshall worked with his teachers and staff to improve McKay High School in Warm Springs, Oregon, a low-performing school in a neighborhood with active gang activity. He worked with his teachers and staff to improve classroom instruction and management skills, promote a healthier, safer learning environment and boost students’ academic achievements.
He did this by implementing a “medical-rounds” classroom observation program to identify areas needed for improvement and providing support for enhancing teachers’ skills in the classroom. In addition, he formed professional learning community teams to discuss data identifying student academic weaknesses and ways to address those weaknesses, including successful teaching strategies. He also developed a system to address the needs of struggling students through extra tutoring and classes.
Further, the school administrators shifted the management of students with behavioral problems to behavioral specialists, counselors and others so the administrators could focus on helping teachers improve their classroom instruction and management skills. While not all schools have the resources to do what Parshall did, administrators may discover that implementing at least some of his strategies will generate significant improvement in the areas of safety, student behavior, school climate and academic achievement.
It is also critical that educators address racial disparities associated with academic achievement and discipline. While there are several reasons for these disparities, it is becoming more clear that one of the causes is the racial biases of educators, which manifest themselves principally in unconscious forms. Substantial empirical research suggests that all of us have implicit biases that operate outside of our conscious awareness — biases that can negatively affect our thoughts, attitudes, perspectives, actions and decision-making toward members of various social groups.
Accordingly, even educators who consciously believe they are egalitarians can operate under unconscious biases that affect their actions and decisions toward students of various racial groups. It is important that schools provide implicit bias training for all employees who interact with and make decisions about students. It is also important to teach educators to apply neutralizing routines, particularly when they find themselves in what Kent McIntosh, Erik Girvan, Robert Horner and Keith Smolkowski describe as a vulnerable decision point.
Implicit racial biases tend to manifest themselves most often when a person faces a point of vulnerability such as fatigue, stress, time pressure or an inundation of information. Once school officials, educators and others identify school-specific vulnerability points, they can undertake routines of self-review to minimize the effects of implicit racial bias on their decision-making.
At the beginning of this new school year, I hope educators, lawmakers, parents and other community members begin discussing what they can do collectively to help students better avail themselves of the educational opportunities they have before them, keep students out of the justice system and reduce the alarming racial disparities relating to student discipline and academic achievement. Indeed, the evidence suggests that they are in a position to do much more than they may realize.
Jason P. Nance, J.D., Ph.D., is an associate professor of law at the University of Florida Levin College of Law and the associate director for education law and policy at the Center on Children and Families. He also was the reporter for the American Bar Association’s Joint Task Force on Reversing the School-to-Prison Pipeline. A former public school teacher, he is the author of numerous articles on education law and policy. He can be reached at email@example.com or 352-273-0992.