Jan 23 2013

Poem of the Day: D.U.M.M.I.E. (Daring Use of My Mental Intelligence Enlightens)

D.U.M.M.I.E. (Daring Use of My Mental Intelligence Enlightens)
by Anthony

I find it funny how one person can be judged by another
without them ever speaking
I’m pretty sure most people see me, the clothes, the hair, and
the first thought in their mind is thug, hoodlum
How do I know this?
I know this because every time I open my mouth and say
something intelligent, I’m looked at like I just grew a
new head
Does it matter if I represent blue or red or how my life
was led?
So what if my waist and the size of my pants ain’t the same?
What’s that gotta do wit the use of my brain?
I know a lot of young people who feel my pain
So what if I was bad and acted up in school?
Did it ever occur to you that at the time I had nothing else
to do?
Growin’ up, boredom was my worst enemy
So I took mischief and made it a friend to me
Take a look at my transcripts
Through all my suspensions, my grades never suffered
And everything I learned sits in the back of my mind
and hovers
Waitin’ to be put to a use
I laugh when people call the use of my intellect an abuse
The legal system bugs
Like they’re outraged at the misuse
Yet they never take the time to come into our world
And see that we are more than thugs with some serious issues
How can you watch everyone you grew up with get put away
for life?
Or members of your family go through heartache and strife?
Knowin’ a majority of your sisters will never be a wife
Growin’ up surrounded by danger and pain
Is it any wonder that some of us are considered criminally insane?
Half the people I know were never offered any assistance
If they was, pride spoke before common sense and said forget this
Of all the social workers I spoke to at a young age
I can count on a hand the ones that came close to
understanding my rage
I was young, smart and the work was no trouble
Every time there was extra credit I quickly scored double
The majority of my school life I sat and did nothin’
I’m thinkin’, if this is education they must be frontin’
When I found ways to occupy myself, I ended up in the principal’s office
With them telling me I need help
I don’t know about you, but the principal wasn’t my pal
And the only help he offered me was suspension with a smile
I laugh now cuz’ I find it funny
All that time they thought I was a dummy.

Source: Hidden TREWTH, no.1 (May 2001)

May 12 2011

Announcing the Release of the Cradle to Prison Zine Series!

By Rachel Williams (Cradle to Prison Project)

Over the past few months, I have previewed a series of zines about juvenile justice issues that my organization has been collaboratively creating. I am proud to let everyone know that they were officially released yesterday. I invite anyone interested to visit the juvenile injustice site to download a copy of one of 4 zines available there. You can also visit the Cradle 2 Prison site for documentation about the youth workshops that formed the basis of this project.

This collaborative experience was a truly rewarding and wonderful one. When I approached my friend Lisa Lee, of the Jane Addams Hull House Museum, with the idea of creating a graphic novel about the history and current manifestations of juvenile justice, I could not have imagined where we’d end up today. We both agreed that this project would only make sense if we centered the voices of incarcerated youth as well as young people on the outside. We knew that we wanted to find partners who would share our vision and would have the skills to execute it. We found those partners and you are now able to review the results of our collaboration.

The “Youth Stories” zine was created by teaching artist Elgin Smith. While Elgin himself is a young man, he has extensive experience working with incarcerated youth. We were lucky that he agreed to run a comic arts workshop for young men and women at the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center last August. That workshop forms the basis of the “Youth Voices” zine. The zine underscores the art and words of the incarcerated youth while also offering Elgin’s personal insights about being a teaching artist inside a youth jail. This is a unique publication and I have no doubt that all who read it will be fascinated and moved by it. Thank you Elgin for your diligence, your generosity, and your sincere care for young people!

The three other zines were created by teaching artist Rachel Williams. We were so incredibly lucky to meet Rachel and to be able to work with her. Rachel is an artist, an educator, and a passionate anti-prison organizer. All of these aspects of her being are reflected in the publications that she created. Rachel spent 5 weeks teaching a group of 9 youth on the outside about comic arts. We are grateful to her for her respectful and energetic interactions with the young people. On a personal note, I feel that I have made a new friend through this experience. That is rare and therefore deeply treasured by me. Words cannot express my gratitude to Rachel for her tireless, poignant, and breathtaking work.

We were also blessed to partner with the Chicago Freedom School which provided a meeting space for youth and with Eva Nagao, the Freedom School’s new board co-chair, who took it upon herself to recruit young people for this project. Eva handled all of the logistics for the 5 weeks of the comic arts program for youth on the outside. I feel very lucky to call Eva a friend, she is a committed activist and one of the very best humans that I know. Special thanks also to Rachel Shine who volunteered her time with the youth as they learned about juvenile justice and drew their own images.

The Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center (JTDC) welcomed us for 4 weeks in August 2010 to work with the young people who were incarcerated there. We are indebted to the youth for sharing their stories and talents with us.

This project would not have been as seamless or as enjoyable as it was without the presence and guidance of Teresa Silva. Teresa’s steady hand and her soft touch moved us along and helped bring the project to completion. Thanks to Teresa for all of her contributions.

There are few people in the world as unique and inspiring as Lisa Lee. Over the years, Lisa has fostered opportunities for youth and adults across Chicago to learn about history, art, and social justice. She does this without fanfare but always with unmatched generosity of spirit. This project would not have happened without her. I am eternally grateful to Lisa for all that she has done and will undoubtedly continue to do in the future.

Finally, a point of personal privilege… I am committed to using art as a tool for social transformation and justice. I believe that art has the capacity to speak across difference and to help educate and incite people to action. I hope that those individuals who read these zines come away asking the question: How can I contribute to dismantling the prison industrial complex? If even only one person asks, then we will have done our part.

In Peace and Solidarity.

Apr 20 2011

Youth Perspectives on Juvenile “Justice”

(c) The Keller Citizen

I just read an article today about a group of over 200 students from Timbercreek High School who staged a walkout to protest cuts in teaching staff. It turns out that the students are now facing in-school suspension for their actions. Here the background to the story:

About 300 students held a sit-in before school to show support to teachers who had received termination notices because of school budget cuts. Some 500 Timber Creek students attended an assembly where Tunnell discussed the staffing reductions and encouraged kids to get involved by raising awareness in the community about the school funding crisis.

At the end of the assembly, Tunnell asked students to go to class or risk being counted truant. More than 200 students opted to leave the school, and many of them later drove or walked almost four miles to the Education Center on Keller Parkway. Supterintendent James Veitenheimer spoke to students and a few parents who accompanied them for about half an hour.

Last week, about 120 teachers on probationary contracts received termination notices, including 17 at Timber Creek. Officials have said they expect to rehire more than 75 percent of those teachers if a tax increase is approved. KISD is facing a more than $30 million deficit.

The outcome of the student walkout follows:

More than 200 Timber Creek High School students who left campus April 11 to protest cuts in teaching staff are facing in-school suspension.

“The students were disciplined, not for protesting because the protest was peaceful, but strictly for the violation of leaving campus without permission,” said Principal Todd Tunnell.

As of late Monday afternoon, approximately 215 students had received two days of in-school suspension for truancy. Officials said a small number of students may have received harsher penalties because of previous incidents or may have been absent for other reasons.

Students who have in-school suspension are isolated in a room for the entire school day and given work to complete in a study hall environment. Students who protested and returned to class after an impromptu assembly with Tunnell were not penalized, he said.

I am not going to comment on the sheer lunacy of suspending students for their activism. I am pointing this example out to underscore the fact that young people are actively engaging in the important issues of the day.

Back in mid-March, my organization co-sponsored a youth-led teach in about juvenile justice. The young people who attended of course had a lot to say about these issues. One of our supporters and volunteers recorded interviews with some of the youth in attendance. If you are interested in some youth perspectives on juvenile justice issues, you can listen to raw or edited audio interviews here

Feb 14 2011

Proof that the U.S. Remains Medieval: West Virginia Proposes Bringing Back Paddling in Schools

So apparently, West Virginia outlawed paddling and other forms of corporal punishment in their schools in 1994. But wait for it… Because the youth of today are deemed to be so damn disrespectful, one of the state’s lawmakers has proposed legislation to bring back paddling to classrooms. What I find even more distressing is that this legislator also moonlights as a substitute teacher.

The Charleston Daily Mail offered an astonishing editorial about the paddling proposal:

West Virginia has a part-time legislature made up of people who have jobs back home. They are supposed to bring their life experiences to the Capitol with them.

Delegate Brian Savilla, R-Putnam, did just that when he proposed bringing corporal punishment back to West Virginia. He is a substitute teacher.

The state banned the paddling of students in 1994.

“I firmly believe it’s led to a lack of respect,” Savilla said.

“Back when we had paddling, you did have instances, but they were on a smaller scale. When there was paddling, there was more discipline in school, and the system itself was more structured.”

There is no question that today’s youths are less respectful of authority and schools than students a generation ago.

The reasons are many – the breakdown of the family is a huge reason – but the brunt of dealing with the consequences is borne by teachers.

In removing corporal punishment from the toolbox the teacher has to maintain discipline in the classroom, the Legislature failed to replace that tool. Savilla said detention, suspension and even expulsion have failed to work.

It is like trying to feed a child who is not hungry and keeps throwing bowl after bowl of food on the floor.

Part of the problem is state courts, which maintain that education is a “right,” and have forced state officials to provide an education to a student no matter how bad his behavior may be.

Students expelled for disrupting school are now “entitled” to education, at taxpayers’ expense, in an alternative setting.

Taxpayers can’t afford that.

Schools aren’t broken. Society is.

Somehow, society must communicate, through real consequences, the fact that with “rights” come corresponding responsibilities – in this case, to respectful behavior in school.

Otherwise, the “right” to education, which kids undervalue, is forfeited.

Parents who knew their children could lose the right to attend public schools would do a better job of working with school officials.

Savilla’s proposal may go nowhere, but he has brought attention to a serious problem. Serious minds in the House and the Senate should take it up.

Orderly schools would make things easier for teachers, bring up test scores, and set more children on a productive path.

The entitlement philosophy is not accomplishing that.

Let me get this straight, the newspaper is suggesting that a student’s “bad behavior” should disqualify him/her from attaining an education through public schooling. Presumably, the editorial board is suggesting that students who “act up” should be shipped to private schools. Yet we know that the students who are disproportionately targeted by school disciplinary policies are poor, male and of color. Taken to its logical conclusion, these students once banned from attending public schools would have to find private schools to accommodate them. Can we guess about the likelihood that they would continue their education? This would lead to an increased number of school dropouts who had essentially been barred from accessing an affordable education. How early would we begin to kick children out of public schoTax payers in West Virginia would eventually be left holding the bag for a much more expensive option – they would be left paying thousands of dollars more to incarcerate these students in the future. Because closing off the path to education insures that you are opening the door to future incarceration.

Jan 31 2011

Announcing Suspension Stories: A New Resource to Dismantle the School-to-Prison Pipeline

Poster by Caitlin Ostrow-Seidler

I am privileged to regularly work with some of the most inspiring and dedicated youth leaders on the planet. Over the past few months, I have had the distinct pleasure to collaborate once again with the young women of the Rogers Park Young Women's Action Team as they conducted participatory action research about harsh school disciplinary policies and their connection to pushing students into the prison pipeline. I have had the incredible good fortune to be an ally to these amazing young people for 8 years now.

The result of their hard work can be found in this most incredible new website called Suspension Stories. The site includes survey research, art, audio, video as well as other relevant resources and tools. I know that the young women dearly hope that others who are organizing against school pushout and the school to prison pipeline will find value in the results of YWAT’s hard work.

There are many people besides the young women of YWAT who contributed to making this initiative happen. That list is incredibly long and we send a big thank you to everyone.

Finally as a point of personal privilege, I would like to especially recognize Lillian Matanmi for her leadership on this project. I met Lillian when she was just a freshman in high school. Over the years, she has grown into a confident and competent leader. She was the driver of this project and without her it would simply not have happened. I know that all of the members of YWAT agree with me on this. Thank you Lillian for your passion and commitment to social justice. I am in awe of you.

Please take a minute to visit the Suspension Stories site. Be sure to leave some feedback for the girls to let them know how the site might be useful to your organizing and work.

Jan 18 2011

Infographic: Chicago’s School to Prison Pipeline

Special thanks to my friend Jennifer Wisniewski for her generosity in lending her talents to addressing various social justice issues. As part of a project that I am involved with, Jennifer created the following infographic depicting Chicago’s school to prison pipeline. This infographic will be used as part of a larger project to educate youth and adults about the connection between harsh school disciplinary policies and school pushout. I look forward to announcing the launch of that project in a couple of weeks. In the meantime, here is Jennifer’s contribution .

Jan 15 2011

The U.S. is Being Overrun by 6 Year Old Future Criminals…

I could not stop laughing at this dramatization of the way that the U.S. is criminalizing children in our schools even though this is a very serious topic…  This needs to be required viewing by educators and parents across the U.S.

A recent article in the Dallas Morning News illustrates how schools in Texas are increasingly criminalizing students as young as 6 years old:

Students in Dallas and other urban school districts in Texas are increasingly being charged with Class C misdemeanors for less-serious infractions that used to be handled with a trip to the principal’s office, according to a new study.

The report from the nonprofit advocacy group Texas Appleseed examined student disciplinary data on 22 of the largest school districts in the state. It found that most have sharply increased the number of campus police officers – resulting in far more misdemeanor tickets being handed out to students.

“Disrupting class, using profanity, misbehaving on a school bus, student fights and truancy once meant a trip to the principal’s office. Today, such misbehavior results in a Class C misdemeanor ticket and a trip to court for thousands of Texas students and their families each year,” the group said in the report, Texas’ School-to-Prison Pipeline.

“Criminalization of student misbehavior extends to even the youngest students,” the report said. “In Texas, students as young as 6 have been ticketed at school in the past five years, and it is not uncommon for elementary school students to be ticketed by school-based law enforcement.”

Black students have been disproportionately ticketed. During a recent school year in the Dallas school district, 62 percent of misdemeanor tickets were issued to black students, even though they make up 30 percent of enrollment.

We really need to stop the madness…

Dec 14 2010

Update on 5th Grader Who Was Suspended for Bringing Peppermint Oil to School

Back in July, I posted about another example of “zero tolerance” policies run amok from Long Island where a 5th grader was suspended for bringing peppermint oil to school.

Administrators at a Long Island school suspended a 10-year-old girl for bringing peppermint oil to class. A teacher’s assistant at John Mandracchia-Sawmill Intermediate School in Commack spotted fifth grader Sara Greiner offering friends a few drops of the cooking extract. “I told them it was just peppermint. You could put it in your water,” she told ABC. “No one ever told me that peppermint oil was illegal.” Greiner was sent to the principal’s office and issued a one-day suspension. The school declined to explain why she was punished, but in a letter to Greinier’s mother, Corrine Morton-Greiner, the principal wrote “[s]uch inappropriate and unacceptable behavior cannot and will not be tolerated.” Greiner’s mother is now fighting to remove the suspension from her daughter’s permanent record. “If a child offers a quarter of their peanut and jelly sandwich to another student is that student going to be suspended? Where do we draw the line?” the mother asked.

Well I was pleased to receive the following update from Sara’s mother about how she is doing now.

I am Sara’s mother, and one year later, I am amazed that there is still so much of this news item connected with my name. I found this article through “googling” my name to look for something completely unrelated.

I teach college, have taught in public and private schools throughout Long Island, and on this near-anniversary of this mystifying event, I decided to post an update about how my daughter is doing a year after this nightmare. Since I would not allow the system to harm my daughter’s name or reputation, my husband and I placed Sara in a private school a month after this ridiculous incident last January. It was the best decision we could have made. She is a merit roll student who ran for school president. She has been selected to participate in a People to People World Leadership Forum, only one out of eight students in her school selected for this honor. Today, my daughter stands strong against any type of bullying or false labeling. She is well-known among her peers in her current school for her tremendous kindness and her incredible artistic abilities. Sara volunteers as a mentor to first grade students, does active community outreach work through her religion class, and participates in local community theater. Sara aspires to becoming an inventor one day.

For any parents who feel like their children are being stigmatized or falsely labeled, I encourage you to protect the dignity of your children. Sara was a shadow of her sweet, energetic self after such an unjust reprimand from school officials. She felt ashamed and humiliated by the way the school treated her, but with our support, she has both a new perspective and a deeper appreciation for the need to stand against any form of injustice–no matter how minor it may seem at the time. We still use peppermint oil in our home–a product sold to us by a Girl Scout Troop leader in our community. Thankfully, this insane incident has just made our daughter a stronger person in the long run and led her to a school that makes her very happy and provides her with an extraordinary education.

I would like to say once again that zero tolerance policies and harsh disciplinary policies are damaging our young people’s educational outcomes. They are being pushed out of school as a result of brain dead policies that accelerate their entry into the prison pipeline. Thank goodness Sara had a mother like Mrs. Grenier to advocate and fight for her right to a good and non-oppressive education. Yet many, many young people do not have such parental support for a myriad of reasons. I am thrilled to hear that Sara is doing well and am grateful for the update on her situation.

Dec 06 2010

For Some Teens ‘It Does NOT Get Better:’ Part Two

A few weeks ago, I shared the work of a terrific group of young people at a Chicago-based organization called Gender Just in a post titled “For Many Marginalized Youth It Does Not Get Better.” This was written in response to Dan Savage’s laudable “It Gets Better” campaign to highlight the fact that LGBTQ youth are confronted by an inordinate amount of systemic violence.

A few days ago a friend shared this terrific video with me which extends the points made by the youth at Gender Just. I think that it is so important that we hear the voices of LGBTQ youth in our communities. They are disproportionately represented in juvenile detention and on the streets. I am thrilled to see that this particular campaign is underway.

Reteaching Gender and Sexuality from PUT THIS ON THE MAP on Vimeo.

Just today, a new study suggests that:

Gay and lesbian teens in the United States are about 40 percent more likely than their straight peers to be punished by schools, police and the courts, according to a study published Monday, which finds that girls are especially at risk for unequal treatment.

The research, described as the first national look at sexual orientation and teen punishment, comes as a spate of high-profile bullying and suicide cases across the country have focused attention on the sometimes hidden cruelties of teen life.

The study, from Yale University, adds another layer, finding substantial disparities between gay and straight teens in school expulsions, arrests, convictions and police stops. The harsher approach is not explained by differences in misconduct, the study says.

“The most striking difference was for lesbian and bisexual girls, and they were two to three times as likely as girls with similar behavior to be punished,” said Kathryn Himmelstein, lead author of the study, published in the journal Pediatrics.

I have said this before but it is critical that we gain a much better understanding of the mechanisms that push youth from the cradle to prisons. This type of study adds another important layer of understanding to this process. LGBTQ young people are disproportionately impacted by the school to prison pipeline and now we have some empirical data to support this anecdotal reality.

For more information about the study, click here.

Dec 04 2010

File This Under Absurd: Refusing to Cut One’s Hair Can Land You in Isolation?

Hat tip to my friend Eva for posting this on Facebook right before Thanksgiving.  As those who read this blog regularly know, I am obsessed about hair issues.  File this one under completely RIDICULOUS.

Here’s the article:

Again, thanks to publicity and pressure, the Virginia Department of Corrections has backed away from an oppressive policy.

Citing the better management of bed space, the department announced that it has relocated 31 inmates from isolation to two-person cells in units where they also will have some privileges that were previously denied them.

The terrible deed that had landed them in isolation? Refusing to cut their hair.

The Associated Press reported this past summer that 48 inmates were being segregated from the rest of the prison population for violating the grooming policy. Many were Rastafarians who do not shave or cut their hair for religious reasons (the majority of Rastafarian inmates were said to have complied with the policy).

Several other faiths also believe in letting the hair grow.

The department feared that inmates could hide drugs or weapons in their hair, or get rid of the hair to drastically alter their appearance if they escaped.

While there is legitimacy to the department’s concerns, it is hard to believe that those concerns are so acute as to require punishment by isolation.

Indeed, the department conceded so in explaining its policy change:

“While there remains a need for consequences when offenders choose not to adhere to VADOC policy, it was determined that offenders whose only offense [emphasis added] is failure to comply with the grooming policy should be housed and managed separately from the general population but did not require housing in segregation,” said department spokesperson Larry Traylor.

Other prisons have proved that hair length is not an issue. Only about a dozen states have policies limiting hair length, and some of these make accommodations for religious beliefs, according to the American Correctional Chaplains Association and reported by the AP. Federal prisons do not have restrictions on hair growth.

Yet in Virginia, some 10 inmates have spent 11 years in isolation. Eleven years just for not cutting their hair.

Now the 31 inmates involved in the transfer to new prison quarters will be housed two to a cell. They will not have all the privileges of other prisoners, but they can possess more personal property, will be able to move around inside their unit and will have access to educational and other programs.

But even this more enlightened policy might cause problems — for the prisoners, that is. Those who have been long in isolation could have trouble adjusting to a shared cell and increased unit activity.

If they have trouble adjusting to this kind of life, imagine what difficulty they would encounter being returned to society. This is another tragedy of the policy: Not only were inmates punished for a relatively minor violation, and one that for many was part of their religious faith. They also were deprived of the social contact and educational privileges that might have helped them prepare for release.

The department did the right thing in changing its policy. It’s a tragedy, however, that the change was so long in coming.

Eva made the appropriate connection though when she titled her Facebook post: “School and prisons alike trying to cut everybody’s hair!“  Several young people have been suspended from school over hair issues.  What is it with American institutions like schools, prisons, and the military and their obsession with controlling people’s hair styles?  It’s about enforcing conformity at all cost and controlling people.

One has to wonder how many other departments of corrections across the U.S. have this same policy of hauling prisoners into isolation for “grooming” violations.  It can’t only be happening in Virginia.  If anyone is aware of similar cases in other parts of the country, please let me know.