The Fifth Thing I Learned From Kids in Jail

A mind which really lays hold of a subject is not easily detached from it.

– Ida Tarbell

The following is part of a series titled “10 Things I Learned From Kids in Jail.” This is the fifth thing I learned. You can find the introduction, the first thing, the second thing, the third thing and the fourth thing on my blog in previous posts.

Thanks for reading!

The Fifth Thing I Learned

Once you know something, you can’t go back to not knowing it.

     Maybe I was like most Americans before I began working at the juvenile detention center; unaware of the inhumanity inflicted upon people in prisons. I wasn’t sensitive to jokes made on late night television or in movies about “dropping the soap” in a prison shower, or comments like “gay for the stay.”

     Although I vainly considered myself beyond proficient about the social justice issues plaguing our country, I was profoundly ignorant about the vast abuses legally embedded in the prison system. When repeatedly introduced to layers and details of oppression, outrage and frustration can consume a person. Because I can’t unknow what I know I turned to writing and activism as an outlet to vent my anger. I do not know if my words ever altered someone else’s attitude or offered anyone enlightenment, but it is therapy for me.

     Jack*, who was a student in my classroom for several months during my fourth year at the detention center, was adjudicated to the adult system or “bound over” for his alleged crime at the age of sixteen. Although unaware of the crime he committed, it was incredulous to me that this youthful student with learning disabilities was going to be treated as an adult in the justice system.

     During the time he was with me, he utilized therapeutic strategies offered and expressed a distinct aptitude for assessing respectful versus inappropriate behavior in our classroom. He was helpful and thoughtful and often colored pictures for me, which he would shyly ask me to sign his name on in cursive before relinquishing them to me.

     He was a diligent and committed student, and was often targeted by less childlike, unkind boys looking for an opportunity to entertain themselves by antagonizing him. I hung the carefully colored pages Jack gave me on the walls around my desk along with other accrued artifacts from students. He would critique his coloring at times and promise me even better pictures were to come.

     Jack is just one of the many children damaged by our culture’s negligence and dereliction of decency which often precedes delinquency. Growing up in the segregated neighborhoods of public housing his school attendance was sporadic and he was retained in second grade. By third grade, he was involved in multiple disciplinary incidents at school.

     It was not until Jack was destined to repeat 6th grade that school staff decided to meet to determine if Jack had a disability and qualified for special education services. During his first time in sixth grade, Jack missed over 40 days of school because he was suspended, and over twenty days of school were missed mostly due to a severe health issue he inherited. During his 5th grade year, Jack missed 35 days due to suspensions. His first year in sixth grade was also the year Jack’s encounters with the juvenile justice system began.

     School staff described Jack as a boy who needed to trust adults before he would attempt any academic tasks, and they mentioned repeatedly that Jack expressed distress over his father being incarcerated for drug trafficking.

     One classroom observation noted Jack asleep at his desk. When the teacher was asked by an observer why Jack was sleeping, the teacher shared that the class was reading a text aloud before Jack fell asleep, and Jack struggled with some words when it was his turn to read for the class which provoked Jack to make the decision to yell at the teacher with irritation. After this explosion of frustration, Jack put his head down and calmed himself to sleep at his desk.

     Although I reiterate the belief we cannot expect schools or police officers to solve all of the problems we’ve created in society, I cannot help but wonder about the potential of interventions earlier in Jack’s life.

     What if instead of suspensions, elementary schools were equipped with the medical and mental support personnel required to address the needs of students like Jack?

     What if schools were given the resources and permission to care for students like Jack?

     If we invested in our most vulnerable children at the earliest stages of their development (and in their families), could we prevent crimes and spare victims?

     The possibility of a better approach and more equitable means of caring for kids tantalizes me.

     It was a casual comment in class from Jack one morning replaying in my mind, and electronic communications in the afternoon of the same day with some former detention center students of mine, that inspired an entry on the blog I created to vent my feelings and share my churning thoughts.

     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 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.

     Welcome to the world of that which is known. There is no turning back.

Advertisements

The 4th Thing I Learned from Kids in Jail

The following is part of a series titled “10 Things I Learned From Kids in Jail.” This is the fourth thing I learned. You can find the introduction, the first thing, the second thing, and the third thing on my blog in previous posts. I know it has been a few months since I posted and I appreciate your patience.

Thanks for reading!

I never teach my pupils, I only attempt to provide the conditions in which they can learn. ― Albert Einstein

The Fourth Thing I Learned

Everyone needs love, but love isn’t all we need.

     My first year at the detention center began with a cohort of young men in my class who claimed membership in a gang called the “Heartless Felons.”  They were not used to being in a structured school setting, and the information I had about teaching in juvenile detention centers before I began working in one was limited to a few readings I found online.  

     National advocacy groups have called students in juvenile detention centers an “invisible population” because little to no attention has been given to this demographic. Fortunately, I had a bank of knowledge constructed throughout my sixteen years of teaching high school in the city to make withdrawals from. Plus, raising my own boys provided me with multiple opportunities to practice not taking things personally.

      I was repeatedly told by some of the angry students my first few months at JDC that “we were not in real school,” and they asked my principal if he could fire me for cajoling them to do school work they didn’t want to do.  My principal responded by chuckling and walking away.

     One day, shortly after the school year began, one of the guards worriedly returned to my classroom after securing the boys back on the housing unit to check on me. He was concerned the behavior of some of the boys might have an impact on me. His reaction was thoughtful and appreciated, but I assured him I was not on the brink of quitting or ceasing my attempts to offer education.

     It is necessary as an educator to care for and respect those within your realm, but reminding yourself of your place of power and privilege when student actions are potentially hurtful is also a valuable tool to utilize. Although our mutual humanity remained at the forefront, I also established myself as a professional with knowledge and skills which prepared me to facilitate their learning. Additionally, I reminded myself of the struggles in their lives which were unknown to me or were absent from my personal life experiences.

     My students’ yearning for someone who cared was consistently present, even when they could not articulate their need. Outside of our classroom, students hunted for kinship and spaces in which they felt valued. Sometimes the only affiliation to give them a sense of safety and validation was a gang. Media outlets may offer glimpses into what gang membership entails, but the nuances of membership in a gang are complex and organized.  

     The Heartless Felons formed after a merger of two gangs in the early 2000s. In one of Ohio’s youth correctional facilities, The Young Felons and The Land of the Heartless joined together. An April 2015, cleveland.com article explained the details of the gang’s origins:

In about 2000, the gang’s leader, Peterson, served a sentence at a state youth facility in Marion for felonious assault. Prosecutors said in court documents that Peterson had an extensive juvenile record of delinquencies, and authorities struggled to control him.

While in Marion, Peterson realized that Cleveland youths from different gangs should bond to become stronger so they could take on youth gangs from across the state, according to interviews and published reports.

Peterson reached out to Donte “Iceberg Ferg” Ferguson, also of Cleveland. Peterson, a member of the Young Felons, joined with Ferguson, a member of the Land of the Heartless, to form the new gang, according to interviews and courtroom testimony.

The gang took off, stunning authorities with its violence. Many of its members were involved in other gangs when they joined the Heartless Felons, records and interviews show.

As their time in the juvenile correctional facilities ended, gang members returned to Cleveland. In many cases, they were soon convicted of crimes and later shipped to prisons, where they quickly gained a reputation for brutality, state records show.

     A student at JDC shared their creed. Part of it reads, “I am a felon by birthrights, gangsta by circumstance… I am a reflection of my brothers and they are a reflection of me…” There is also a pledge. It reads, “I am a heartless felon. From this day forward I been reborn felon. Felon is my backbone.  The calab is the blood that runs through my veins. LOH is the heart within me that keeps me moving. I have a heart of 1000 men… therefore I am a 1000 men. That is what makes me a heartless felon.”

     There are also ten “golden rules” members of the Heartless Felons are expected to adhere to at all times. They were described by a student as follows:

  • No snitching
  • No stealing from another felon
  • No homosexual activity
  • No arguing in front of an outsider
  • No fighting in front of an outsider
  • No fam business in front of outsiders
  • Do not treat another felon like a flunky or pawn
  • Respect high ranking decisions
  • Take risks for the fam
  • Respect all.

     Could anything I did in my classroom compete with a creed, pledge and golden gang rules? I had to remember that I was not vying for members to anything. Capitalist and competitive principles do not apply to education in my classroom. Instead, teaching coexisted within a shared space. The boys gradually respected an inferred code switching between our classroom and activities related to their other allegiances, which very rarely interfered with our learning environment.

     I was also privileged to capture glimpses of the childhoods my students could have had in different environments under different circumstances. One student, Lester, who seemed to be a higher ranking gang member and had no qualms about stating “ima gangsta” on the intake survey he completed when he arrived to my class, had also lost both his parents.

     He wrote that if he had one wish it would be “my mom and dad back.”  Lester was in class with me for several months, and it was challenging for me to connect with him. During his first few months in class, there were incidents during which he screamed profanities and threatened to “flip this” (items in the classroom). There were also days when he was permitted by adults in the housing unit area to not attend school.

     Lester had attended four high schools in three years. School didn’t seem to be a place he felt he belonged. After approximately five months of attempting to engage Lester in school, I sensed a sliver of possibility. He became part of a small group of boys in class who teased me about the way I dressed for work.

     I always loosely covered the majority of my body with various styles of ponchos or flowing cardigans in a mostly successful attempt to extinguish any silhouette of my figure and reduce myself to a blob of clothing. Lester jokingly asked me where I got all of these ponchos. I replied that I found them at discount stores and sometimes I made them. He then asked me to make him one.

     During a long weekend for one of the federal winter holidays, I made him a fleece black serape. I gave it to the social worker on the housing unit because I didn’t want the other kids to know, and students are not allowed to take anything back to the unit on their own. Lester was moved from the juvenile facility to the adult jail shortly after.

     As I was leaving the secure area one day, I happened upon the social worker from House 3 giving the serape and Lester’s other personal items to his grandmother. His grandmother seemed a little perplexed by the article of clothing, but the social worker explained how much Lester enjoyed wearing it when he was in her office away from the pod (the areas within units groups of young people reside while being detained).

     A serape wasn’t going to make Lester believe in school or miss his parents less. The radical love of an educator which inspires the creation of a serape is not going to deter a child from joining a gang, or convince a young man to leave a gang, but if love is what you have to give, then why not give it?

     References to family (fam) and outsiders, and the losses so many of my students had experienced, marinated in my mind when I encountered discussions about gangs. The appeal of being in a gang was not an experience I shared with the young men, but I understood the kids were seeking safety, loyalty and love. Every kid deserves to grow up in a community that provides those things. As much as I loved my students and teaching, it was never going to be enough to topple the entrenched oppression my students were challenged daily to overcome.

The 3rd Thing I Learned From Kids in Jail

     The following is part of a series titled “10 Things I Learned From Kids in Jail.” This is the third thing I learned. You can find the introduction, the first thing and the second thing on my blog in previous posts. Thanks for reading! 

Love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries. Without them humanity cannot survive. – Dalai Lama

The Third Thing I Learned

Anyone can choose to be a better human being.

     During the winter of my last school year as an educator at the detention center, there was an incident on House 4 the day before we were to return to classes after winter break. Property was damaged and local news reports conveyed the property destruction would cost the county over $250,000.

     Contrary to regrettable events like this, touching moments of humanity and generosity were not infrequent at the juvenile detention center. There was tension and sometimes violence and wreckage, but even when there is so little to be had and so few opportunities to give, the thoughtfulness and urgent desire of the kids at JDC to offer kindness was always inspiring.  

     Sometimes the selflessness of the kids I worked with would frustrate me later when I was home with my sons. When my students were profoundly writing on their daily gratitude statement they were grateful to still be alive, conflicts with my sons over video games, cell phones or doing household chores felt petty and ungrateful to me.

     I tried not to bring work home with me, preferring to stay in my classroom long past the school day to finish what needed to be done and to leave it all there. However, human nature does not always allow for our minds to leave work when our bodies exit the building.

     Most young people at the detention center encounter an intersection of obstacles. They are from low income households, environmentally toxic and violent neighborhoods, lack access to resources for healthcare and nutrition, have experienced trauma, and arrive with multiple diagnoses and disabilities.

     Knowing the oppression and inequities my students experienced dispirited me, but my sorrow deepened when students with severe challenges arrived to us. Although in my classroom the students had access to therapy putty, stress balls, fidget cloths, a bike desk, standing desks, and aromatherapy, the center is not equipped to handle a young person with severe mental or physical health needs, but that fact doesn’t prevent these young people from arriving there.

     Henry* arrived to the juvenile detention center with multiple disabilities including Asperger’s Syndrome, and with a recently reported IQ Composite of 49. His grandmother had adopted him a few months after he turned one because his mother struggled with addiction, including while she was pregnant with him.

     He didn’t really know his father who had been incarcerated most of Henry’s life, and whose history of mental health issues and disabilities mirrored Henry’s. Within thirty minutes of Henry’s arrival to my class, I picked up my desk phone and called the intervention specialist assigned to provide educational services to students in my classroom with disabilities. Even with the constant presence of a detention officer in our classroom, I did not believe I was capable of managing Henry’s needs without additional assistance.  

     Detention officers employed by the county escort students to class each day, and from the beginning of class to the end they remain in the doorway of the classroom, or just outside the classroom door. Juvenile detention centers operate twenty-four hours per day, seven days a week and do not close for holidays. The mental and physical demands on detention officers are grueling.

     One of the detention officers who was frequently assigned to keep my classroom safe during my last two years at JDC represented one of the best. I make this assertion without bias, although he was a student in one of my history classes many years before when I taught at a high school on the east side of the city. Yet, even the best among the detention officers, like my former student, were not adequately trained to respond to the needs of Henry.

     For over three weeks other boys who shared a housing pod with Henry assisted him with survival. Henry was protected and cared for by the other young people being held there. He never went hungry. Other students sat with him to watch videos of trains we had downloaded onto a computer for him.

     If students thought the intervention teacher was pushing him too hard to complete a task, they would interject and ask her to be gentler with him. They helped him when he had an accident and soiled his clothes while on the housing unit. Because Henry was taken into custody on a domestic violence charge, it was additionally difficult to expeditiously find another placement for him.

     Juvenile detention centers are not designed to adequately provide for young people with mental health issues or disabilities. Unfortunately, the centers often exacerbate issues already afflicting vulnerable young people. However, the boys around Henry knew the reasons they were there did not define who they are as human beings. They embraced an opportunity to help someone else who needed them, and gave him what they could. I am not sure I would have handled the situation with as much grace and generosity as my students if I had been in their place.

     At the end of each school day, I provided students with an opportunity to reflect on their performance in class for the day. On a half sheet of paper, students received the following prompts:

DAILY REFLECTION/EXIT TICKET

NAME_______________________________________________________DATE__________

Explain what you did well today in at least one complete sentence. _______________________

________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Explain how you would rate your performance in class today on a scale of 10 to 1, and explain why you ranked yourself that way. 10= I did my best  5= I tried half the time 1=I did not try at all

____________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Write a complete sentence about one part of your work in class that you would like to improve and explain why. _____________________________________________________________

________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Choose to complete ONE of the writing prompts below. Circle which one you are completing.

  1. I wish that you would have known today that I…
  2. I am really proud that today I…
  3. My favorite part of today was…
  4. I wonder if today I could…

____________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

     This exercise each day allowed for students to experience a sense of accountability to themselves, and granted them a discreet way to communicate with me things they may not have wanted to verbally share.

     After completing tasks like using screen printing techniques to create artistic placemats for children staying at the Ronald McDonald House, or decorating flower pots to fill with soil and milkweed seeds to nourish monarch butterfly caterpillars, the students overwhelmingly responded to the first and last prompt with how much it meant to them to be able to do something nice for someone else or for the greater good. Many of the boys in my class who were being held were accused of murder, assault, aggravated robbery, and gang activity. Yet, when given opportunities to be kind they frequently and enthusiastically embraced them.

     Once, a former student I maintained contact with arrived at a facility in Ohio that was holding another former student of mine also. They both eventually wrote to me, excited to tell me they had met each other.

     The one who had been at the facility first had managed to find work there and save up enough money for toiletries and snacks, after he paid off over $1800 in restitution and court costs. There is no minimum wage in prisons, so it often takes a long time to earn what others on the outside might make in a day. The costs of items in prison can also be significantly higher because there is no need for competitive pricing. Only one company offers items approved for sale there. I was especially touched when the student who had been at the facility first wrote me in July 2016:

hey ms.smith

a student of yours named ***********  just came down here yesterday. I gave him some degree, toothpaste and food to make sure he’s alright. I seen *** at muslim service and told him 2 write you. I thinks it’s good to let you know how our status is.”

     It might be difficult to imagine what it feels like to possess so little in your daily life that all of your belongings could fit into a container the size of a plastic grocery bag. The policies in prisons create a culture of desperation and stashing.  It may not seem like a sacrifice to those on the outside, but within prison walls offering deodorant, toothpaste and food to someone simply because they were also in your former teacher’s classroom is genuinely benevolent.

     When I offered my gratitude to him for being so thoughtful and unselfish while in such a callous system, he humbly responded and actually deflected attention off of himself to compliment me.

ms.smith

how you doing? You’re welcome and it was no problem looking out for *****. He said add him on jpay and he’s sorry for not writing you back. [I had sent the young person handwritten letters while he was being held awaiting his trial proceedings at the adult county facility in Cleveland and he hadn’t responded.]

… thank you for keeping in contact and affecting so many people’s lives. You’re such a wonderful person.

     I am not certain I deserve his accolades. It is a lot easier to be altruistic when unconfined in a position of middle class privilege. I cannot say with certainty that I would be as charitable and thoughtful as the young men who have passed through my classroom.

     Schools should be places that encourage and develop displays of humanity. Whether I’m meeting a parent to give them their incarcerated child’s high school diploma, or sharing words of love from one of my student’s to their grandmother, there is much more to connect inhabitants of our planet than there is to divide us.  Everyone should have a place which connects them to the humanity of others as I found at the juvenile detention center.

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.

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.

Twas the First Night of Break

‘Twas the first night of break, when all through the school

Not a creature was stirring, except a privatizing ghoul

A public school teacher was sleeping all snug in her bed

While visions of happy students appeared in her head

As the papers she graded slid off of her lap

She had just settled down for a long winter’s nap

When out on the lawn there arose such a clatter

The teacher dragged herself from bed to see what was the matter

And what to her tired eyes did appear?

But a bunch of self-righteous folks who were

billionaires

“O’ Waltons, O’ Broad, O’ DeVos , O’ Gates

What are you doing here on my lawn so late?

Do I even want to know your latest plans to deceive?

Seriously, winter break is supposed to be a reprieve!”

Unfortunately, to her front porch the billionaires did dash

Wearing their contempt for public schools like an itchy red rash

Down the stairs she went to meet them, as if in a trance

She thought maybe she could reason with them, if given the chance

A backpack full of cash was flung on their backs

And they looked smug and condescending in their tailored slacks

The teacher presented research about what kids need to learn

But their only care was the money they could earn

“Students are children; not products,” she tried to explain

“Your lack of knowledge and meddling are causing great pain”

She added that teaching is a mix of science and art

“It’s a humanity,” she said “Not a business with no heart!”

The vacant look in their eyes and tilt of their heads

Soon gave her to know she had much to dread

They spoke not a word, disregarding her work

She feared inequity would continue to lurk

Then away they all flew in their extravagant jets

Forgetting to thank her for cleaning up their mess

But they heard her exclaim, as they drove out of sight

“This isn’t over! We’ll continue to fight!”

 

Happy winter break to all and peace to those willing to fight for it.

 

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.

Opt Out/Refusal for Ohio 2016-2017

     It seems that the high stakes testing season begins as soon as the school year starts. For high school students adhering to the new Ohio graduation pathways and requirements, state high school exams will be administered beginning in December (next week). I don’t need to review all of the reasons that high stakes standardized tests are bogus, invalid, and do nothing to improve teaching or learning. However, if you need some inspiration for your student’s Opt Out or Refusal letter this year, feel free to read on and borrow any parts you find useful from mine. 

Greetings BMHS Staff,

Just as in the past 2 years, (my son) will NOT be participating in any Ohio State Tests, or in any tests created by AIR, NWEA, ProCore, PARCC, etc. I only want him to participate in assessments created by his classroom teachers whom we value and respect.
If you would like a more thorough understanding of my objections to the racist and oppressive practice of standardizing testing in schools, please refer to the following websites:
http://fairtest.org/racism-eugenics-and-testing-again
http://www.fairtest.org/sites/default/files/racial_justice_and_testing_12-10.pdf
http://ideas.time.com/2012/10/11/why-its-time-to-get-rid-of-standardized-tests/
http://parentsacrossamerica.org/civil-rights-discrimination-standardized-testing/
http://www.schoolsmatter.info/2015/12/the-racist-origins-of-standardized.html
http://www.huffingtonpost.com/ronnie-reese/test-bias-minorities_b_2734149.html
Standardized Testing is Racist
https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2010/06/21/sat
Once again, I realize that (my son) may do well on the state tests. That is irrelevant to the fact that he would be participating in a systemically racist institution, which serves to perpetuate oppression and a discriminatory narrative in society. I will not allow him to passively participate in a system designed to sustain a legacy of inequality in our country.
He will be taking the ACT this spring at BMHS, and should meet graduation requirements at that time through the ACT pathway. His high school graduation and his future are the only reasons I concede to the ACT testing.
I am copying everyone on this email so that there is NO misunderstanding or miscommunication that ultimately puts (my son) in an uncomfortable or compromising position; during which the principles I have raised him to espouse become in conflict with his desire to comply with school officials.
I appreciate your understanding.
Melissa Marini Švigelj-Smith