"They are children who made a mistake": Conference explores Minnesota's school to prison pipeline

Community Justice Program director Nekima Levy-Pounds emceed the event, pictured here with young men from Brotherhood, Inc. (Photo by Alleen Brown)

Last Thursday at a conference exploring kids’ path from school to jail, presenters shared a common conviction: Kids are kids – even when they’re teenagers, even when they do stupid things, and no matter what the color of their skin is. 

“The majority of youth in the juvenile justice system have not committed serious violent crimes. They are children who made a mistake or are as noncompliant as teenagers often are,” said keynote speaker Angelique Kedem, director of the St. Paul Promise Neighborhood initiative. “We’re either working for justice or complicit within justice.”

The University of St. Thomas hosted the symposium titled “How are the Children? Part V: From the Classroom to the Courtroom Exploring a Child’s Journey through the Justice System,” as part of a series the law school’s Community Justice Project puts on annually.

The daylong event came a week after the U.S. Department of Education released a national study revealing sobering disparities in suspensions and school-related arrests between white and non-white students. Kedem opened with some of the report’s statistics. Although African American students made up 18 percent of the studied schools’ population, 35 percent of students suspended were black, and 35 percent of school-related arrests were of black students. Hispanic students were arrested in 37 percent of school arrests.

Kedem read the audience a laundry list of scary data – data that shows students are often suspended for behavior that endangers no one, like defiance or being disruptive, data that shows African American youth are much more likely to be arrested and incarcerated than white youth, and data that shows non-white students are less likely to graduate than white students.

In panel discussions following Kedem’s presentation, activists, lawyers, educators and parents nodded to those statistics as evidence of a school to prison pipeline in Minnesota.

From the school to the cops to the county

Tia Jamison’s Minneapolis school is laying the groundwork for the pipeline to prison, the special education teacher said. She said shrinking resources and a hyper-focus on reading instruction and testing mean teachers have little time to handle behavior issues constructively.

Ramsey County attorney John Choi said many of the juvenile cases that come to his office are referred by schools. He described the county’s criminal justice system as an assembly line, “It’s not that anyone in the assembly line is doing a bad job; they’re just trying to manage their job,” he said. “On a lot of days I believe that we’re building something that the public doesn’t want us to build.”

Jason Matlock manages the police officers assigned to Minneapolis high schools. He argued that security is not the principal motivation behind stationing police officers in schools. He said the officers are bridges between the schools and the streets, and they’re meant to build understanding between cops and the communities where they work.

Audience members and panelists argued that stationing cops in schools sends the wrong message, especially in communities where kids are raised to fear the police.

Black son, white sons

Titilayo Bediako, founder of the We Win Institute, which works with African American youth, turned to her personal experience. “Anyone in the room who has an African American son is scared every single day of their lives,” Bediako said. She described her own son. “He got taller. His feet grew. His voice changed, and he started getting facial hair. All of a sudden my son couldn’t do anything right in school. Every time I turned around he was getting suspended.” Bediako’s son is now a college graduate.

Legal Rights Center executive director Michael Friedman had rebellious sons, too, but they were white. “Each of my children were seen as children – as basically good,” he said. “Adolescence is a temporary condition. Permanent consequences such as prison are a great risk when this is forgotten.”

The positive

It wasn’t all bad news. Employees from Hennepin and Ramsey counties said the number of juveniles detained on a given day has gone way down in the past ten years, although African American and non-white males are still disproportionately represented.

Julie Young-Burns received an award for her work implementing a program in Minneapolis Public Schools that uses restorative justice as an alternative to suspension and expulsion. The program is a partnership between the Legal Rights Center and MPS.

One of the conference’s most moving speeches came from Christian Bonner, a young African American man who works with Brotherhood, Inc., an organization that reintegrates young African American males who have had contact with the criminal justice system or have been involved in gangs. Participants learn customer service, marketing and entrepreneurship by selling coffee, tea and cocoa.

Upon his return to St. Paul after three years in a juvenile detention facility, Bonner described himself as institutionalized. He got up every morning, did his calisthenics and watched TV, just like in Elmore, where he was detained. He started school, but what he really wanted was a job. For months, he walked up and down strips of businesses in St. Paul, turning in applications. No one called him back.

“I did every job application in St. Paul that is known, and I still didn’t get hired,” he said. Luckily, a teacher referred him to Brotherhood, Inc. They gave him an opportunity he plans to honor. “I want to prove to society that I am not a black male that’s gonna fail.”

POINT(-93.1873882 44.94135)

Our primary commenting system uses Facebook logins. If you wish to comment without having a Facebook account, please create an account on this site and log in first. If you are already a registered user, just scroll up to the log in box in the right hand column and log in.

Alleen Brown's picture
Alleen Brown

Alleen Brown (alleenbrown [at] tcdailyplanet [dot] net or Twitter @AlleenBrown) is a freelance writer from Minneapolis.