July 20, 2012, was a typical, hot and humid summer day in Little Rock, Arkansas. I remember it like it was yesterday. The Pulaski County Juvenile Detention Center – a sprawling building with bars on the windows – took my breath away. The grassy areas adjacent to the parking lot were scattered with yellow dandelion flowers. I bent down to pick one of the yellow flowers, put it in my pocket and entered the building. As I passed a classroom, I noticed that most of the children were very young, all with black or brown skin. My entire being was overcome with sadness.
I had been there many times, every week in fact, to lead a support group for the children. But today the melancholy of incarcerated children was palpable and deeply troubling. How did they get here? Why are they not out in the summer sunshine riding bikes and shooting baskets? Why does this thing called the school-to-prison pipeline persist?
For decades, black-led organizations have worked diligently fighting to make sure that educators, schools and school districts value the humanity in all children. Emily Jones, Executive for Racial Justice for United Methodist Women, describes her organization’s work in an article published on redletterchristians.org: “These civil rights and education justice organizations grew tired of seeing Black, Brown, and Native American children, sometimes as young as 5, handcuffed and pushed out of the classroom and into the criminal justice system.”
“The school-to-prison pipeline must be challenged.”
Jones adds that these human rights organizations “grew impatient with seeing Black, Brown, and Native American children over-suspended and subject to exclusionary discipline, such as expulsions and arrests.” Growing impatient with such a system seems like a mild response given some of the anecdotal evidence of abusive practices. Consider the experience of an unruly 5-year-old girl who acted up in her kindergarten class. Three police officers bent her over a table and forcibly handcuffed her as she shouted, “No!” The image is incomprehensible.
Groups like the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, the Children’s Defense Fund, Racial Justice NOW and the Alliance for Education Justice were the early trailblazers with the determination to stop the criminalization of youth of color. They railed against unjust systems and practices. They worked persistently to change systems that disproportionately pushed out, not only black, brown and Native American children, but also children with disabilities and LGBTQ+ young people. These and other justice-seeking organizations continue to work to fulfill what they see as an inescapable imperative.
But on that hot July day nine years ago, I was just standing in a cell with a frightened little girl trying to find words powerful enough to tell her that she doesn’t belong there. Yes, a judge did order her incarceration, but the value of her life was greater than a judge’s order. Her worth was not measured by the walls that now detained her. Her freedom would not always be dependent on the rules that held her in this cell. She needed to believe that, and to believe in herself and in her power to determine her destiny.
“Christ’s Church cannot ignore what is happening to children – all children.”
What was true then is just as true and just as urgent today. The school-to-prison pipeline in this country must be challenged; and people of faith should help lead the way. The ACLU defines this phenomenon as “a disturbing national trend wherein children are funneled out of public schools and into the juvenile and criminal justice systems. Many of these children have learning disabilities or histories of poverty, abuse or neglect, and would benefit from additional educational and counseling services. Instead, they are isolated, punished and pushed out.”
The U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights offers an informative data snapshot:
Suspension of preschool children, by race/ethnicity and gender. Black children represent 18 percent of preschool enrollment, but 48 percent of preschool children receiving more than one out-of-school suspension; in comparison, white students represent 43% of preschool enrollment but 26% of preschool children receiving more than one out of school suspension.
Disproportionately high suspension/expulsion rates for students of color. Black students are suspended and expelled at a rate three times greater than white students. On average, 5% of white students are suspended, compared to 16% of black students. American Indian and Native-Alaskan students are also disproportionately suspended and expelled, representing less than 1% of the student population but 2% of out-of-school suspensions and 3% of expulsions.
A foster care system in crisis. More than 440,000 children are in foster care on any given day. The average child in foster care spends more than a year in care. In 2017, nine out of every 1,000 children in the U.S. were determined to be victims of abuse or neglect.
On July 20, 2012, I was not thinking much about statistical data. I was just thinking about this very sad 10-year-old girl. And wondering if my church might care.
Then and now, the questions remain. Are faith leaders in our communities doing anything to stop the school-to-prison pipeline? Is ensuring the well-being of every child an inescapable imperative for us as people of faith?
Christ’s Church cannot ignore what is happening to children – all children. We simply cannot allow the policies and practices that disproportionately target, punish and criminalize children of color for the same offenses for which white children are gently reprimanded. Will we stand idle and silent, allowing beloved children of God to be funneled away from academic success and rerouted toward the juvenile justice system? Our silence is our complicity. Our silence sentences young children and robs them of their freedom, their optimism and hope, their sense of wonder and their sacred worth as God’s own.
“Serving as a child advocate or guardian ad litem can be transformative – for you and for them.”
On this otherwise ordinary day in 2012, I walked into the juvenile detention facility with a single yellow wildflower in my pocket, a weed really, picked from the grass near the parking lot. I managed to get past the usual scrutiny of security guards who likely would have viewed that one little flower as some sort of illegal contraband.
There in a cell with a little girl who had been snatched from her home, school and community, a simple gesture brightened her sad eyes. “I love yellow,” she said, delicately holding the weed in her tiny hands. “We have some of these in the grass at my house. I wish I was there right now.”
I wished that for her, too. I prayed a silent prayer that the circumstances that kept her imprisoned would be sorted out. I thanked God for that yellow weed because it brought back a sense of wonder to a child with not much hope left.
Sometimes it requires an advocate to bring hope to these children, an adult willing to get involved in a child’s life in a tangible way. Could that child advocate be you or me? Could our involvement be ennobled by Christ who said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them” (Matthew 19:14, NRSV)? In your community and mine, it is easy to find children who are, for myriad reasons, embroiled in the juvenile justice system. Many of them do not have parents capable of effectively advocating for them in what can be an oppressive and unjust system.
Find these children. Get to know and understand them. Mentor them. Love them.
If you need a formalized way to do that, contact your local chapter of Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) or the volunteer coordinator at your county juvenile justice center. CASA volunteers span the nation, a movement of more than 85,000 volunteers in all 50 states. If you cannot locate a CASA organization in your county, you can find one nearby.
Serving as a child advocate or guardian ad litem can be transformative – for you and for them. You may be the one person completely, solely committed to the well-being of a child and the positive outcomes that are possible for her or him.
You will be living out Christ’s example of caring for children. You will be responding to that inescapable imperative to love and to care for every child of God. Every child.