The 2nd Thing I Learned From Kids in Jail

The following is part three of a series titled “!0 Things I Learned from Kids in Jail (& You Can Too). The introduction and the first thing I learned are also available on my blog.

“It’s not the load that breaks you down, it’s the way you carry it.”– Lena Horne

The Second Thing I Learned
No matter what happens, show them a smile.

     As an educator at a county juvenile detention center, sorrow can often feel like a constant companion. There were days when the drenched weight of my students’ stories and struggles shrunk me to frustrated, unfeigned tears, but only later in the day when I was alone at home.

     Often, my students had experienced trauma, toxic stress and the violence that accompanies poverty throughout their lives. Enduring these injustices infuses a heightened sensitivity to the moods of others. This constant state of hyper alertness to determine fight or flight gives them an above average ability to appraise how others are feeling.

     The last thing kids being held at a detention center need is a classroom facilitator in a constant state of sorrow or rage. Fortunately, my years as a server sufficiently prepared me to maintain a smile on my face, or at least to avoid frowning my lips and furrowing my eyebrows. Repeatedly, students extended feelings of relief and gratitude in private notes they generously and discreetly shared with me, because school was a positive place to escape an otherwise harsh and negative environment.

     Augustus* was in my class when I arrived back to school from a summer break. He was there one school year prior to a “call to action” colleagues and I had with our school district’s Chief Executive Officer (CEO). In partnership with a local advocacy group, Greater Cleveland Congregations (GCC), we asked for year-round school at the detention center. With the support of GCC, the detention center began to follow a year-round calendar schedule beginning with the 2018-2019 school year. The new school year calendar immediately followed my last school year working there.

     Often, over half of the children being held at the juvenile detention center were previous residents. This recidivism rate indicates crevices in the juvenile justice process yet to be sealed. Augustus, however, was not a prior resident and he had been there all summer. He was quiet and withdrawn in class, which meant sharper attention to his other means of communication was required to build rapport with him. Luckily, he felt comfortable expressing himself through written words.

     Each day, I distributed assignment packets to students, which we would mostly complete together during a series of instructional activities. After putting their names on their papers, the first prompt on the paper stated:

Write one thing you are grateful (thankful) for today. Finding things to be thankful for helps improve our overall happiness. Happier people are more successful people. ____________________________________________________________________________________________
________________________________________________________________________________________

Today I’m thankful I’m here!

     As an example, I also included something I was grateful for that day, and I may have included a silly image. Visuals are imperative when teaching youth impacted by trauma.
I explained the rationale for this practice in the introduction section of a compilation of my lessons created for publication on an online website for educators:

Why is gratitude important for students? For my students, being incarcerated is atraumatic and painful experience. Beginning each day with this small and quick activity is my attempt to mitigate negative energy, and to have students start from a positive place.

According to the Harvard Health Journal, “With gratitude, people acknowledge the goodness in their lives. In the process, people usually recognize that the source of that goodness lies at least partially outside themselves. As a result, gratitude also helps people connect to something larger than themselves as individuals — whether to other people, nature, or a higher power.”

My intention with students is to create habits during these adolescent years connected to gratitude, so that as they move into more emotionally mature years they will have a greater opportunity to attain the benefits associated with people who are grateful.

According to Psychology Today, “Fostering gratitude can also broaden your thinking, and create positive cycles of thinking and behaving in healthy, positive ways.” In a detention center that seems like an obvious goal to strive toward as part of our rehabilitation efforts, and in a world often fraught with negative images flashing across screens, more gratitude in our attitudes could improve everyone’s health and happiness.

     Responses to the prompt from students regularly offered speckles of insight into their lives. I would habitually place “smiley faces” next to their answers when I graded their submissions, which inspired Augustus to begin mimicking these faces in his writings. He would sheepishly show half a grin if he caught me amusingly glancing at his imitated creations. This non verbal communication is how I began to understand Augustus’ perspective as a young person being detained.

     On August 26th he unassumingly left a note on my desk on his way out of class. In it he shared the following:

Dear Ms. Svigelj :I
I don’t have the best of handwriting but I just want to say thanks for just being a teacher in here everyday. I wake up super happy to come to this class. It may not seem like it, but trust me I am. I been in here for the whole summer and when I showed up here it was a whole new world. I sometimes don’t want to leave. Each day I’m not in your class I talk to other people about your class and how cool it is. Most people just come for the computer, but I come to escape the madness, the endless fights, the sleepless nights. Sometimes I pray you show up at school so I can come each day… I may not talk a lot. That’s because I just like to do my work, 🙂 or you can say I’m shy. LOL. Just thank you for being a teacher in here. You made me lots happier. I’m kinda mad the weekend is here, so no school…

     In October, Augustus was still at the detention facility. During an art project to celebrate the upcoming holiday, a visiting Italian muralist guided students in the decoration of papier-mâché masks for Dia de los Muertos. Across the top of his black painted mask, Augustus wrote SUICIDE in large white letters.

     Gratitude, expressions of appreciation and smiley faces may insert moticums of positivity into negative spaces, but the continuous causticity of juvenile detention centers can be debilitating.

     According to the National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention, youth involved with the juvenile justice system have an increased risk of suicide. In a 2013 fact sheet, they offered the following alarming statistics:

  • Suicide is the leading cause of death for youth in confinement.
  • Youth in residential facilities have nearly three times the suicide rate of peers in

the general population.

  • Risk factors for suicide are often more prevalent among youth in the juvenile

justice system.

  • Studies report that over half of juveniles had current suicidal ideation and

one-third had a history of suicidal behavior.

     Augustus had to be placed under “suicide watch” more than once during his stay at the detention center. Were his mental health needs being met before he arrived at the juvenile detention center? Were they assuaged or amplified while he was detained? I don’t know for certain, but I have formed my own suppositions.

     Augustus was a student in my classroom when I was assigned to teach youth staying on House 3. I didn’t learn about the torment many kids living in House One’s residential area were enduring until after I stopped teaching students staying on that house. My heart was distressingly ravaged when friends began sharing news reports on social media revealing “fight nights” on House 1 organized by a couple rogue detention officers.

     According to a lawsuit filed by four young men who had been held on House 1, detention officers would force them to participate in “bloody and brutal brawls.” Local printed news stories reported, “The guards organized the fights that pitted the teenagers against each other all for the guards’ amusement and entertainment. The lawsuit also states the guards conspired to cover up their behavior.” Three of the young men’s names who were parties in the lawsuit were listed in the article. All of them had been in my class.

     Immediately my mind began flipping in reverse searching for a sign I may have missed, or a distress call I may have mistakenly shuffled into the deck with the rest of the routines from a school day. They were quiet and compliant kids in class. I don’t know how anyone could be expected to learn under the duress they were enduring, but I hope their time in my classroom gave them moments of comfort or reprieve.

     I searched through the stacks of notes and letters I saved from students and did not find any direct messages from them, but when I read another student’s note to me, it made me feel worse instead of better.

     The same school year “fight nights” were occurring on House 1, *Pete had briefly been a student in my class. He knew he was about to be placed somewhere else, and graciously left me this note among his classwork the last time I saw him.

Ms. Smith,
I may be getting moved to a CCF tomorrow so I wanted to let you know. Thank you for the handful of sheets of extra information on happenings in the world and just being an overall positive vibration in a pretty negative environment. Maybe I’ll end up running into you on the outside one day, so until then keep doing your thing and filling the youth with wisdom…. I hope you enjoy life thoroughly and follow your happiness… Thanks again for being a friendly face in a place where there are very few.
Much love

     I wish I could roll backwards on the linear continuum of time and prevent the additional suffering and abuse experienced by youth under the watch of adults who should have been protecting them, or at the very least should not have been causing additional harm.

     The “fight nights” revelations haunt me. Some may say I should accept that which I cannot change, but I cannot accept that which is unacceptable. The exploitation and maltreatment of the powerless and vulnerable is unacceptable. I refuse to swallow a pill of injustice or perversion. Thus, I am left with an internal nagging guilt parallel to a trace of hope benevolently bestowed through a student’s note.

     Perhaps a “friendly face” and “positive vibration” allowed for iotas of respite? Even when churning thoughts provoke my eyes to reflexively swell with sorrow, I make sure they see my smile.

*Government names are always changed to protect juvenile anonymity.

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Introduction to “10 Things I Learned from Kids in Jail (& You Can Too)”

     The following is the introduction to a series of ten additional sections revealing what I learned while employed as an educator at the Cuyahoga County Juvenile Detention Center (CCJDC) in Cleveland, Ohio.  

     The lines between good and evil, justice and injustice, virtuous and unvirtuous, and consequential and inconsequential were never more undefined and indistinct than the four years I taught at the Cuyahoga County Juvenile Detention Center in Cleveland, Ohio. Jail changes everyone, including those who are able to leave and return to their families and communities each day once their shift is complete.

     Anyone repeatedly exposed to the routines, sounds, sights, and the numbing absence of scent or touch, begins to conform unwittingly and often unwillingly to the absurdities of the institution. It is an unhealthy and vacuous normalization to become immersed in.

     Yet, I possess the distinctly immodest notion, as many educators do, that I have the ability to teach any child within my reach. Thus, as I contemplated leaving the teaching profession entirely after working for sixteen years in public high schools throughout the city of Cleveland, Ohio, a position for a social studies teacher at the county’s juvenile detention center became vacant. Communicating through a long-established network of colleagues, I was encouraged to apply for the post.

     After the interview process was complete, a job offer was made. Although the new placement meant my salary would be reduced by approximately twenty percent, the appeal of no longer having to prove my value within a system hyper focused on test scores and data, which requires an intentional neglect of the humanity of children, enticed me more than monetary factors. After all, I have not known any teachers who entered the profession with visions of future fortunes. There is a reason teaching colleges at universities are not part of the business college. Teaching is a humanity.

     Being a teacher for any length of time results in hoarding a massive amount of materials, just in case they are needed in the future, and because teachers are never certain if they will be able to obtain the items again if they do decide to discard them. It took me twenty years to relinquish the plastic sheets filled with history notes for the overhead projector I used when I first began teaching in 1998, even though they had been filed away and unused for fifteen years. This accumulation of materials means it is never enjoyable to pack up a classroom and move to a new one. Yet, I bundled my many belongings and supplies, loaded them into a large SUV and prepared to go to jail.

     My first few days at the juvenile detention center were spent trying to figure out how to get in and out of the facility. The nine-story, low-rise, cream-colored building on a reclaimed industrial site east of downtown Cleveland  looms largely and noticeably over the neighborhoods nearby. It is not coincidental that its location is near some of the most impoverished areas of the city and multiple public housing complexes. The majority of the young men who arrived to my classroom grew up in nearby neighborhoods, plagued with particles of discrimination and segregation.

     For the general public and most employees, entering the Juvenile Justice Center requires passing through a sheriff’s security station immediately after the main entrance doors. Bags are rolled on a belt through x-ray machines while sheriffs view their contents on monitors. Then, everyone walks through metal detectors, hoping they didn’t forget keys or change in their pockets because that misstep requires them to circle around and attempt the whole process once more.

     Next, individuals going to the detention center complex must swipe their badges to open a door which allows entry into an area with coat racks, locker rooms, a kitchen area, a training room, and offices. When transitioning from the public area of the Juvenile Justice Center to the secure area, the visual contrast is stark and harsh. All hues of color are assaulted and consumed by a complete white washing of the floors, furnishings, walls, and ceilings. No natural lighting filters through the solid block walls, which leaves only the intimidating and accusatory glare of fluorescent lights.

     The next step of gaining entry to the residential and school area includes another rolling belt to place bags on for another x-ray. Only clear bags are permitted. There is another stroll through a metal detector, and friendly brief exchanges between the sheriff assigned to the station and employees following the security routine. Once cleared to continue, a short  walk to a heavy white door with a small vertical rectangular window is required.

     Someone in another room watches this brief walk through mounted cameras encased in half circles attached to the ceiling. A buzz at the door from the watcher grants entrance to a narrow corridor that leads to another weighty door. Again, someone in a different room is watching through cameras and the sound of the buzzer at the second door means access to the detention center has been permitted.

     Upon opening the door, a short distance to the left, along rubber track flooring and curved white concrete block walls are two sets of doors with windows revealing the school area. Another swipe of my badge provides admittance to the school. Dark blue, bumpy carpet, walls covered with certificates celebrating student successes and colorful motivational posters break the white monotony, but there is no escaping the unrelenting fluorescent lights.

     When I first arrived to this school, my need to escape the sterile and drab whiteness everywhere overwhelmed me. Soon, my students’ artwork began creeping to walls beyond my classroom, like vines on a trestle covering foot after foot until the whiteness was absorbed. By my second year there, others had embraced the idea of decorating beyond their classroom or office walls. The school at the detention center became an oasis of color in an otherwise barren, bleached desert.

     There are ten classrooms side-by-side along two adjacent walls in the rectangle-shaped school area. An under-utilized life skills room with kitchen appliances and a washer and dryer is in one corner of the school, and an open library area is in the middle. Next to the library is a room with windows on three sides deemed the “fishbowl” room because anyone walking by any of the three windowed sides can peer in. A main office with a teacher supply room and three offices for intervention (special education) teachers is along another wall.  A fourth wall has a barbershop and school storage room.

     In order to exit the school area, the entrance procedures are followed in reverse: swipe out of the school, wait to be buzzed through two heavy white doors, walk past one sheriff station, gather outerwear and personal belongings, exit the secure area, and walk past a second sheriff station.

     My error the first few days of working at the detention center was not identifying a landmark to designate the set of heavy white doors needed to leave. As I attempted to leave work, I was buzzed through the thick white door I was waiting at, only to find myself in a small room with a chair and no other doors. My confusion must have been transmitted through the pixels captured by the camera. A voice over the speaker asked,

    “Ma’am, where are you trying to go?”

     Embarrassed, I responded I was seeking the exit. I was released from the small room and directed back to a door I had initially passed, with a red exit light above it. Remembering to look beyond the eye level my 5’4” height is accustomed to was probably the first lesson I learned at the detention center, but it wasn’t one my students taught me.

Hope Happens When Opportunities for Hope are Created

I was honored to be asked to write a blog post for Education First’s blog site, which I am also sharing here.

As an educator for 18-21 year-old boys at our county juvenile detention center, sorrow can often feel like a constant companion. There are days when the drenched weight of my students’ stories and struggles shrinks me to frustrated, unfeigned tears, but only when I’m alone at home much later into the day. It is my home and personal life that have shaped the educator and advocate/activist that I have become. Recently, when I was discussing with my 17 year-old son whether or not I thought it was a good idea for him to walk two blocks alone in downtown Cleveland, he provided me with a jarring reminder: “Mom, I look like the monster that other people are afraid of. Don’t worry about me,” he said, as if that was supposed to offer me a semblance of comfort. My thoughtful, polite, intellectual, kind, dedicated son is over six feet tall with keen brown eyes, beautiful brown skin and lovely tumbling dreadlocks. He could be mistaken for any number of the young men I greet in class at work each day, and none of them are monsters.

My son’s words still conjure a feeling of dread within me. They are foreboding and cause my stomach to contort and form a lump, which rises into my esophagus and threatens to appear as a burst of emotional moisture in my eyes. Yet, it also motivates me to keep working, because there is much work to be done on behalf of my son and all young men who may or may not look like him. Thanks to a generous grant as a  NoVo SEL Innovation Award recipient, this work that is so necessary has support and endurance.

Recognizing three years ago when I began teaching at the Cuyahoga County Juvenile Detention Center (CCJDC) that social and emotional learning (SEL) was going to continue to be an integral part of my practice, I immediately reached out to many of the community contacts I had previously collaborated with while teaching in other public high schools. I planned to continue to provide multifarious SEL learning moments in a variety of modalities for my students. In addition to a trauma-informed classroom approach to teaching, incorporated into our daily classroom routine are the practices and concepts of gratitude, mindfulness, breathing exercises, growth mindset, short term and long term goal setting, and reflection.  A community partnership with SPACES, supported by the NoVo grant, offers an exceptional additional opportunity for students to interact with a diverse array of artistic mediums, facilitated by international, national, and local artists, that are then used as a component of our classroom’s community service and outreach. Written reflections from the young men overwhelmingly cited these artistic experiences, and the opportunity to do something kind for someone else, as their favorite activity in class.

Not only is it crucial for my students to be exposed to the talents and resources that surround them in the community, but it is equally as important that those in the community change their proximity to the young men in my classroom. I strive to plant seeds of hope in the young men who arrive to me, but we must also vigorously attempt to change the narratives surrounding them in our community. As an educator, neutrality simply is not an option. I am pleased to share that two artists who interacted with my young men valued and enjoyed their time with them so much, that they refused the small stipend that SPACES was able to dispense as a result of the NoVo grant. Thus, we were able to offer additional activities we had not originally planned.

Art is a natural medium for social and emotional learning. It allows for the exploration of self, which was quite evident when one young man explained his painting as a representation of the voices he hears. It improves self-management because producing art naturally de-escalates stress levels. Many of the activities, like paper making, screen printing and audio recordings, required a collaborative effort, which improves relationship skills. Having their art valued and appreciated contributes to their confidence and sense of self-efficacy. The empathy expressed and perspectives taken by the young men as they created place mats and cards for ill children at the Cleveland Clinic and pen cases for staff members, or as they decorated cupcakes and cookies for younger students and flower pots to grow milkweed in to help save monarch butterflies, are moments that burst the reality bubbles many people previously resided in.

During a printing activity, some students could not resist the urge to mark their art with street or gang affiliated tags. Although it is their reality, displaying art with gang suggestions would violate school policies. Not willing to throw their creations aside, I cut out the letters and they remained in a large envelope for weeks.  After reflecting on my students’ life stories, I used the cut out letters to create a message on a large poster that could be representative of the essential way my students may differ slightly from my own sons, or kids any of us might know: they haven’t been given opportunities or circumstances that instill in them a hope for their futures. The message I created from their letters for their gallery exhibit at SPACES read “Hope happens when opportunities for hope are created.”

Hope cannot be taken for granted or neglected. It is the beginning of every movement, every struggle, and every idea. It is also the origin of the art collaboration between my classroom of 18-year-old boys at the Cuyahoga County Juvenile Detention Center, SPACES, and the generous NoVo Foundation.  I keep hoping that one day we will make sure every child feels they have a future to look forward to. I am profoundly grateful for all of those involved in supporting and accomplishing that goal.

May we all find more ways to create hope for others.

Melissa Marini Švigelj-Smith, July 2017

 

 

 

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.

It Takes a Community: Social & Emotional Learning at a Juvenile Detention Center

The following are links to the Google slides prepared for a 5-7 minute Ed Talk at SEL in Action, a conference in Phoenix, Arizona, made possible through the generosity of the NoVo Foundation, and planned and hosted by Education First. I am very grateful that I was given this opportunity, and more importantly, that my students were given a chance to shine.

It Takes a Community  

it-takes-a-community-2

Thanks to Jillian A. for the photo. 🙂