Not My Inmates

     When he stood up to sharpen his pencil at the sharpener on the cart directly in front of my desk, he spoke unprompted softly and reflectively while he gazed blankly at the classroom wall. “I have never been to school in an actual high school. That’s a dang shame, isn’t it?” I looked down quickly to fight back any tears that might involuntarily form in my eyes. “Yes. It really is,” I replied.

     I knew this student’s case had just been adjudicated to the adult system, and it clearly weighed heavily on his sixteen-year-old shoulders. All of his high school credits prior to arriving to our classroom were from another detention facility in the state, and he seemed to accept he wouldn’t be exiting the system any time soon.

     As an educator at our county’s juvenile detention center, it is difficult to witness the effects of multiple moments of disappointment and neglect on our city’s most vulnerable children. My heart splinters for their lost childhoods and obstacle-laden futures, but also for those in the community whom they may have hurt because the interventions these kids desperately needed as they were growing up were never provided.

     Teaching is a humanity. It is difficult to find more glaring examples of the need for human connections once you have had the misfortune of being immersed in experiences at a juvenile jail. This necessity for a human nexus continues once kids leave my classroom for their next destination. Ideally, that next destination is in the community because the juvenile justice system in conjunction with other agencies has efficiently and effectively performed its established purpose. Tragically however, I often maintain communication with my students through correspondence with them at another incarceration facility.

     I optimistically expect most citizens to agree with the assertion that the United States’ justice and mass incarceration systems require reform. Yet, unless someone is directly entangled in the system, most of us are oblivious to the many costs people incarcerated and their loved ones must pay.

     In addition to having to purchase cheaply made and easily broken “j-players” in order for incarcerated people to electronically communicate with those outside of the prison system, each electronic message sent requires payment equivalent to or more than the cost of a U.S. postage stamp. Each picture attached to an electronic message sent through JPay also requires an additional “stamp” purchase in order to digitally send it.

     For example, a former student I maintain contact with asked me to send him a picture of his high school diploma because he was taken from our facility before his graduation could be certified. In order to send the picture, I paid .50 cents for the electronic message and an additional .50 for the digital picture attached, for a total of $1.00 for the one communication.

     Securus, the company which owns JPay, yields over one hundred million dollars per year in profits, with a gross profit margin of 51 percent, by exploiting already disadvantaged citizens. Although the profits generated as a result of people’s suffering are sufficiently abhorrent, the pit in my stomach the first time I became a JPay consumer was not initially spurred by the money I was spending. Rather, it is the way in which JPay and multiple other prison industries, in collaboration with various established institutions in our society, have successfully dehumanized people who are incarcerated.

     Going to JPay’s website, users can see how to do an “inmate search.” I am never looking for an “inmate.” I am searching for a young person who was a student in my class. They are sons. They may be brothers, uncles, nephews, or fathers. Whatever their worst deeds are, “inmate” should not be the summary of their existence.

     The over two million people incarcerated in the United States are human beings. Redacting their humanness and reducing them to their prodigious mistakes is a practice utilized by the inhumane to erase their humanity. Just as the revolting practice of referring to enslaved human beings as “slaves” was once embedded into our culture, attributing the term “inmate” to incarcerated human beings is similarly repulsive to my sensibilities.

     I often quote Desmond Tutu when I am concluding public presentations about my students and our classroom at the county’s juvenile detention center. He said “My humanity is bound up in yours, for we can only be human together.” We must all remind each other of our innate worth as living beings on this planet, and seek the humanity that connects us. Discarding dehumanizing language that transforms people into negatively implicated nouns may enlighten our perceptions of the people many would rather not know or name.

     I may refer to the young people in my classroom as my students, but they are not my inmates.

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Women’s March in Cleveland,Ohio,1-20-18

I made the following remarks at the Women’s March in Cleveland, Ohio, on January 20th, 2018. I was honored to be part of an amazing series of speakers. 

A video link to the speech is available on youtube thanks to Toni Jones.

Before I begin, I’d like to take a moment to honor the Erie Indians who lived on this land long before any of us arrived. They were an Iroquoian tribe of the northeastern woodlands, who spoke an Iroquoian language similar to Huron and Seneca. As we continue to confront those who oppress, may we never forget those who have been embroiled in a struggle to exist for centuries.

I am honored to have this time here with you today, and honored to be representing Ohio’s Badass Teachers Association (BATs), and thousands of educators who are fighting for the public schools ALL our children deserve.

When government officials and the business community attack teachers and the public schools that over 90% of school-age children attend, you can believe that it is an attack on women, who make up over 75% of the teaching profession. It is an attack on our children. It is an attack on our democracy.

As a mother, as an educator and as a woman, I recognize that it is this alliance among women and our friends that is the worst fear of those holding power in (what I like to refer to as) our system of “electile” dysfunction.

And how can those in power who oppress and disenfranchise maintain their power?

Part of their plan includes an attack on and the starvation of the foundation of our democracy: our public schools.

They defund education and steal tax dollars to promote a for-profit education system, particularly in the urban neighborhoods of our most vulnerable citizens.

Those governing Ohio are still out of compliance with a twenty-year-old state supreme court decision mandating that they fix the way we fund our public schools.

We must hold public officials accountable. Budget bills must equitably and fully fund education –  not mass incarceration or deportation.

As we gather here today, there are young people whose civil rights are being violated right now at our county jail, not too far from here. These young people have been identified as individuals with learning disabilities. And even though federal law demands that these young people be offered services for their specific educational needs, the county and city that detains them continues to violate federal law by not offering these already disadvantaged young people access to education.

Perhaps those in power restrict access to education because education is essential to human liberation. An uneducated or poorly educated populace is much easier to manipulate and control.

In the spirit of liberation, we must all continue to fight to dismantle oppressive practices like high stakes standardized testing in schools; practices placed upon us by legislators and corporate interests without any regard for what is best for our children.

Ohio is one of only 14 states in the country that still requires students to pass tests not created by their classroom teachers in order to graduate or be promoted.

We must continue to fight for curriculums and classroom practices that are culturally relevant to every child.

We must support local democratically elected school boards. Because if you can vote to have your taxes raised to support a school district, then you should be able to vote for the board controlling the money used in those schools.

We call for an end to harsh zero tolerance policies and the policing of our children, and instead call for the implementation of restorative practices that do not disproportionately put children of color on a school-to-prison pipeline.

You can’t say you’re a pro-lifer and then refuse to fight for every living human being to have an equitable opportunity to enjoy safe quality schools, safe communities, safe water, safe housing, safe neighborhoods, and to have police forces who protect and serve.

When I became pregnant with my eldest son at the age of 17, it was education that helped remove me from a life otherwise destined for dependence on public assistance. There probably isn’t anyone who understands and relates to my passion for justice and equity in education more than my sons. Thus, it is with tremendous pride that I am able to share with all of you that my oldest son here today, Cassimir Svigelj, is running for the 16th district house seat in the Ohio legislature, which includes Bay Village, Rocky River, Fairview Park, North Olmsted & Westlake, with my full support.

Not only do education activists take their power to the polls, but sometimes their kids are inspired to actually get their names on the ballot.

Before I go, I plead with all of you to remain vigilant and diligent in the fight for our public schools. Liberty and justice for all depend upon it. Thank you.

 

Violence Against Women and the Oppression of Women is not a “Woman’s Problem”

The following are my remarks made at a rally and vigil for the 8th Anniversary of the women who were murdered on Imperial Avenue in Cleveland, Ohio. 

My name is Melissa Marini Svigelj-Smith. I am honored to have this time here with you today, and sickened by a society that allows for the repetitive horrific acts, like those of Anthony Sowell, to occur at all.

I am here today because as an educator and as a woman, I recognize that our need and desire to nurture each other is not a hindrance but a redemptive strength.

When we join together, our real power is rediscovered and bolstered. It is this alliance among women and our friends that is the worst fear of those in power in our system of electoral dysfunction.

Let us be clear. Violence against women and children, the oppression of women and children, is NOT a woman’s problem. It is the problem of a patriarchal capitalist system, which benefits from the oppression and exploitation of women, children, and people of color.

It is a patriarchal, colonial, racist, and imperialist system that profits off of treating others like they are less than human. It is not a “woman’s problem.”  

I am here today because interdependency between women, and collaboration with our male allies, is the path to dismantling a system that promotes or allows subjugation, violence, poverty, and oppression to exist.

Within our alliances and our interdependency of different strengths, acknowledged and equal, we can demolish houses like the one that used to stand here on Imperial Avenue. And we can disassemble a system that still allows for unaccountable police chiefs, mayors, prosecutors, and other elected officials… a system that allows for men like Anthony Sowell to exist and perform unspeakable acts.

Audre Lorde said “Difference is that raw and powerful connection from which our personal power is forged. As women, we have been taught either to ignore our differences, or to view them as causes for separation and suspicion rather than as forces for change…”

Well, women here today and the enlightened men who join us, know the strength and power among us. Education and the creation of community are the tools of liberation.

Systematic oppression is not an accident or illusion. It is a tangible design evident right here, right now. And now is always a time to do what is right.

So I stand here today calling out all of those not here. It is time for those enjoying the privileges of safe communities and safe water and safe housing and safe schools, and with police forces who protect and serve, to stand up and speak out.

We already know the instruments of justice. We’ve even named them: unity, empathy, equity, compassion, love, peace, and a dialectical ability to seek and discover the humanity in every person’s story. There is no excuse for apathy. Liberation and justice are too long overdue.

No justice. No peace. Know justice. Know peace.

*Lorde, Audre. “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House.” 1984. Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches. Ed. Berkeley, CA: Crossing Press. 110- 114. 2007. Print.

Figure Out My Color

This poem was a result of the collaborative effort of three of my students.

This is from The Urban Youth Collaborative’s Facebook post:

**POWERFUL** Yesterday, our young people in UYC participated in a National Day of Action with the NYC Coalition for Educational Justice calling for racial justice in our classrooms! Watch youth leader Estefany Valera, recite a poem written by 3 young men currently in the Cuyahoga County Juvenile Detention Center, in Cleveland. The poem was written to be read on Columbus Day, soon to be known as #IndigenousPeopleDay #NYC#Education4Liberation

The Video: The Urban Youth Collaborative Event

The poem:

Figure Out My Color

The police thought I had a gun one time and they asked me

“where’s the gun, where’s the gun?”

I didn’t have a shirt on

so it was obvious that I didn’t have a gun

in my waistband

and they checked my pockets

and they thought I had a gun

but I didn’t.

Now think for a minute…

What if it was you

Stopped for being brown

For being in a certain part of town

For being too poor

to afford

To be free?

Do we even know what we celebrate today for?

Is it just celebrating more

Of the punishing of the poor?

Enslavement, rape, disease, genocide

Are these sources of pride?

History lies

Mothers cry

For those who’ve died.

Living in a country

Where the flag waves

For the home of the brave

“Don’t flee!”

“Get on your knees!”

Police scream at me.

Does anyone hear my plea

To end painful legacies?

For people who will stand

For their fellow man?

~From students being held at the Cuyahoga County Juvenile Detention Center in Cleveland, Ohio, in Melissa Svigelj-Smith’s classroom. 

 

Cleveland Truth Commission on Poverty

I was honored to have my son represent us at this event while I was at #NPEOAK17.

His presentation:

Hello.  My name is Angelo Svigelj-Smith, and I am here today representing my mother, Melissa Marini Svigelj-Smith, who is in her 20th year as a high school teacher in Cleveland Public high schools. Currently, she is teaching at our county’s juvenile detention center. She is also a community activist and advocate. It is her students’ voices that will be heard today from recordings made at the Cuyahoga County Juvenile Detention Center. Before those statements are read, my mom had a few things to share about poverty and education in Cleveland.  

From my mother, Melissa:

As a long time advocate for social justice, I became dismayed and disillusioned a few years ago as I was told by those in higher administrative positions to do things that I did not feel were beneficial for my students, and sometimes even harmful;  all so that they could pass high stakes standardized tests.

And so that later those tests could be used to call students, schools, or teachers “failing.” Then, those with a profit motive could come in and get a slice of the $800-900 billion dollar education spending pie.  

Instead of quitting the teaching profession entirely four years ago, I decided to take a position at our county juvenile detention center, and to fight the system from within. In my new position I have been privy to and witness to an egregious exploitation of our city’s children all in the name of education privatization and profits.

Each week I document the educational atrocities committed against our children because of a culture of profit and competition. Treatment and conditions my students must experience, policy makers and others with privilege would never accept for their own children, but because the great majority of my students are from low-income households and brown, they are subject to these episodes of educational malpractice.

My students have had art, music, physical education, library time, foreign languages, and vocational classes taken from them. They are often in buildings with extreme heat or extreme cold. They walk to school, or stand at RTA bus stops, in neighborhoods filled with violence, crime and abandoned houses. They have the latest fads or trends tried out in their classrooms, even though there is no research to support these latest trends, but someone is always making a profit off of them. They are more likely to have temporary teachers instead of career professionals. Their neighborhood’s public schools are too often demolished or sold to private real estate holders, so that they can be used for profit-making charter schools.

I have students who were enrolled in ECOT, Regent, Bridgescape, and Lake Erie International (just to name a few) who arrive to me without making any progress towards graduation after months and years at these charters, but those charter schools have been paid with state tax dollars just because my students’ names were on their rosters, and no one is holding the charter schools accountable.

I have students who have never been in trouble before, but after one fight, triggered by a traumatic event in their life due to the poverty and violence that surrounds them, they are expelled from school and given no other treatment or consideration for their true issues or the sources of their pain.

In the most extreme and sorrowful cases, I have attended wakes and vigils for my students, and I’ve visited students in prisons across the state who are sometimes the cause of those wakes and vigils. It is a sick and vicious cycle that we would do everything in our power to stop if these kids had different zip codes, or if they were visitors at a republican convention, or part of a sports franchise.

For these reasons, I am part of the #WeChoose campaign. “It is a declaration from hundreds of thousands of parents and students in cities across the United States with a clear, yet profound message – we refute and resist corporate education policies that are inflicted upon our children without our voice.

The failure of previous administrations to respect the voices of all Americans has set the tone for this perilous moment that we are in now.

We reject appointed school boards. We reject zero tolerance policies that criminalize our children. We reject mediocre corporate education interventions that are only accepted because of the race and socio-economic status of the children served.

We choose equity.”

I hope that you will consider joining us. You can find more information at https://www.j4jalliance.com/wechoose/ – the Journey for Justice website.

If you would like to read more about my work as an educator and advocate, please read some of my blogs on msvigeljsmith.blog.

Thank you for this opportunity to have a voice for educators and students confronting the impact of poverty every day in their classrooms across America.

 

Address to Cleveland Mayoral Candidate Forum August 22nd, 2017

I meant to publish this in August, but didn’t get to it, and I had one for September also, which has turned into two for October and quite possibly even three or four for October. I’ll catch up! 

From Facebook: Thank you to Melissa Marini Švigelj-Smith of OH BATs for this Badass speech at a Cleveland Mayoral Forum: https://www.facebook.com/meryl.johnson.3/videos/10207704256283174/?fref=gc&hc_location=ufi

The words: Thank you to all of you for taking the time to be here today and for listening to our questions and concerns, and thank you to Kathy and the other organizers for planning and preparing for the event today.

My name is Melissa Marini Švigelj-Smith. I just began my 20th year of teaching in Cleveland Public High Schools, and my fourth year of teaching young men at our county’s juvenile detention center. Like most folks in this room, I stand here today as an activist; fighting for the education equity all our children deserve.  

There are so many issues surrounding education in our city, state and country that it is difficult to narrow the scope of the topic. For our purposes this evening, I have narrowed it down to three issues.

The first issue is poverty in our city. Over half of our city’s children are living in poverty. In February I published a blog titled “My Students Pay Every Day for Their Free Lunch.” In it, I shared the effects of poverty on students according to the  American Psychological Association. I listed things like inadequate nutrition and food insecurity, lack of access to health care, being at greater risk for poor academic achievement, dropping out of school, behavioral and socio-emotional problems, physical health problems, and developmental delays. Additionally, chronic stress associated with living in poverty has been shown to adversely affect children’s concentration and memory which may impact their ability to learn. Poverty also perpetrates a violence upon our young people that leaves educators like me spending weekends or breaks visiting students in state prisons and attending wakes. This pattern of violence should not be replicated in our schools with zero tolerance policies and the policing of our children, excessive testing, a dulling down of the curriculum, and the elimination of classes and activities that make schools a place kids want to be.   

Furthermore, our schools should not be blamed for the poverty that our society allows to continue to exist, nor should they be expected to treat society’s ills without the necessary resources and services needed.

The second issue is charter schools, whether they’re labeled “for profit” or “nonprofit.” The unregulated charter industry in this state is costing our most impoverished districts the most financially and academically. I deal with charter schools across our county as I search for student records and piece together student transcripts. As the charter schools siphon millions of dollars from taxpayers throughout the state, the great majority of the time they are NOT outperforming our public schools. In fact, they offer less academically, place profit over what is best for children, and are chronically negligent, unreliable and inconsistent with regard to my record requests. During our first week of school, Invictus School sent me a transcript for a bright and curious student who has been enrolled with them for over a year. He has only earned half a high school credit. This is just one example of the educational malfeasance that I document every week. Children deserve equity in education, not the illusion of choice.

Finally, I question takeovers and mayoral control of schools in largely urban and economically disadvantaged areas where there are concentrated areas of people of color. When democracy is stripped away from any citizen, all of us are more susceptible to tyranny and despotism. Soliciting citizens to vote for tax levies to support the schools they aren’t able to democratically participate in governing is just a supplementary insult.

With this information in mind, I humbly submit the following questions for your pondering and response:

  1. How can we use our funds and resources to protect and nurture the most vulnerable children and families in our city just as well as we protect and provide for visitors to our downtown? Or our sports teams?
  2. How can we protect our tax dollars and citizens from predatory charter schools and vulture education profiteers?
  3. How can we halt corporate control that deletes democracy and treats our kids like products and numbers instead of the resilient and brilliant human beings that come to my class every day?

Thank you again for your time and attention.  

 

March for Impeachment July 2017

(2 minute limit) (video clip)

Thank you so much to all of you for being here today.

My name is Melissa Marini Svigelj-Smith, and I am here today representing hundreds of thousands of education activists and advocates across this nation who are fighting for the schools ALL our children deserve.

We are here today to march for impeachment, and it is a patriotic cause. However, this isn’t just about impeaching Donald Trump. An impeachment would just land Mike Pence in the Oval Office and no one here wants that either.

No. This is also about the impeachment of a system that manifested the successful election of Donald Trump.

There is no doubt that our country is in a state of what I like to refer to as “electile dysfunction.” And how can those in power who oppress and disenfranchise maintain their power?

Part of their plan includes an attack on and starvation of the foundation of our democracy: our public schools.

They de-fund education and steal tax dollars to promote a for-profit education system, particularly in the urban neighborhoods of our most vulnerable citizens.

They demonize teachers and allow for conditions in our public schools that they would never accept for their own children.

We know that education is essential to human liberation. An uneducated or poorly educated populace is much easier to manipulate and control.

In the spirit of liberation, we fight for the impeachment of anyone who promotes oppressive practices in schools; practices forced upon us by Trump and his cabinet, and by legislators and corporations, without any regard for what is best for our children or for our country.

We demand that curriculum and classroom practices be culturally relevant, comprehensive, engaging, challenging, and promote critical thinking,

We call for an end to harsh zero tolerance policies and the policing of our children, and instead call for the implementation of restorative practices that do NOT disproportionately put children of color on the school-to-prison pipeline.

We call for the impeachment of any public official who does not support bills or amendments that equitably and fully fund education –  NOT mass incarceration or deportation.

Yes, we are gathered here today to demand impeachment, but I plead with all of you to remain vigilant and diligent in the fight for our public schools. They are the keys to liberty and justice for all, and we cannot salvage our democracy without them.

Are our children being taught what democracy looks like?

THIS is what democracy looks like!

Are our children being taught what democracy looks like?

THIS is what democracy looks like!

Organize, educate, agitate, must be our war cry. (Susan B. Anthony)

The following is the speech I gave as a (very honored to be included) speaker at the International Women’s Day Rally & March in Cleveland, Ohio, on March 8th, 2017, on a very windy day at Willard Park. 

International Women’s Day March & Rally Cleveland, Ohio, 2017

Thank you so much to all of you for being here today.

My name is Melissa Marini Svigelj-Smith, and I am here today representing 100s of local education activists, 1000s of education advocates statewide, and hundreds of 1000s of education activists & advocates across this nation who are fighting for the schools ALL our children deserve.

When government officials and the business community attack teachers and public schools, you better believe that it is an attack on women, who make up over 75% of the teaching profession. It is an attack on our children. It is an attack on our democracy.

We know that education is essential to human liberation.

In this spirit of liberation, we fight to dismantle oppressive practices in schools; practices placed upon us by legislators and corporate interests without any regard for what is best for our children.

We demand that curriculum and classroom practice be culturally relevant, comprehensive, engaging, challenging, and promote critical thinking, and that these practices be based on research and the input of educators, not based on the whims of politicians or the profit margins of corporations.

We call for an end to harsh zero tolerance policies and the policing of our children, and instead call for the implementation of restorative practices that do not disproportionately put children of color on the school-to-prison pipeline.

We support local democratically elected school boards. Because if you can vote to have your taxes raised to support a school district, then you should be able to vote for who is on the district’s school board.

We demand an end to high stakes standardized testing, a system rooted in eugenics and racism that has done nothing to improve teaching and learning for our students, but has created a false narrative about “failing public schools” and “bad teachers.”

We want community schools that are provided with funding and resources to offer the wrap around services that families surrounding those schools need.

School reforms should meet the needs of children in classrooms, not corporations.

All children deserve prepared, experienced and fully licensed teachers.

And all children and all schools must have equitable access to resources and adequate funding.

I plead with all of you today to remain vigilant and diligent in the fight for our public schools.

Until the government ends the test and punish system, tell your child’s school that your student will not be participating in the state’s punitive system of  high stakes standardized testing. Refuse the tests!

No more of our tax dollars to millionaires and billion dollar corporations, so that they can sell our kids developmentally inappropriate tests and then call our kids failures.

Hold public officials accountable. Budget bills must equitably and fully fund education –  not mass incarceration.

We must fight this battle not because education is called a civil rights issue, but because education is an inalienable human right.

Our children need us too much to get tired of being in this battle.

They may have demolished and neglected the buildings we use for education, but they cannot decimate our desire to educate & be educated.

They will continue to wage this political and corporate war on educators: the Liberators.

But they cannot  liquidate our aspirations for liberation.

Education is liberation. Education. Liberation. Education. Liberation.

 

 

 

  

 

My Students Pay Every Day for Their “Free” Lunch

     When billionaire Betsy Devos, the woman who bought the Secretary of Education position in Donald Trump’s administration, addressed attendees at the Conservative Political Action Conference on Thursday, she received a lot of criticism from people who actually care about children for a remark she made in which she claimed to be the first person to tell Bernie Sanders “to his face that there’s no such thing as a free lunch.” Although her comment was meant to be humorous, those of us who possess an ounce of humanity know that there is nothing funny about children living in poverty. However, this may be the one and only time that I can actually agree with the literal words of Betsy Devos. There is no such thing as a free lunch. In fact, my kids pay every day.

      According to a 2016 report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation, 1 in 4 kids in Ohio, about 600,000 children, are living in poverty.  In the city that I teach in, Cleveland, 53.2% of children are living in poverty. Our children absolutely pay every single day of their lives for the meager opportunity to have a “free lunch.” They may not be paying with the currency that Betsy DeVos and her wealthy cronies value, but they are paying in many other ways that matter so much more. Below are just a few examples from the American Psychological Association:

Effects of child poverty

  • Poverty is linked with negative conditions such as substandard housing, homelessness, inadequate nutrition and food insecurity, inadequate child care, lack of access to health care, unsafe neighborhoods, and under-resourced schools which adversely impact our nation’s children.
  • Poorer children and teens are also at greater risk for several negative outcomes such as poor academic achievement, school dropout, abuse and neglect, behavioral and socioemotional problems, physical health problems, and developmental delays.
  • Economists estimate that child poverty costs an estimated $500 billion a year to the U.S. economy; reduces productivity and economic output by 1.3 percent of GDP; raises crime and increases health expenditure (Holzer et al., 2008).
Poverty and academic achievement
  • Chronic stress associated with living in poverty has been shown to adversely affect children’s concentration and memory which may impact their ability to learn.
  • The academic achievement gap for poorer youth is particularly pronounced for low-income African American and Hispanic children compared with their more affluent White peers.
Poverty and psychosocial outcomes
  • Children living in poverty are at greater risk of behavioral and emotional problems.
  • Unsafe neighborhoods may expose low-income children to violence which can cause a number of psychosocial difficulties. Violence exposure can also predict future violent behavior in youth which places them at greater risk of injury and mortality and entry into the juvenile justice system.
Poverty and physical health

Children and teens living in poorer communities are at increased risk for a wide range of physical health problems:

  • Low birth weight
  • Poor nutrition which is manifested in the following ways:
    1. Inadequate food which can lead to food insecurity/hunger
    2. Lack of access to healthy foods and areas for play or sports which can lead to childhood overweight or obesity
  • Chronic conditions such as asthma, anemia and pneumonia
  • Risky behaviors such as smoking or engaging in early sexual activity
  • Exposure to environmental contaminants, e.g., lead paint and toxic waste dumps
  • Exposure to violence in their communities which can lead to trauma, injury, disability and mortality

    As I was leaving a wake this morning for a teen I knew who was killed while at a playground in Cleveland, the price that my students pay because of poverty weighs heavily on me. There are no free lunches. My kids might get some free food at the schools they attend, but no one can tell me that they aren’t paying.

Finding Educational Justice in the Justice System for Students with Disabilities

Post for Special Education Consultants Group     

In Cuyahoga County, Ohio, students can be adjudicated prior to age 18, or sent from the juvenile detention center once they reach age 18, to the adult county jail pending the outcome of their case. A couple years ago, I learned that access to education services are scarce to nonexistent at the adult county facility in Cuyahoga County. Appalled for all students, I began reaching out to local government officials at the county level. Outside of a meeting with a community liaison at the county executive’s office during the summer of 2015, I was largely ignored or dismissed. I then began reaching out to the Ohio Department of Education, Disability Rights Ohio, and to representatives and senators on a national level, lobbying my senators and representative in Washington, D.C., during the summer of 2015. At the end of the summer, I realized that most folks in government don’t really give a rat’s tail about this practically invisible population of students. It was also then that it occurred to me that a significant number of the students sent to languish at the county facility for extended lengths of time without access to education, often still had active Individual Education Plans under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, and that not offering services was a violation of their civil rights. I filed a complaint with the Department of Justice against the state of Ohio because students are assigned to the Buckeye United School District once they leave the county juvenile facility for the county adult facility. The Buckeye United School District includes schools under the Ohio Department of Youth Services.  

    Meanwhile, the State Deputy Director from Senator Sherrod Brown’s office responded to my outreach and agreed to visit my students at the Cuyahoga County Juvenile Detention Center, and to listen to my stories and theirs. When I did not get a timely response from the DOJ, Senator Sherrod Brown’s office followed up for me, and I received an update within a week. I also traveled to Boston in December of 2015 to meet and ask a question of Bryan Stevenson about the students I serve, and the situation of youth in adult detention facilities.

    The case initiated by my complaint was eventually transferred to the United States Department of Education’s Civil Rights Office in Cleveland, Ohio. An investigation is currently open and pending as of the summer of 2016. I do not believe that I need to explain to this educated group of people how damaging and negatively life-changing a lack of education, or the deprivation of education, can be on our young people caught in the juvenile or adult justice system. When students fight back (with the help of advocates), they receive compensatory school time, thus I have a former student in Mansfield now on an active IEP until he is 22 because he spent a year without access to education waiting at the adult county facility. For students already struggling academically, a year away from education cannot ever really be compensated. Due to the large number of people incarcerated who have disabilities and are between the ages of 18-21, I am creating awareness about this issue so that other people who care about the rights of students with disabilities can also advocate for those entangled in the very complicated maze of juvenile and adult criminal justice systems. There are many entrances into this maze, but the exits are few and infrequently include a high school diploma for those who experience it. Our communities would all be better places if that changed.

With hope for a means to justice and education for all,

Melissa