Rampant Abuse, Misplaced Priorities Typify Juvenile Incarceration
“Don” was a troubled kid. At age 16, his repeated mental and behavioral issues led him to bring a weapon to school, throw a rock at an occupied vehicle, and regularly break the law. As a foster child, Don had few advocates to speak for him, and in such a situation, he easily could have been caught up in the “school-to-prison pipeline.”
Millions of kids just like Don face a similar situation. Black children born after 2001 now have a 1-in-3 lifetime risk of being sent to prison, as reported by the Children’s Defense Fund, with Latino boys in the same age demographic having a 1-in-6 risk. Zero-tolerance approaches to school safety have led to a situation in which students are suspended or arrested instead of given the attention and support that they need.
In America today, roughly 1 in 5 kids aged 9 to 17 have a diagnosable mental health disorder. Four out of 5 of these kids fail to get the treatment they need.
As a result, 40 percent of all expelled students in the United States are Black. Seventy percent of all in-school arrests involve Black or Latino students. Sixty-eight percent of the male prison population in this country do not have a high school diploma. This school-to-prison pipeline is creating a class of minorities systematically disenfranchised from the earliest of ages.
In a December 12, 2012, hearing of the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Human Rights, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) offered a poignant opening statement.
“In the 1990s, concerns about school violence, some very rightful concerns, and a growing awareness of bullying led many schools to hire police and institute zero-tolerance policies,” Durbin said. “This resulted in a dramatic increase in suspensions, expulsions and even in-school arrests for misbehavior that had been judged to that point to be rather normal for school children. This school to prison pipeline has moved scores of young people from classrooms to courtrooms.”
The demographics of the children caught in the school-to-prison pipeline also translate into a study of the nation’s obligations to its children. Almost 100,000 children are held in the nation’s juvenile detention facilities and adult prisons. Almost all of them have to endure the same lack of basic services adult prisoners must face — including a lack of educational access, inadequate health care, a lack of proper nutrition and no protection from the risk of sexual assault and abuse.
An epidemic of sexual abuse
According to a survey conducted by the Department of Justice, 20 percent of all teenagers who report sexual assaults in juvenile detention centers and group homes reported that they were assaulted 10 or more times. Eight percent of all youthful incarcerated males and 2.8 percent of all youthful incarcerated females reported sexual activity with personnel, while 2.2 percent of all youthful incarcerated males and 5.4 percent of all youthful incarcerated females had forced sexual activity with another inmate.
Among the facilities surveyed, “Thirteen facilities were identified as high-rate based on
the prevalence of sexual victimization by youth or staff,” the report stated. “Rates in each of these facilities had a 95%-confidence interval with a lower bound that was at least 35%
higher than the average rate of sexual victimization among facilities nationwide. Two of the high-rate facilities—Paulding Regional Detention Center (Georgia) and Circleville Juvenile
Correctional Facility (Ohio)—had sexual victimization rates of 30% or greater.”
This is compounded by the reality that 7,560 children are held in adult jails and 2,778 are held in adult prisons.
“Rates of sexual abuse appear to be much higher for youth in confinement than they are for adult prisoners,” the 2009 National Prison Rape Elimination Commission Report stated. “This is true of recorded allegations of sexual abuse as well as incidents that investigators deemed ‘substantiated.’ The Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) found that the rate of sexual abuse in adult facilities, based only on substantiated allegations reported to corrections authorities that were captured in administrative records, was 2.91 per 1,000 incarcerated prisoners in 2006. The rate in juvenile facilities, also reported by BJS and based on administrative records, was more than five times greater: 16.8 per 1,000 in 2006.”
This push to punish students instead of rehabilitate them has created a subclass that has been denied access to education and hardened by incarceration. Their underlying problems — be it family politics, chemical abuse or mental-health complications — remain unresolved.
“While it’s easy to think the school-to-prison pipeline only impacts particular students and their respective families, we must remember that our whole society will feel the consequences,” Carla Amurao wrote for PBS’s “Tavis Smiley Reports.” “Today’s youth are tomorrow’s leaders. And we must remember that we cannot teach a student who is not in school.”
Zero tolerance in school
The realities of this no-tolerance approach are startling. In Suffolk, Va., two second-graders were suspended for pretending that their pencils were guns. The 7-year-olds were playing together with no other children involved.
“Some children would consider it threatening, who are scared about shootings in schools or shootings in the community,” Suffolk Public Schools spokeswoman Bethanne Bradshaw said. “Kids don’t think about ‘Cowboys and Indians’ anymore, they think about drive-by shootings and murders and everything they see on television news every day.”
Suffolk Public Schools’ policies also forbid drawing a picture of a gun or pointing in a threatening manner.
Another example is Hoover, Ala., where a diabetic high school student was slammed face-first, arrested and taken to jail this May because she fell asleep in study hall. The student fell asleep as a reaction of her medical conditions — a mixture of sleep apnea, Type 2 diabetes and asthma.
Without taking time to consider the situation, the in-school suspension supervisor struck the cubicle where the student was at twice, causing her physical harm. After she asked the uniformed police officer to stop hitting her backpack, she was slammed against a file cabinet, handcuffed and arrested. The family of the student is currently suing the school district and the police department for damages.
As reported by PBS, “New Orleans, LA has numbers equally as staggering. The Orleans Parish School Board’s expulsions under zero tolerance policies were 100% Black, with 67% of their school-related arrests being Black students. The RSD-Algiers Charter School Association had 75% of their expelled students without educational services black. Furthermore, 100% of their expulsions under zero tolerance policies and 100% of their school-related arrests were all Black students.”
Finally, in Chicago, the student group Voice of Youth in Chicago Education announced that between September 2011 and February 2012, there were 2,546 school-based arrests in Chicago public schools, including the arrests of three 9-year-olds, eight 10-year-olds and 17 11-year-olds. Seventy-five percent of all arrested were African-American, and 21 percent were Latino. Only 3 percent were White. Chicago Public Schools responded by saying that the data presented was inaccurate because it included arrests made both during and after class hours.
This insistence on protecting schools with “more guns and more cops” is creating a confluence of opposing forces. A police officer is not trained to interpret a child’s behavior; the police officer’s first response is to subdue the perceived threat. The problem lies in the fact that in dealing with children, there are no black-and-white situations. Everything has a cause with children, and that cause may not be obvious. In reacting to the situation in objective terms, the officer may deny the student the chance to grow and heal if the situation was handled from a “cause-first” approach.
As for “Don,” the troubled 16-year-old he is now flourishing a year later. Instead of being summarily arrested and expelled, he received help for his mental issues and counseling for his behavioral issues. His teacher took extra time to give him remedial tutoring, and he was placed in multidimensional treatment foster care, where he received care specifically designed to promote positive behavior. The program has been shown to reduce arrest rates and return $5 in benefits for every dollar spent.
Ultimately, the state of the juvenile detention system is a reflection of priorities — or the lack thereof — toward education and child development. The question lies in whether society is willing to invest the time and energy to help minority students thrive, or take the easy way out and throw them away.
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