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It’s More Than Time to Raise the Age in Michigan

In Michigan, 17-year-olds are not allowed to buy lottery tickets, get a tattoo, rent a car or hotel room or drop out of school. They can’t vote, serve on a jury or sign a legal contract either, presumably because they don’t possess the requisite maturity to make adult-level decisions. This distinction, however, is tossed out the window if a 17-year-old breaks the law. Suddenly, they are adults, facing devastating repercussions that can come with an adult conviction.

That’s because Michigan is one of only five states that automatically consider 17-year-olds adults for any offense. In the past decade, more than 20,000 youth under age 18 have been charged as adults in Michigan.  

The majority of these 17-year-olds were charged with nonviolent offenses, and most had no previous involvement in the juvenile justice system. But in Michigan, a first-time mistake can lead to a lifetime of harsh consequences.

Despite the inherent dangers of placing a child in prison, more than half the 17-year-olds convicted as adults were confined in adult facilities. Research shows that youth in adult jails and prisons are more likely to experience sexual victimization and physical violence, and more likely to commit suicide. Even exposure and proximity to violence can severely disrupt the course of healthy physical, emotional and intellectual development in teens.

It is not surprising, then, that youth convicted as adults have worse physical and mental health outcomes over their lifetimes than those who enter the juvenile justice system. Their problems are compounded by the fact that youth with criminal records have a harder time accessing housing, furthering their education and securing long-term employment.

Youth with adult convictions are more likely to reoffend, and reoffend more violently, than their counterparts in the juvenile justice system. If the goal of our justice system truly is public safety, then directing these young people to rehabilitative youth services is a far better choice.

So, why are 17-year-olds considered adults in the first place? Because that’s how our system was created in 1908 — the year the first Ford Model T automobile was introduced. A century later, Michigan desperately needs a new model for adjudicating youth.

Michigan’s juvenile justice system isn’t perfect but it does strive to continuously make itself better. Over the past decade, some juvenile courts have begun embracing evidence-based practices that are proven to reduce crime and improve outcomes for children and their families.

During the same time span that tens of thousands of 17-year-olds were systematically funneled into the adult criminal justice system, Michigan’s innovative juvenile justice system managed to cut detention and out-of-home placement rates by 40 percent. We have seen the emergence of high-quality diversion and community-based programs that allow kids to stay in school and receive treatment for their entire families. Unfortunately, 17-year-olds who commit crimes are prohibited from accessing these services; their options are adult probation, jail or prison.

Michigan’s juvenile system already serves 17-year-olds who entered their jurisdiction prior to their 17th birthday. In fact, the juvenile court can maintain jurisdiction until one’s 19th or 21st birthday, depending on the offense. Probation and facility staff are already trained to work with this age group and offer successful programming designed to meet their developmental and behavioral health needs.

This is important because we know that adolescence is a period of significant developmental growth, characterized by impulsivity, risk-taking and strong influence by peers. As part of normal human development, young people experience rapid physiological and psychological changes that do not fully mature until well beyond age 18.

These changes establish the architecture that will eventually allow young adults to temper risk-taking behaviors, evaluate costs and benefits and fully grasp the consequences of their actions. As such, youth are far more amenable to rehabilitative programs and behavior modification during these formative years. Conversely, harsh treatment during adolescence can further solidify a child’s trajectory down the wrong path.

Experts estimate that 90 percent of justice-involved youth have experienced at least one traumatic event. In Michigan, the vast majority of youth convicted as adults have had a friend or family member killed, domestic violence or substance abuse in the home, multiple foster home placements or parental incarceration. Rather than retraumatizing youth by sentencing them to prison, we should support them with juvenile justice services that build their coping and resilience skills and teach them accountability.

In the past 10 years, numerous other states have raised the age of jurisdiction, citing improved public safety, greater access to children’s services and better outcomes for youth and their families. The other four states that prosecute 17-year-olds as adults — Wisconsin, Missouri, Georgia and Texas — are also considering legislative changes to raise the age.

The proposed legislation in Michigan would continue to allow for the “waiver” of a 17-year-old into the adult system, depending on the seriousness of the offense. Those youth would be housed in a juvenile facility until they reach the age of majority, and then sent to an adult prison.

Why hasn’t Michigan raised the age yet? The short answer: money and a lack of political will. During legislative hearings in 2016, every single stakeholder group — from prosecutors to judges to facility staff — clearly stated that raising the age was the “right thing to do.” The big question was, “How do we pay for it?”

Other states have managed to pay to raise the age and, as it turns out, at a much lower cost than initially anticipated. In Illinois, the overall cost of the system actually went down after raising the age.

It is true that Michigan’s funding system poses unique challenges. The state pays the full cost for inmates in the adult criminal justice system, while counties pay costs in the juvenile justice system with the state reimbursing half of eligible expenses. Counties rightly fear they may get saddled with massive costs if 17-year-olds automatically come into their systems, and that serving additional youth will impact the quality of their existing services.

There are data limitations as well. But none of this excuses legislators and other policymakers from finding solutions that nearly every other state has come up with — solutions that will enhance public safety, protect existing services and help more troubled youth turn their lives around. We have the brainpower to figure out the funding. Now we just need the willpower.

At the end of the day, we must ask ourselves one important question: Have I done everything I can today to prevent a child from being harmed? With each passing day, young people are forced into an adult justice system that does not address their needs and, in fact, exposes them to significant physical harm and psychological trauma. For their well-being, for the safety and protection of our communities, it’s time to raise the age in Michigan.

Paul Elam, Ph.D., is the president of Public Policy Associates, Inc. and has worked on national, state and local efforts to create fair and effective juvenile justice policies and practices. He is a board member of the Michigan Council on Crime and Delinquency and a consultant to the Michigan Committee on Juvenile Justice.

Mary King is executive director of the Michigan Council on Crime and Delinquency. She previously served as community coordinator for the Michigan Prisoner ReEntry Initiative, where she engaged key stakeholders in a unified effort to provide evidence-based services for returning citizens.

I Was a Kid in Solitary Confinement

My young parents didn’t have the skill sets to properly raise me, which at a young age caused me to search for acceptance in other places. I began running away at the age of 13 and quickly got heavily involved in drug use.

Nearly two years later I was a victim of sex trafficking. My trafficker was arrested and later sent to prison for the remainder of his life and I was sent to jail, where I received no healing and was sent back home nine months later. I once again found myself on the streets, and for the second time became a victim of sex trafficking not even a year later. This time, I decided to stand up against my trafficker. I didn’t go to the police because I didn’t want to relive the traumatic process of the court system.

On Aug. 31, 2011 I was arrested and jailed for six serious felonies against the man who brutally raped and trafficked me. Not even a month after sitting in the Juvenile Detention Center at age 16, I was charged as an adult and placed in the adult jail. The day I was sent to adult jail would change my life forever. Because I was under 18, I had to be separated from all adult prisoners by sight and sound to comply with the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act.

Based on my developmental age, I should have been placed in a dorm with juveniles where we were treated differently and received proper services. In reality, I was placed in a mental health dorm even though I didn’t have a mental health diagnosis because there was no space in the jail to place me anywhere else. I was on lockdown 23 hours a day and was deprived of regular programming including access to education, recreation and mental health services that I didn’t qualify for.

I was in a dorm with legally insane people. They yelled and screamed at night about things that made no sense to me. I heard inmates banging, kicking and slamming heads on doors and walls, people throwing their feces out the flap of their blue metal door and much, much more. I saw people pepper-sprayed, tased, hog-tied and strapped down to a black restraint chair because they were being “too loud” or banging on the doors for “too long.”

As a child you can imagine the effect this had on me. Stuck in a cell for 23 hours a day forced me to relive the many traumatic experiences I had experienced years prior to my incarceration. Some days I blamed myself for the trauma, abuse and neglect. I convinced myself I deserved to be separated from the world because I only caused harm. On other days, I felt ostracized. All I wanted was to feel like I was a part of the human race — not like some caged animal. I felt alone, like no one cared and sometimes even asked myself, why am I even living?

It was almost impossible for me to process the feelings of being alone in a cell for 23 hours a day with no positive human contact. After being in a mental health dorm for some time, I saw quite a few people try to commit suicide so that question of why am I living turned into an action and I attempted suicide on a few different occasions. I remember one incident of me rolling off of the top bunk several times, trying to land on my head, hoping I would just die.

After attempting suicide didn’t work, I mentally tried to escape from confinement; I eventually started using a variety of mechanisms to dissociate from my experience. I felt like I was going mad. I started to play games with the walls in my room. I would count the bricks over and over again. I would play Tetris with the bricks, rearranging them in my mind. I even convinced myself that every time I went to sleep and woke up, a brick from the wall would be missing and the cell got smaller and smaller.

I was really lonely. I started arguments with myself and pretended like I was two different people arguing. I played out scenes from movies that I saw in the past. I remember one instance where I banged my head on the wall several times until I started bleeding, just to use the blood to enact a scene from a movie. The games of dissociation only lasted so long and eventually I began struggling to cope with confinement and I faced a losing battle with myself.

Soon, I fell into a deep, deep depression and had my first anxiety attack followed by uncontrollable rage. To cope with the depression, anxiety and rage I began daydreaming and sleeping. If I wasn’t sleeping, I was in bed trying to sleep. Get up, eat and back to sleep. This cycle of suicide attempts, dissociation, mind games, depression, anxiety, rage and sleeping my life away continued until I turned 18 and was moved in an adult dorm.

I can’t speak for all young people that have spent time or are currently spending time in confinement in an adult jail. I can only speak from my personal experiences. Duval County jail’s mission is “To operate facilities for secure, humane, corrective, and productive detention of those awaiting trial as well as those already sentenced.” But where was the productiveness in my incarceration? Where was the correction? Where is accountability for the jails to make sure arrested youth have the right space and services to avoid deeper damage?

Prior to ever ending up in the justice system, I had already experienced severe trauma. Being placed in confinement made the trauma experiences more exacerbated. The justice system is supposed to rehabilitate individuals but you can only do this if you understand what the people entering the system need.

Because of the lack of adequate mental health services and no one ever taking the time to ask me what happened to me, suffering was worse than it may otherwise have been. I was forced to relive the trauma over and over again, and eventually I detached myself from the trauma, further delaying my healing.

It wasn’t until four years later that I began receiving services. Not because the jail allowed me to, not because anyone recommended that I receive help, but because I was tired of living in misery, pain and suffering. I was tired of being bound to my past mistakes. I think of all the other children like me who are still stuck in solitary confinement and wonder if they will make it out as lucky as I did. I wonder if they get out, will they just go back because of all the damage that has been done to them.

Statistics suggest a higher recidivism rate for juveniles in the adult system, and especially for the juveniles stuck in solitary confinement. Our children deserve better. It is by luck that I’m able to write this. We need to eliminate luck from the equation. I am no longer bound, but other children are and will continue to be as long as we keep looking the other way.

Alyssa Beck is a survivor advocate who helps develop laws and practices that will support survivors of sex trafficking and youth involved in the justice justice system. Connected to the Delores Barr Weaver Policy Center, she is also a member of the Annie E. Casey Foundation's Juvenile Justice Youth Advisory Council.

This post originally appeared on JDAIconnect.org.

This column has been updated.

Recent Rulings in 6 States Signal New Momentum for Ending Solitary for Juveniles

This story was written for The Marshall Project.

A nationwide shift toward abolishing solitary confinement for juveniles, which began to take shape in 2016 after former President Barack Obama banned the practice in federal prisons, has surged ahead in recent months, with a half-dozen states either prohibiting or strictly limiting its use in their youth facilities.

In just the past year, a series of strongly worded federal court decisions, new state laws and policy changes in Wisconsin, Tennessee, New York, California, Colorado, Connecticut and North Carolina have nearly eliminated “punitive” solitary — holding youth in isolation for long periods of time rather than briefly for safety purposes — from the juvenile justice system. It was already largely prohibited in at least 29 states, according to a July 2016 survey of policies in all states and the District of Columbia.

The developments suggest that long-term isolation is rapidly losing ground as an accepted practice within the juvenile corrections profession, and that a child-specific definition of “cruel and unusual punishment” is now being established by courts across the country.

“These diverse courts seem to all at once be coming to the same conclusion: that solitary confinement of kids, who are our most vulnerable citizens, is unconstitutional,” said Amy Fettig, an expert on the issue for the ACLU.

But for youth advocates, ending juvenile solitary will take more work. Twenty-three percent of juvenile facilities nationally use some form of isolation, according to a 2014 study by the U.S. Department of Justice.

The practice still has support from many, though not all, juvenile corrections administrators and officers, who are often underpaid, overworked and exhausted from double shifts and who believe solitary is the only disciplinary tool available to them without adequate mental health resources or alternative discipline options.

“The front-line staff, historically, they’ve been trained to use isolation as a means to control violent behavior and to keep themselves safe, and now we tell them, ‘Hey, there’s a different way to do things,’” said Mike Dempsey, executive director of the Council of Juvenile Correctional Administrators. “So there is pushback, resistance, fear — a fear that changes like these will basically create unsafe conditions.”

But the momentum for juvenile solitary reform continues, with the latest development coming in July in Wisconsin, where a federal judge ruled that children at the Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake youth prison complex — one of the largest juvenile facilities in the nation and long the subject of litigation — have an age-specific “right to rehabilitation” and that “solitary confinement violates it.”

Under the preliminary injunction issued by Judge James Peterson of Federal District Court in Madison on July 10, Wisconsin officials must stop holding youths in solitary for longer than seven days, and must allow them outside their cells for at least 30 hours a week. (They had previously been held in isolation for periods of 60 days or longer, according to the underlying lawsuit by the ACLU and the Juvenile Law Center.) The youths must also be provided therapy, education and recreation, the judge said.

A spokesman for the Wisconsin Department of Corrections said that while the agency has moved to implement these changes, “The merits of the case have not been decided.”

The injunction echoes one in March by another federal judge, in Tennessee, who blocked a county from placing juveniles in solitary confinement. And in February, a third federal judge, in yet another preliminary injunction, ordered a Syracuse, N.Y., jail to immediately stop putting 16- and 17-year-olds in solitary, citing the Eighth Amendment protection against cruel and unusual punishment.

The rulings also come in the wake of — and perhaps as a result of — two events involving juvenile solitary that drew national attention. The first was the death of Kalief Browder, the 16-year-old from the Bronx who, after being accused of stealing a backpack in 2010 — a charge he denied — was held at the Rikers Island jail for three years, about two of which he spent in solitary. In 2015, after finally having his case dismissed and gaining his release, he hanged himself in his own home.

It was an image that, for many, drove home the total and long-term damage that isolation can do to young people, a group that depends more than most on social contact, educational stimulus, and a sense of purpose. More than half of all suicides in juvenile facilities take place in solitary, according to the Justice Department.

Soon after, in January 2016, Obama banned the solitary confinement of juveniles in federal prisons and also wrote an op-ed article citing Browder’s case and calling the practice “an affront to our common humanity.” It was a largely symbolic move, given that only 26 juveniles were being held in the federal system at that time. But many advocates credit it as an act of policy leadership that has spurred the flurry of state and local reforms in the year since.

In the months following, both California and Colorado legislatively banned the use of punitive solitary in juvenile facilities for periods longer than four hours. (However, an ACLU report published this year notes that despite the new law, Colorado’s youth corrections department placed juveniles in solitary 2,240 times in 2016.) And both North Carolina and Connecticut in 2016 limited the solitary confinement of teenagers held in adult facilities, a different but related policy change. Since youth in adult prisons must by federal law be segregated from adult prisoners, they are often held in isolation for no reason other than to keep them separate.

Yet despite the recent spurt of reforms, according to a Juvenile Law Center report, states like Nebraska are still regularly holding youth in isolation. And in New Mexico, Gov. Susana Martinez vetoed a bill this year that would have restricted solitary for juveniles in adult prisons. She said it would have put guards in danger and hampered their flexibility to choose the best disciplinary options for the most violent inmates and also to keep youths fully separated from adults.

Even in the places where reform has been enacted, the work of translating a judge’s order or a new piece of legislation into actual, sustained culture change remains to be done, according to a report from the Juvenile Law Center.

Indeed, many juvenile justice agencies, when challenged by litigation or legislation, simply rename solitary confinement using one of a variety of well-worn euphemisms: “room confinement,” “special management unit,” “restricted engagement,” “administrative detention,” “time out,” or even “reflection cottage.” Other agencies just reclassify the type of isolation as “nonpunitive” in their official statistics, calling it “temporary” or for the limited purpose of protecting the youth or those around him from harm.

“Anytime you’re talking about new or additional training,” said Dempsey, the executive director of the juvenile corrections administrators council, “it does cost money. It takes investment in alternative techniques, and that can be hard because in this line of work there’s always turnover and staff shortages.”

That’s why Dempsey’s organization and the Stop Solitary for Kids campaign, which aims to end juvenile solitary within three years, provide on-the-ground technical assistance to state and local agencies that might otherwise be inclined toward superficial reform. Juvenile justice officials from Kansas, for instance, were brought to a successful facility in Massachusetts to observe alternatives to solitary for themselves, said Mark Soler, executive director of the Center for Children’s Law and Policy and a leader of the campaign.

To Fettig, the ACLU advocate, the cause could not be more urgent. “Imagine if you left a kid locked in a small room for 70 days. Well, that same action is taken by state governments all over this country!” she said. “When you do this to children, they do not come back.”

This story originally appeared in The Marshall Project.

Gaps in Mental Illness Checks Swallow Juvenile Victims

The family of 19-year-old Ashley Smith says guards watched and did nothing as the young woman strangled herself to death in an Ontario prison cell. Smith spent her teen years in and out of juvenile custody and, once in the adult system, had her mental illness answered by physical abuse, her family alleges in a legal battle to find out more about their daughter’s death. For youth incarcerated in the United States, the mental care they get — or don’t — varies.

“In some places, all of this is really done quite well,” said Preston Elrod, a professor in the Department of Criminal Justice at Eastern Kentucky University and a juvenile justice specialist. “But in other places, none of it is done well.”

About 70 percent of young people who come into an institution have a diagnosable mental health disorder or symptoms of one, according to Gina Vincent, a psychiatry professor from the University of Massachusetts Medical School, in a 2012 report about screening and assessment in juvenile justice systems.

Rules vary by state, though in many places, children will not stay in the juvenile detention system, receiving what juvenile-tailored services exist, as long as Smith did: her 18th birthday. New York, for example, treats all defendants aged 16 and older as adults, no matter the offense.

“A large percentage of young people that come into institutions are experiencing things like anxiety and depression. Acute depression is particularly problematic for girls,” said Elrod.

Nationwide, about a dozen young people died every year from 2002 to 2005 in state juvenile correctional facilities, according to the latest available federal statistics. Most were aged 16 or 17, and nearly half died by their own hand.

One way to make psychiatric diagnoses of young people is to employ psychologists at all points of entry into the justice system, including probation offices, detention facilities and child welfare agencies, wrote Vincent.

“The problem with this approach is that it would be extremely costly given that approximately two million youth are arrested each year, of which more than 600,000 are processed through juvenile detention centers,” she continued.

“It’s a system that has never been appropriately resourced,” said Elrod.

Back in Canada, Howard Sapers, Correctional Investigator of Canada, saw videos of Smith in the months before her 2007 suicide. “There are 160 use-of-force incidents over the 11 and a half months Ashley Smith was in [adult] federal custody,” he told TV show "Question Period."

A pair of videos made public in the Smith court case show the woman, apparently calm, being strapped into an airplane seat with duct tape. In another, a prostrate Smith is drugged against her will.

Her suicide prompted Sapers’ department to look at deaths in custody, where they saw “sadly similar” patterns to the Smith case. In a 2011 report, he advised tailoring policies for mentally ill inmates.

Since then, he said, there have been some good hires and good training on the part of the Correctional Service of Canada. “But some of the lessons learned have been ignored.”

A coroner’s inquest into Smith’s death is ongoing.

Man who Plead Guilty to Murdering 7-Year-Old Georgia Girl Found Dead in Apparent Suicide

Ryan Brunn

Two days after receiving a life sentence without parole for the murder of a 7-year-old Canton, Ga. girl, Ryan Brunn apparently killed himself in his prison cell Thursday, according to the Georgia Department of Corrections.

Brunn, an apartment groundskeeper, testified at a hearing Tuesday that he lured Jorelys Rivera to an empty apartment before molesting and killing her. Her body was found in a trash compactor three days after she went missing on December 2, 2011.

DoC spokesperson Kirsten Stancil said Brunn was found unresponsive at 4:15 p.m. in his cell at the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison in Jackson. He was taken to a hospital where he was pronounced dead at 5:37 p.m.

Stancil added the Georgia Bureau of Investigation would begin an investigation into his death.

Brunn was indicted on 13 counts Tuesday including murder, aggravated assault, cruelty to children, aggravated child molestation, enticing a child for indecent purposes, false imprisonment, abandonment of a dead body, making a false statement and sexual exploitation of children, according to a report by CNN.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Silence is the Ally of Suicide, Send it Packing

Three years ago my brother took his own life. For him it became the only option he could imagine that would end his depression. He left behind many grief-stricken friends, family and relatives who still struggle to understand.

We’re far from alone in our grief.

Tonight somewhere in America a mother buries her head in her pillow as she sobs out her grief to the heavens. No one can console her. It’s fruitless. Her son, the one she loved and protected like a mother grizzly protecting her cub, is gone.

Using forethought and planning, he ended his life by his own hand, leaving behind only a note to explain. In between the gut-wracking sobs, this mother attempts to puzzle out the moment, the day, the month, when her beloved decided to leave her behind.

Tonight, there’s a mother somewhere wondering what clues she missed. There’s another who wondered if she should have done something differently. Another knew it was hopeless from day one. It stalked her family and her son didn’t stand a chance.

The causes of suicide are multitude; addiction, mental illness, clinical depression, and an overwhelming absence of hope.  It’s a bigger problem than you might think. It’s sad that in our nation, that’s so very blessed, almost 34,500 people choose to end their lives.

That means that every 15 minutes of every single day, someone is taking a life. It just happens to be their own.  And in their wake the suicides leave a tsunami of grief. Unfortunately there are many age groups that are impacted by this phenomenon, but statistically it is the second leading
cause of death for college students. Many colleges are frightened by that last statistic and are attempting to stem the tide of suicidal thoughts and actions on campus.

A group in California called Active Minds created an exhibit they call “Send Silence Packing” which includes 1,100 backpacks representing the number of college student lives lost to suicide each year. Each backpack has a picture and a story of the student whose life was ended so very early.

One of the tragedies of suicide is that many never talk about their suicidal thoughts and actions and to reach out to the right groups for assistance. Some suicide prevention groups are even initiating text-messaging calls for help since many in the college aged group are more likely to text someone than to make a phone call.

One of the benefits of an event like “Send Silence Packing” is that students realize they’re not alone in their struggles with these feelings. Because of societal stigmas, many never indicate they’re having an issue and so community members, relatives and even family members are blindsided by a suicide event.

So many societal stigmas have been uncovered and brought out into the light that it’s definitely time to start talking with your teen about this topic. If suicidal thoughts aren’t impacting your son or daughter, they may have a friend that struggles.

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, after surveying high school students they found that 60 percent said they had thought about killing themselves. That’s 60 percent of the young people sitting in classrooms tomorrow.

Even more shocking was that almost 9 percent indicated in this same survey that they’d actually attempted a suicide.

This sounds like an epidemic to me.  People talk with their children about the birds and the bees and passing out condoms, but they should also be talking about the facts of suicide prevention. And, arming themselves with all of the information they can get their hands on so they never have to stand, shaking hands next to a casket.

A Minnesota School District’s Struggle over Bullying and Gay Rights

In a front page story, the New York Times explores the problem of bullying and a controversial school policy concerning sexual orientation in a school district in suburban Minneapolis.

The piece details a long struggle between advocates for homosexual students and Christian conservatives over how sexual orientation should be taught in schools. It also reports on a lawsuit filed against the Anoka-Hennepin School District claiming, in part, that district policy requiring teachers to be “neutral” on the question of sexual orientation has helped to bring about a hostile environment for gay and lesbian students and therefore increasing the number of incidents of bullying.

The suit was brought on behalf of the students by the Southern Poverty Law Center and the National Center for Lesbian Rights. News of the suit comes after reports that the Department of Justice is in the midst of a civil rights investigation of on-going harassment of gay and lesbian students in the the district of some 38,000.

The issue has been further heightened in the district because eight students have committed suicide in the past two years.  Both sides are in disagreement, however, over whether bullying and the sexual identity of the students had anything to do with their deaths.

The Times story also points out that this area north of Minneapolis is solidly in Michele Bachmann’s congressional district. Mrs. Bachmann, a Republican candidate for president, has not made any statements about the suicides or the district’s policy over sexual orientation. She has in the past, however, expressed skepticism over the effectiveness of anti-bullying programs, according to the paper.

Rhode Island Lands $480,000 to Fund Suicide Prevention

US suicide rates by region - National Hopeline Network statistics
Credit: Kristin Brooks Hope Center, 2009

The Rhode Island Youth Suicide Prevention Project (RIYSPP) will receive $480,000 to implement suicide prevention programs in select community organizations and public schools throughout the state, U.S. Sen. Jack Reed (D-Rhode Island) announced on Thursday.

Suicide is believed to be the second leading cause of death among college students and third leading cause among youth age 10 to 24, according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and the Centers for Disease Control's  2009 Youth Risk Behavior Survey.

“Many young people who commit suicide have a treatable mental illness, but they don't get the help they need,” Reed said in a press release. “This grant will provide critical resources for prevention and outreach efforts in Rhode Island to help reach at-risk youth before it is too late.”

The grant will provide the RIYSPP with necessary resources to screen, identify and refer at-risk youth, and launch a media campaign to help educate adults about warning signs and how best to respond. Currently RIYSPP operates in six communities throughout the state, but will soon provide technical assistance to the Rhode Island National Guard and state's Veterans ' Administration in an effort to reach military personal and their families.

Many early-age suicides are preventable with the appropriate intervention from those close to the victim, Mary Ann Camann, an associate professor at the WellStar School of Nursing at Kennesaw State University told JJIE in June, but often the warnings signs are ignored or overlooked.

“Look for people who change their moods from being happy-go-lucky or pretty stable, to having more volatile moods or being more isolated or sad,” Camann said.

If you’re concerned about someone you know the National Institute of Mental Health recommends getting the person to seek immediate help from his or her doctor, the nearest hospital emergency room or by calling 911. Also, eliminate access to firearms or other dangerous tools, including unsupervised medications.

Online the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP) offers an interactive screening program that asks a series of questions. Following completion, participants are encouraged to call in and speak with a mental health professional to discuss their issues. AFSP’s screening program is anonymous and IS NOT a crisis hotline.

Nationally, anyone can dial 1-800-SUICIDE to be connected with the nearest Nation Hopeline Network certified counseling center. A directory of suicide hotlines and resources by state is available at suicidehotlines.com.

In Georgia, the Georgia Crisis and Access Line offers telephone consultations with mental health profesionals – not volunteers – seven days a week, 24 hours a day. 1-800-715-4225 of online at http://www.mygcal.com.

Suicide: A Preventable Epidemic in Young Adults

Teenagers and college students live in tumultuous times. Physical changes, high school graduation, going off to college, moving away from the parents — all of these things can cause personality and mood changes in young adults. So how does one know the difference between “normal” bouts of depression, sadness and erratic behavior, and what could potentially be a red flag for suicidal tendencies?

Every 15 minutes (about the amount of time that it takes to down a cup of coffee) one person will commit suicide, according to The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

Many of these deaths could have been prevented by intervention from those close to the victims, but often the warning signs were ignored because the subject is awkward, according to Mary Ann Camann, PhD, an associate professor at the WellStar School of Nursing at Kennesaw State University near Atlanta.

“Let’s face it: Mental illness is stigmatized because we still don’t know all the causes and it’s also seen as something that can’t be overcome,” Camann said. “There are some of the signs and symptoms. But there’s not an absolute profile that you can use to put a template on somebody.”

Suicide is thought to be the second leading cause of death to college students, says Chris Owens, Metro-Atlanta area director for The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

“If you have a friend and you’re thinking, ‘I wonder if they’re thinking about taking their life,’ it’s OK to ask them,” Owens said, adding that it is important not to leave that person alone, and to get them help.

There are several warning signs that indicate a person intends to hurt him, or herself.

“Look for people who change their moods from being happy-go-lucky or pretty stable, to having more volatile moods or being more isolated or sad,” Camann said.  “There’s a fine line between saying ‘I’m concerned about you’ and badgering somebody.”

The National Institute of Mental Health advises trying to get the person to seek immediate help from his or her doctor, the nearest hospital emergency room, or by calling 911. Also, eliminate access to firearms or other potential tools for suicide, including unsupervised access to medications.

Another tool to help potential victims is The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention’s interactive, online screening program that asks a series of questions.  Participants then receive a telephone call from an actual counselor to discuss their issues. The foundation also provides a hotline run by mental-health professionals -- not volunteers -- so people at risk of suicide can discuss their issues and get help.