Teaching Moment: Police Brutality and Raising a Black Son

Zerline HughesI don’t recall ever feeling like this. Aimless. Angry. Depressed. Defeated. Tired. These feelings are synonymous with PTSD and mourning. It took me half the day Thursday to realize I am, in fact, mourning. I’m mourning the loss of 123 black men who lost their lives this year at the hands of irresponsible, improperly trained law enforcement officials.

I’m mourning for my son, who today is healthy, bright-eyed and alive, but tomorrow, on stepping out the front door of our home, could very well be the next trending hashtag, relegated to a name on a T-shirt.

My son could too easily be the 124th black male casualty of the year. Or next year, or in another 20 years. What a way to live — expecting an untimely death not because of a rare disease, not because of a dangerous lifestyle, but simply because of being a black male.

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Despite watching Facebook Live broadcasted protests, seeing my hashtag-filled tweets and listening to my calls discussing the death of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, I feel like my son is oblivious to what is happening. And I’m not quite sure how I feel about that.

Sure, he’s a kid. Just 13. Why would I want my son to get amped up, scared, frantic? Why not keep all this bad news away from him and allow him to be oblivious? What is happening right before his eyes is the very R-rated stuff he’s not allowed to see at the movie theaters.

[RELATED: Implicit Bias: More Than Just a Few Bad Apples]

At this point, however, I think I want him to be upset and outraged because I am. Because all of us are. Because it is his life on the line today and seemingly forevermore. I want him to know that my ranting, raving and pacing around the house during his summer break is happening because I’m at wits’ end about how to respond, how to protect him, how to continue on.

Shouldn’t he see that that two people killed within two days of one another would be alive today had they not been black? Even the governor of Minnesota said Castile would have been alive today if he were white.

So I did a bad thing. I told my son that 123 black men were killed by cops in 187 days. I went on to tell him that’s almost one black man dead each day on the calendar. I then sweetened the pot and said his chances of getting killed by a peace officer is more likely than him becoming a millionaire. I kept going and going because I wanted him to react, and I was getting nothing.

What a bad, bad parent. I was forcing my trauma on to him, trying to make him feel my pain, feel defeated.

Luckily he’s used to my negativity. He’s used to me spewing off statistics like “1 in 3 black men will touch the criminal justice system in their lifetime.” He hears me day in and day out talk about the race disparity in our justice system and community services.

This is the predicament too many of us black parents are encountering right now with our young kids and teenagers. We find ourselves having to be gravely honest with them. We’re regularly explaining to them the bounty that is on their heads, the challenges that lie before them in the classrooms and on the streets.

Hours later I apologized to my son and instead of trying to force a reaction out of him, I calmly asked what he thought about the killing of two men this week and the scores of others over the last few years.

His response: “Way too many black people have been killed by police and most or none of the police were actually sent to jail. That’s unfair to other black people because that means they could be killed, too, and nothing would happen. You care because you’re an adult and pay more attention to what’s going on. Because I’m a teen, I don’t want to pay attention … but I know what’s happening.”

He also said he’s not afraid of being killed by the police. Well, that’s good … I guess. I mean, I don’t want him to walk around scared. I wish I could be as calm and cool as he is. I wish, like him, I had no fear.

But until our call to action is heard, I want him alert, expecting the unexpected — or in this case, the expected.

Zerline Hughes is a Washington, D.C., communications consultant and blogger on social justice issues. Her blog Not These Two focuses on keeping her children out of the school-to-prison pipeline. Follow her on Twitter at @zerlinehughes.

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Remembering Trayvon Martin: A Death That Brought A Movement To Life

CFYJ-512It was four years ago Friday that an unforeseen incident would be the catalyst to start a national movement. On the evening of Feb. 26, in Sanford, Florida, a 28-year-old man with a gun got out of his truck and confronted, chased, shot and killed a 17-year-old unarmed black kid. Trayvon Martin was merely walking home from a convenience store with a bag of Skittles and a can of Arizona Iced Tea.

We watched in agony as the nation sought to digest the death of this young man. It exposed elements of a grim reality for young black boys. American society has been conditioned to see young black men as greater threats, as more violent and regards them as more dangerous.

In effect, blackness has become weaponized in a way that elevates a normal boy into a suspicious one, and then transforms suspiciousness into threatening. This affects how authority figures from schools to law enforcement choose to engage young black men, and affects what society will permit as acceptable in doing so. More alarmingly, this carries with it real consequences for those young men who find themselves at the mercy of a flawed criminal justice system that sets a low value on their lives.

In the months and years to follow, the tragic death of Trayvon has set off a national conversation about racial profiling and the role race played. His death, and those of other young black men, has served as a catalyst for a new generation of activists who seek to dismantle the structures that target and criminalize black youth. New organizations have been formed, new leaders have emerged, the spirit of resistance has been given a reboot, and a new modern-day civil rights movement has emerged.

The question at the center of this movement is, “What does the world look like when Black Lives Matter?” Not just in terms of policing, which has become a major focus in the wake of the killings of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri; Eric Garner in New York City; Tamir Rice in Cleveland, or Freddie Gray in Baltimore, but in all areas of our society. What does education look like when black lives matter? What does economic opportunity look like when black lives matter? What does the criminal justice look like when black lives really matter?

It is a question those of us who advocate for criminal justice reform and work to ensure that young black men and boys are treated fairly ask ourselves daily. The racial and ethnic disparities that exist in our criminal justice system do not measure up to the standard of treating everyone equitably. Research has shown that this is fact.

[Related: 21 Years Later, Father Still Grieves Son’s Shooting by NY Police]

According to a report issued by the American Psychological Association and published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, police officers who dehumanized blacks were more likely to have used force against a black child in custody than officers who did not dehumanize blacks. Dehumanization is the belief that a certain group should be treated as less than human.

The study described takedowns or wrist locks; kicking or punching; striking with a blunt object; using a police dog, restraints or hobbling; or using tear gas, electric shock or killing. It should be noted that dehumanization and not just police officers’ prejudice against blacks — conscious or not — was linked to violent encounters with black children while in police custody, according to the study.

The same study also found black boys as young as 10 may not be viewed as having the same childhood innocence as their white peers, but are instead more likely to be mistaken as older, be perceived as guilty and face police violence if accused of a crime.

This is a national crisis: Across the country our justice system is marked by disparate racial outcomes at every stage of the process — especially for those who are most vulnerable, young black boys. This is exemplified by more frequent arrests for youth of color and ending with more frequent secure placement.

The anniversary of young Trayvon's death and the other tragedies that have unfolded in the last several years should serve as a clarion call for anyone committed to justice reform. Our youngsters of color are much more likely to be profiled — and then prosecuted, sentenced and incarcerated as adults than their white counterparts.

Young men who experience similar profiling by their local police, prosecutors and judges will not be seen for what they often are, young boys. Children. Unfortunately, Trayvon and so many others had to lose their lives for America to pay attention. But if Trayvon's death, their deaths, serve as a catalyst for change in the justice system, and more specifically the juvenile justice system, then their deaths will not have been in vain.

We remember Trayvon because his death should serve as a daily reminder of the very real work left undone. His memory serves as our invitation to help fix a broken system. It will become better when we all become involved: What can each of us do to create a more equitable system for black men and boys, and therefore a system more just for all young people?

Aprill O. Turner is the director of communications & media relations for the Campaign For Youth Justice, a national initiative focused on ending the practice of prosecuting, sentencing and incarcerating youth under the age of 18 in the adult criminal justice system.

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Ending Zero Tolerance Actually Slashes Crime in New York Schools

Judge Steven TeskeWhen did making adults mad become a crime?

I asked myself this question shortly after I started judging in juvenile court when confronted with a docket inundated with disruptive students referred from the schools. Most were misdemeanor incidents involving fights, disorderly conduct, disrupting school, graffiti and theft.

After placing police on campus, school arrests increased over 2,000 percent. Of these arrests, 92 percent were for misdemeanor offenses — the types of behaviors typical of adolescents whose brains are neurologically inclined to do riskier, stupid things despite their creative, intelligent and energetic proclivities.

The more we arrested and suspended, the worse our graduation rates became — plummeting to an all-time low of 58 percent in 2003. It was not a surprise that the fewer we graduated, the more juveniles were committing crimes.

As goes graduation, so goes crime.

“Increasing graduation rates will lead to less crime and safer communities,” says the National Guard Youth Foundation, citing data that shows “67 percent of those incarcerated in state prisons failed to complete high school and 69 percent of local jail populations are made up of high school dropouts.”

We thought we could improve school climate by using zero tolerance practices to remove the disruptive kids, but we overlooked the research — we didn’t even study our own data.

For example, we found that a 1 percent improvement in school climate was found to increase student average attendance by 1.6 percent. Improve the climate by 10 percent and you get a 16 percent increase in student attendance.

And when we looked at our data, we found that those students who missed 15 days or more had a 30 percent graduation rate. What’s worse: Many of those missed days were due to school arrests and suspensions.

In my world of juvenile justice, chasing the kids who make us mad only dilutes the effectiveness of safeguarding the community from the kids who scare us.

It was time to scuttle zero tolerance. It was time to do the counterintuitive — keeping kids in school, out of court.

I used the inherent convening authority of the judicial bench to bring together our community stakeholders to create the first school-justice partnership agreement in the nation — a partnership that has reduced school arrests by 83 percent, influenced the increase in graduation rates by more than 24 percent and reduced juvenile crime by 62 percent.

I have since learned that the convening power necessary to create a school-justice partnership protocol is not limited to judges, but embraces any leader who is knowledgeable about the problem and possesses the will to do something to resolve it.

What I initially believed could only be championed by judges, law enforcement and education leaders have since proven me wrong. Now there is a new person expanding our universe of school-justice leadership — New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio.

Mayor de Blasio knows that how go our kids, so go our adults. If we want better citizens and lower adult crime rates, we must be smart about how we treat our kids — they eventually become adults, after all!

To accomplish this, Mayor de Blasio created a task force called the Leadership Team on School Climate and Discipline. The team was to develop policy recommendations that will enhance the well-being and safety of students and staff in the city’s public schools while minimizing the use of suspensions, arrests and summonses. This team has involved more than 150 stakeholders, including representatives from city agencies, community organizations and unions, as well as researchers, practitioners, educators, students and parents.

[Related: Juvenile Justice Can Be Reformed Without Invoking Old Prejudices]

In June 2014, my school superintendent and I met with key members of the mayor’s leadership team via video conference to discuss the components of our school-justice partnership model and its application in the nation’s largest school district.

This multidisciplinary team of experts created by the mayor is working hard to evaluate New York City school-justice data and research what works and what doesn’t work. It is clear that New York City wants to increase public safety for tomorrow by creating a school-justice partnership that places children on the road to success — not kick them off.

I know — I was in the Big Apple in June along with my team of advisors to meet with members of the leadership team.

I learned that New York City schools went on an arrest and suspension binge between 2000 and 2010 that didn’t produce the results intended. On the other hand, changes over the past two years that led to suspensions being reduced by 23 percent and arrests by 55 percent did not create the mayhem some naysayers had predicted. As the research predicted, crime in the schools declined by 24 percent across the same time period.

These statistics are promising, but the mayor knows the numbers can improve further if the team stays the course to develop a system unique to New York City that follows the school-justice algorithm of keeping kids in school and out of court. To that end, the mayor's team has become well versed in what works and why.

They know that arresting kids for low-level offenses will make them worse — an unintended consequence resulting from “Get Tough” policies like zero tolerance. For example, they know that a student arrested on campus is twice as likely to drop out of school and four times as likely if they appear in court.

The mayor’s team is aware that arresting the kids who make us mad will increase the chances that they will become individuals who truly scare us — and that is not a smart system.

As part of this process, the team is looking into a proven approach I pioneered in 2003 — an integrative multisystem approach to replace arrests for certain misdemeanor offenses with responses that seek to modify the behavior.

We know from epidemiologists who study diseases that disruptive behaviors, like diseases, don’t occur by chance and are not randomly distributed. This means disruptive behaviors, like diseases, have underlying determinants that can be treated and eliminated.

The mayor's team is working diligently to create a school-justice partnership that will identify the causes and treat them with methods best suited to reduce disruptive behaviors — and arresting and suspending don’t address the underlying causes.

His team knows these outcomes can be replicated in New York because they’ve been replicated in many jurisdictions of all sizes across the nation. This approach has been cited as an “ideal solution” to eliminating zero tolerance in “A Handbook for Evidence-Based Juvenile Justice Systems.”

I was disappointed by a recent editorial in the New York Post that employed incendiary words to paint a picture of this effort as “soft on crime” despite the studies showing the model’s positive impact on graduation rates and correlating influence on decreasing crime.

Such inflammatory speech is the easy go-to for those wading in the shallow end of the pool of knowledge. They prefer to avoid the inconvenience of learning to swim in the deep end where the underlying truths reside because they’re fearful of what they may learn.

These are the counterintuitive truths that scare a few, but they are truths that can save children’s lives and make our cities safer.

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, DJJ Judicial Advisory Council, Commission on Family Violence, and the Governor's Office for Children and Families.

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You Don’t Have to Be a Judge to Champion Change for Kids

You Don’t Have to Be a Judge to Champion Change for Kids

Judge Steven TeskeThe art of leadership, some say, is not in finding followers, but in creating more leaders.

Something I wish I had thought about when I first developed the school-justice partnership.

I was only four years into judging, and probably still suffering from “robeitis” — a disease unique to judges who let the robe they wear go to their head. Symptoms may include inflated opinions of one’s self, expressions of invulnerability and bouts of singing Carly Simon’s “Nobody Does It Better.”

Maybe this disease contributed to my biased attitude that only judges can be champion conveners to initiate local school-justice reform. I would later realize — while doing replication work around the country (which would bring me into contact with some unique leaders in education and law enforcement) — that my opinion of the judicial role was inflated.

There is no doubt that judges possess the best vantage point to champion change for kids. You are sitting as a traffic cop in a courtroom that is the intersection of juvenile justice and its multiple stakeholders. However, too many judges say they won’t or can’t be that champion.

A collaborative model that requires a champion to convene others to begin change is most effective when “champion” is broadly defined. It should accommodate any stakeholder leader willing to exert their influence to convene other stakeholder leaders.

This is especially true in a system like juvenile justice that requires multiple parts, including mental health, social services, schools, law enforcement and the courts, to work in tandem if juvenile delinquency is to be significantly reduced. A community will never realize its true potential to improve public safety unless a leader somewhere in this system convenes others to start talking to integrate a fractured system so it can accommodate best practices.

A juvenile justice system without a champion is like a ship without a sail drifting aimlessly, its passengers hoping for land like a community wishing for fewer crimes. Without that champion to convene the different parts, the system will remain fractured. Its parts will work independently and never realize their common goal because a champion to lead them to do something uncommon is missing.

The art of reducing recidivism requires integrating a system of multiple parts, each acting as independent variables influencing the dependent variable (recidivism). As multiple regression analysis shows, the trick is to identify all the independent variables influencing a reduction in recidivism, then to create a system that best allows the variables to mesh at the right moment with the right kid to increase the effectiveness of treatment.

[Related: Convicted on Drug Charges, Georgia Youth Faces Life After Rehab]

We know that family dysfunction, lack of school-connectedness, antisocial peers, substance abuse, cognition (attitudes, values and beliefs) and weak problem-solving skills are risk factors for delinquency. We also know that the services provided to minimize these risk factors fall within different parts of the system — a system with parts that do not lend themselves to working together, and oftentimes working against each other.

The school-justice partnership model devised in 2003 requires a local champion to encourage the system parts to calibrate themselves to work simultaneously. The goal is to increase graduation rates by reducing suspensions, expulsions and arrests and treating chronically disruptive kids with modalities that target the cause of the behavior.

As goes graduation, so goes crime. The more kids we graduate, the fewer adults committing crimes — a principle that can resonate with law enforcement.

And these statistics have begun to move as we begin to see law enforcement leaders filling the void created by those who can’t or won’t act to convene.

I was first introduced to Kevin Bethel, deputy commissioner of the Philadelphia Police Department, several years ago at a meeting of multidisciplinary stakeholders by the MacArthur Foundation in Chicago meant to develop insight into the problem of zero tolerance and solutions. He would return to Philadelphia inspired by what some informally refer to as the “Clayton Model” and others the “Teske Model” and convene stakeholders to create a program that diverts students from arrest on minor offenses to avoid a criminal record.

Bethel’s champion role led to a partnership that diverts students to programs sponsored by the Philadelphia Department of Human Services and supported by the District Attorney, Public Defender and the Juvenile Court. The diversion program began in May 2014. It has shown success, with student arrests dropping 54 percent in its first year with 1,000 fewer behavior incidents in the schools. These are outcomes that explain why researchers have declared the Teske Model “an ideal solution to reducing suspension and expulsion (and arrests).”

Bethel may give me credit for inspiring him to do something, but his deviation from my model’s emphasis on judicial leadership inspired me to expand the definition of a champion to include any stakeholder leader inspired to convene others.

Bethel’s academic understanding of zero tolerance and practical application of collaborative solutions recently earned him the honor of being named a Diana A. Millner Youth Justice Fellow by the Stoneleigh Foundation at Drexel University, where he will spend the next three years addressing Philadelphia’s school-to-prison pipeline. Through the university’s Juvenile Justice Research and Reform Lab, he will be seeking to “expand the diversionary program beyond students and include other youths who are first-time offenders for small crimes, like theft.”

Bethel exemplifies the art of leadership by his dedication to a model that creates more leaders.

Steven Teske is chief judge of the Juvenile Court of Clayton County, Ga., 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, DJJ Judicial Advisory Council, Commission on Family Violence, and the Governor's Office for Children and Families.

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Listen to Me: Change Is Always an Option

20151123_080734-1I grew up in a small town in South Carolina called Georgetown, 36 miles from Myrtle Beach. When I was 4 or 5 months old, my father passed, leaving my mother a single parent. It was me and my big brother, who is two years older.

Only 19, my mother struggled, working two jobs to support us. When I was 3 she got a job at the U.S. Postal Service that forced her to travel back and forth from Columbia, South Carolina to Georgetown. After a while, the two-hour drive made things even more complicated for us all.

My mother took my older brother with her to stay in Columbia and I was left to stay with my grandparents in Georgetown until my mother could get on her feet. When I was 13, my mother moved me to Columbia.

I was doing whatever I wanted to do, whenever I wanted to do it from 13 to 19. I committed crimes. I realized the effects of it one day when my mother had to take me to police headquarters. The look on her face showed disappointment and sadness.

At that point I realized that I never wanted to hurt my mother again, but that the bad choices I made already had.

When I was 19 and in my senior year of high school, I failed the exit exam that determined whether you passed or failed. I moved to Bradenton, Florida, where I worked for the Waste Management Company but was homeless for the first three to four months, staying at the Salvation Army shelter.

After being out of high school for years at a time I had no intentions of resuming my education. My only concern was to be wealthy. In June 2004, at 22, I attended Earle C. Clements Job Corps Academy in Morganfield, Kentucky.

At first Job Corps was hectic. I had never lived in a dorm environment and I was surrounded by strangers. We received an allowance every month but it was only $25.

I then went into the work-study program at a local lumber company in Morganfield to earn extra income. While in Job Corps, I also got my driver’s license, high school diploma and a carpenter helper certification.

I had no plans to resume my education; I still only wanted to be wealthy.

By November 2005, I had completed the carpentry program and achieved everything I wanted to accomplish at Job Corps. The only thing missing was the wealth I desired.

[Related: OP-ED: Juveniles Change; They Deserve Bolder Reforms]

During my last weeks of Job Corps I came into contact with a guy named Dr. Roth who was a millionaire. Dr. Roth helped me realize that there were opportunities to make the kind of money I desired, but that education was the key factor and much bigger than just one skill or trade.

I then fell in love with education, not for the money, but for the opportunity to learn and evolve. I realized that out of all my siblings, there weren’t any college graduates. I was the first.

In 2014, I attended Virginia College and got my state medical assistant certification. I’m now 33, a student at Virginia College finishing a program as a network technician. In another year I’ll be studying for my bachelor’s degree as a health care IT professional.

Now I yearn to not just be a graduate, but a prime example of how change can always be an option.

I’m living proof that opportunity is always presented, but what we do with that opportunity is solely up to us.

I can definitely relate to kids incarcerated with the state Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) because of my past, when carpentry and welding were the only options presented.

I visited the DJJ in Columbia in November to help introduce the kids to programs at Virginia College that could help them once they were released.

But the officers only gave the kids two to three minutes to soak in the information. I felt it was not enough time to learn about something new. Therefore, my colleagues and I took it upon ourselves to give out gift bags with brochures.

We made the kids feel welcomed and even shook the hands of 97 percent of them, encouraging them.

But staff there confiscated for their own personal use the water bottles that we had provided from the school for the kids. I was upset because the message it sends clearly isn’t positive. It leaves the feeling there is no respect and makes the kids feel their hard work is in vain.

The kids will have a higher success rate if they are more educated about different opportunities. They made mistakes, some of them very big ones that may have cost their freedom, but they are still human and this is still America.

The kids are just kids, but we as adults should always hold ourselves to a higher standard of morals and principles. This is my testimony that proves that change is always an option and can always be used for the greater good.

Quentin Grant is a student at Virginia College, now studying to be a network technician.

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Schools Fail to Get It Right on Rap Music

Andrea L. DennisWord to the wise.

School officials treat rap music as a serious threat to the school environment. Fear and misunderstanding of, as well as bias against, this highly popular and lucrative musical art form negatively shape their perspectives on this vital aspect of youth culture.

As a result, students who express themselves through rap music in a way that challenges the schoolhouse setting risk the possibility of suspension, permanent exclusion and referral to the criminal justice system.

The ongoing case of Taylor Bell is the latest and most complex battleground on which this issue is playing out.

On Jan. 5, 2011, Bell, a high school senior at the time, posted online a rap song he had composed and recorded. He wrote the song during the 2010 Christmas break from school after female friends told him of their experiences of being sexually touched and harassed by two teachers at the school.

Bell’s song described the alleged misconduct, identified the two teachers by name, referred to one teacher’s family life and contained profanity, vulgarities, the n-word and references to firearms and retribution.

After a brief investigation by school officials, Bell was suspended from school. After a disciplinary hearing, he remained suspended and was transferred to an alternative school for the remainder of the grading period, approximately six weeks. Bell appealed the decision as a violation of his First Amendment right to freedom of speech, but the school system as well as a federal trial court upheld his punishment.

This past August, a federal appeals court ruled that Bell’s song threatened, harassed and intimidated the teachers, thus impeding and disrupting, if not destroying, their ability to teach and learn. Moreover, according to the court, his song “reasonably could be forecast … to cause a substantial disruption” of the school and encouraged other students to engage in similar disruptive behavior.

Bell’s last option for relief is the U.S. Supreme Court. Reportedly Bell will ask the court to review his case, although a grant of his request would be a long shot given the small number of cases the court hears each year.

Bell has long since finished high school, but the case understandably remains important to him, whether to clear his educational record, clarify students’ free speech rights or seek protections for the art form he has long appreciated and studied.

To be clear, though, Bell’s situation is not the first and only in which school officials have disciplined students for rap music.

Fifteen years earlier, Arkansas school officials expelled a seventh-grade student after he wrote a violent, profane and vulgar rap about a classmate he formerly dated. The student claimed he was mimicking Eminem and other famous rappers and denied he was intending to threaten his ex-girlfriend. Ultimately, a federal appeals court upheld his expulsion.

Since that early case, an Internet search today will uncover many news reports and legal cases nationwide in which school officials have disciplined students for rap music. And there are likely many more instances of which we are publicly unaware.

Schools have disciplined students for composing and performing lyrics with violent, profane, vulgar or illicit content. Others have expelled students for composing and performing lyrics allegedly promoting gang activity or firearms. And in one startling case, a 6-year-old boy was suspended for singing the lyrics of a highly popular song by LMFAO to another student.

[Related: Government Should Not Expel, Charge Students for Tasteless Speech]

Educators’ decisions to penalize youth for their love of rap music can have lifelong consequences.

This discipline strategy is a manifestation of the school-to-prison pipeline in which suspension, expulsion, referral to an alternative school and referral for criminal prosecution have become the primary means of school discipline, even for behaviors that traditionally were considered minor infractions. Less severe and historically used remedial measures, such as counseling and detention, have taken a back seat to the current zero tolerance approach.

These new measures slowly, and at times immediately, push youth out of the school system, eventually channeling them into the juvenile and criminal justice systems.

And not surprisingly, the school-to-prison pipeline disproportionately affects black male youth who are far more likely to be disciplined and to be harshly disciplined than other youth for the same or similar conduct.

Consider again Bell’s case. His school was not actually disrupted by his song. He had no serious school disciplinary history, no apparent criminal or violent history and was known to be an aspiring professional rap artist. Nonetheless, Bell — who is black — was suspended rather than given in-school suspension or counseling, or asked to turn this into a learning moment.

And last year, black students in Ohio, who were expelled for composing a rap song that allegedly contained gang references and threats, filed a lawsuit alleging the school system discriminated against them on the basis of their race. That case reportedly settled favorably for the students.

This practice of punishing individuals for rap music is not isolated to childhood. Young adults — particularly black men — face criminal justice consequences based on rap music.

Almost a decade ago I wrote of prosecutors obtaining criminal convictions by using the rap lyrics defendants wrote as evidence against them. With few limitations and challenge, prosecutors were able to present the lyrics to jurors as autobiographical confessions and paint defendants as violent or threatening. The practice is widely used today.

In both the school discipline and criminal justice settings, officials demonstrate their misapprehension of and bias against rap music as a meritorious artistic enterprise. They fail to evaluate the lyrics in the context of poetic and authenticity expectations as well as the influence of commercialization. Overwhelming fear of future violence or criminality seems to be the decision driver.

For example, Bell’s rap was clearly intended to publicize and protest the alleged egregious behavior of teachers. He did so by using metaphors, violent imagery and the call-and-response style — all common features of rap music — and hoped that the song would attract industry attention.

A school official acknowledged the importance of the topic about which Bell rapped but nonetheless said he should have censored himself. This official apparently ignored that youth are engaged in a process of learning to express themselves and that exploration involves expressing themselves in ways that youth understand and appreciate, though not necessarily adults.

Schools are charged with the safety and security of students, teachers and administrators. It is an awesome responsibility that cannot be easily dismissed. But they are also charged with understanding youth and their culture as well as thoughtfully educating them.

Rather than fearing rap music and the youth culture it represents, school officials would be better served leveraging rap music to support their educational mission.
Andrea L. Dennis is an associate professor of law at the University of Georgia School of Law where she teaches and researches criminal law and procedure, family law and juvenile law.

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Law Enforcement Forced Into Role Confusion in Schools

Judge Steven Teske“What we’ve got here is failure to communicate.”

The captain, a prison warden, uttered these words in the movie classic “Cool Hand Luke” after beating Luke with a whip for his stubborn disobedience.

These words describe the underlying cause of the South Carolina classroom altercation resulting in the firing of a deputy.

This “failure to communicate” dilemma plays out on multiple levels and is not restricted to those working in the weeds. This dilemma extends beyond the school campus and permeates the atmosphere of upper management where school administrators reside, and it goes higher into the stratosphere where our legislative, judicial and executive state officials reside.

We too often stay stuck on the ground where the action occurred, blinded by the weeds. Are we that naïve to think that what happens in the weeds is not influenced by those residing in the  clouds that rain down policies like zero tolerance?

Don’t get me wrong.

The deputy’s conduct was inexplicable and his firing justified, but what made the deputy, and the principal who requested his presence, think it was OK to involve law enforcement in a school rule infraction? It may be true that the deputy breached the rules governing the mechanics of arrest, but the problem isn’t going away because the deputy was fired.

When law enforcement are summoned to enforce a school rule, incompatible demands are placed on them — a social psychological phenomena called “role conflict.” When this occurs, law enforcement are asked to step out of their law enforcement shoes and wear another size that doesn’t fit.

This conflict can cause “role confusion” for some law enforcement who intuitively know that being asked to enforce a school rule is confusing and wrestle with which role should be assumed. The conflict that leads to confusion can lead to “role strain” — when law enforcement feel inadequate, which can cause poor judgment in those situations involving breaking school rules as opposed to serious criminal conduct such as weapons and drugs.

The deputy’s conduct was inexplicable, but so was his presence in the classroom. Who is to blame for that inexplicable scenario?

So long as school and law enforcement policymakers fail to communicate to the worker bees what they can and cannot do in disciplinary matters, disobedient students will be physically assaulted by conflicted, confused and strained law enforcement.

Fortunately, the school superintendent in South Carolina acknowledged their systemic faux pas, saying, “Conversations that have already started will continue around how we work with the sheriff’s department on improvement and coordination of our work as educators and their work as law enforcement officers.”

[Related: States Should Mandate School-justice Partnership to End Violence Against Our Children]

Unfortunately, the skies should have opened long before this incident, but how tragic if the rest of the skies don’t open up to shine a light on the problem of role conflict.

Educators need training on best practices in classroom management like Positive Behavioral Supports and Interventions (PBIS) so they don’t feel law enforcement is required to enforce school rules.

Notwithstanding evidence-based practices, we must not neglect our responsibility as adults to act like an adult.

When Susie refused to turn over the cellphone, would it hurt to say, “Susie, we will discuss this later with your foster mom” and move on with instruction?

Taking this road less traveled leads to no principal, deputy, altercation and no firing.

For those who enjoy the road most traveled, and are compelled to challenge the student’s disobedience in the presence of the class, be careful what you ask for, because you may not like what you get. Trying to reason with a kid who is neurologically wired to do stupid things and in the presence of their peers is a battle best fought another day and in a safer place.

When we respond to kids who make us angry with anger, we allow them to rent space in our head. When we let kids reside in our head, we risk acting like them, and that is never flattering.

Oh! Did I say foster mom?

That’s right — Susie’s mom had recently died.

What does this say about the climate of a school when this trauma is not considered? If they didn’t know, they should have known, and if they knew, shame on them.

When superintendents don’t communicate expectations, then administrators make poor decisions; and when administrators make poor decisions, the roles are conflicted; and when the roles are conflicted, the adults are confused; and when the adults are confused, the kids get hurt; and when kids get hurt, then it’s time to create a school-justice partnership that defines roles to avoid confusion.

Without a partnership, school resource officers risk stepping outside their role. Like Cool Hand Luke, they may become a “whipping boy” for a system flawed by its failure to communicate.

Steven Teske is chief judge of the Juvenile Court of Clayton County, Ga., 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, DJJ Judicial Advisory Council, Commission on Family Violence, and the Governor's Office for Children and Families.

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Should 24-Year-Old Offenders be Considered Juveniles?

LAS VEGAS -- When the National Partnership for Juvenile Services annual symposium opened, Jason Bowser, a youth service director from Columbus, Ind., told an executive committee that one of the standing committees was focusing on the question of “What is a juvenile?”

It might seem an odd question for a gathering of folks who specialize in working with youth in the juvenile justice system, but really the question, even when not spoken, would be present in training sessions across the three-day symposium held here this week. Nor is it just a hypothetical question because nearly 250,000 young people under the age of 18 end up in the adult criminal justice system every year, according to the National Institute of Corrections report, “You’re an Adult Now: Youth in Adult Criminal Justice Systems.”

Liz Ryan, president and CEO of the Campaign for Youth Justice -- in a session reflecting the “Adult Now” theme -- reminded everyone that New York and North Carolina still consider juveniles to be adults at the ages of 16 or 17 in criminal proceedings, whereas in the rest of the states it’s 18. Ryan said a new report shows that each year 100,000 young people get sent to an adult facility and on any given day approximately 10,000 of them are in an adult facility.

Michael Dempsey

Once there, the correction system managers do have rules that treat the juvenile differently from the mainstream adult population. At times that means putting the kids into isolation. Elissa Rumsey, compliance monitor coordinator for the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP), said, “Isolation means that there is no outside time, you are seriously locked down for 24/7. Some get out three hours in a week and are in a cage on the grounds by themselves. Truly no human contact, food through the door, no contact with staff, no services, no other people. That’s isolation.”

Ryan said they might be isolated because of a teenage behavior issue, be a true danger or for their own protection from the adult prisoners.

No matter the reason Rumsey says, “When they are put in isolation that increases the behavioral issues because it tends to drive one crazy when you are locked down for 24/7 without any sunlight. So they would act out with even worse behaviors.”

Michael Dempsey, who works with the Indiana Department of Correction and who has been advocating for juvenile treatment for a 14-year-old who was found guilty of murder as a 12-year-old and given an adult sentence, says, “There are many of us who believe anyone up to the age of

Cindy Thacker

23 or 24 could still be considered a juvenile, it depends on where they are at developmentally. But in the eyes of most laws anyone over the age of 18 is considered an adult.”

New research demonstrates that the brain is not fully developed until about the age of 25, according to experts. Margaret Davis, who co-taught a training seminar on the latest developments in brain research, says, “When you ask a lot of people what is a juvenile, they think it has shifted today to be a later age and it really can be anybody up to the age of 25.”

Furthermore, her co-presenter Cindy Thacker said staff working with young people need tounderstand the ways kids’ brains work, and that extends to staff who work with kids in adult facilities.

Davis said, “They cannot and should not be treating those kids the same way they are treating the adult offenders. They need more programming, they need more structure. These 16-year-olds cannot make the decisions for themselves the way a 30-year-old offender makes those decisions.”

Margaret Davis

Dempsey, from the Indiana Department of Corrections, said unfortunately that is not the case for kids when they end up in the adult system. They have to deal with staff who are trained to work with adults and not trained to be adolescence development specialists, he said.

As we deal with the question: What is a juvenile and how to best treat youth in the juvenile justice system, Dempsey says we must identify the best approaches and piece-by-piece build a best practice model that can be duplicated nationally.

“I think we will get there. It is a slow process,” he said.

Photos by Leonard Witt |

Abandoned Atlanta: Teens Portray the Forgotten, the Unheard of, and the Remnants of a Complicated City

The sight of decrepit, abandoned buildings can evoke many different reactions. They can inspire or disgust, educate or anger, thrill or frighten. Abandoned buildings serve as a reminder of our history---as well as our disappointments---and the art created of them can paint a vivid picture of urban decay.

Being the oddball out of capital cities, Atlanta was not built on a major body of water. Instead, it grew as a central railroad hub of ill repute.  It was a city of prostitution, gambling, and violence for a long time. This history must be remembered in order to fully understand its present.  With a foundation built around the railroad, it was only a matter of time before the technical advancements of the Industrial Revolution made that form of transportation obsolete. Since then Atlanta has recreated its status as ‘transportation hub’ through the Hartsfield International Airport (the biggest in the states). And with the airport, the city became again a center for prostitution.

The majority of Atlanta’s history is riddled with racism, capitalist incentives, and middle class individualism, all factors that led to the ‘white flight’ into the suburbs of the 60s and 70s. Large amounts of middle and upper class taxpayers left urban residences for plush, safe suburban living, taking with them millions of tax dollars which left the city of Atlanta struggling. Decades pushed forward and the suburbs of Atlanta (especially to the North of the city) flourished as the city itself fell into disrepair. Once funded schools, public works buildings, prisons, and rail yards emptied then decayed.

The city is sprinkled with these relics of a bygone era, including the main characters of the photographs from two high school photographers, Dani P. (age 14, grade 9) and Devin B. (age 17, grade 12). Through their work, Dani and Devin tell us the story of a forgotten Atlanta, an abandoned Atlanta. They use these dilapidated leftovers to explain the consequences of urban decay and shed some much needed light into the stories of the abandoned.

To view this full story, complete with artwork, visit the Abandoned Atlanta feature on JJIE's sister site Bokeh.

Facebook May Change Rules to Allow Children Under 13

For the first time, Facebook is considering allowing children under 13 to join the social networking site, according to a story in The Wall Street Journal. But a study last year by the Pew Internet & American Life Project found Facebook is already full of children younger than 13. According to the report, 46 percent of 12-year-olds are already using Facebook despite the prohibition, either with their parents’ permission or by lying about their age.

The Wall Street Journal reports Facebook is researching policies and new technologies that will keep young children safe while using the page. Possibilities include giving parents control over their child’s account by linking the parent and child accounts together. Parents would then be able to make decisions about who their child is interacting with on the site and what applications the child uses.

A story in PC World says many parents already allow their young children to use Facebook under supervision. But the new policies could make it easier for parents to control what their children do on the site.


Photo from: Internet Safety for Kids Today