Student Viewpoint: The World is not Peaches and Cream

by Schama

Viewpoint

Schama, who has chosen to be identified by only her first name, shares her experience appealing her expulsion from her Boston high school. 

The world is not peaches and cream: we need to be aware of the warfare being waged against us by the prison system and the education system. Learn to love one another and make better choices.

According to President Obama, the United States has just five percent of the world’s population, but 25 percent of the world’s prisoners. As Van Jones said in Ava DuVernay’s documentary 13th, “One out of four human beings with their hands on bars, shackled, in the world, are locked up here in the land of the free.” I recently learned about the school to prison pipeline. It works like this: A student may get into a fight at school that they didn’t start, but they still get suspended. And they go to a disciplinary school for a little while, and when they come back to their old school everything is different. Nobody believes that they didn’t start the fight. Now everyone thinks they’re a bad kid, so they start acting like a bad kid. They can no longer see the future they used to see, they get into another fight and this time they get arrested. This is how the pipeline works, I could have fallen into this pipeline.

Malcolm X wrote in his Autobiography, “Any person who claims to have deep feeling for other human beings should think a long, long time before he votes to have other men kept behind bars – caged. I am not saying there shouldn’t be prisons, but there shouldn’t be bars. Behind bars, a man never reforms. He will never forget. He never will get completely over the memory of the bars.” (Malcolm X, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, 155).

They want you to be weak, and that my friend we will never be.

On October 30th I was coming out of class; it was a regular Monday. I was talking to my friends and we were messing around as friends do. A lady walked up next to us and asked, “Where do you need to be?” It bothered me because I was where I needed to be, so I ignored her, waved her off and walked away. The next thing I know, my dean came in to my class at the end of the day. He quietly walked over, and he almost sounded depressed when he said, “Schama, can I please talk to you outside?” I was thinking he was going to tell me he found out who stole my wallet earlier that week. We went to a different classroom, and he asked me if I knew why he brought me there. “No,” I said. He told me that I had assaulted the assistant headmaster. “What!? What are you talking about!? Who?” I exclaimed. He told me her name, and I still didn’t know who it was. I told him to check the cameras. I knew I hadn’t done what he was saying, but he told me to go home.

I ended up having two hearings: a suspension hearing and then an expulsion hearing. But what I want to share is how I felt and my memories during those hearings. I remember walking to the conference room with my mom and the Dean. We walked past a white woman who looked kind of familiar. She was up against the wall as if I were a bully telling her to get out of my way. I couldn’t understand why she was so afraid and thought, “Wow, relax, I’m not an animal… I’m a human being.” During the hearing I asked who the assistant headmaster was because I still didn’t know. The Dean said I had just passed by her in the hall. And then everything started to become so clear. This woman didn’t know me; we had only a thirty second interaction. Why is she scared of me? Why am I here? I became an emotional wreck. They said that they might press charges. The School Officer came in and read a police report. I was crying; I couldn’t believe it, I started having a panic attack. The only other time I felt this way was when my grandmother had died.

When the assistant headmaster came in I should have handed her an Oscar she was so dramatic. She said that after this happened she wanted to talk to me but I ran away. But that didn’t happen, I walked away, and if she had wanted to talk to me I would have. And if she had told me I touched her, even though I didn’t think I had, I would have apologized. If she had talked to me I would have apologized, period! Later the Dean said it might have been an accident, but it still happened. I was so confused, in my head I was thinking, “she can’t press charges if I didn’t put my hands on her. If there’s no proof she can’t press charges. If this was an accident she can’t press charges. If she was upset I would have gladly apologized, why is this happening, I’m a good kid, I have good grades, I’m about to get honor roll!”

While I was suspended, I spent five days at the Barron Center – a counseling and intervention center where kids go when they are suspended for something serious – but the counselor there told me I didn’t need to be there. Later we had the expulsion hearing and they expelled me. After I was expelled I went to Community Academy. The first day, I started having a panic attack and was sent home. I went back and was okay, but the school hadn’t sent any of my work and I was frustrated. I was a junior. My work mattered, and I couldn’t do it.

I got a lawyer and appealed my expulsion. When I went to the hearing, I saw that the headmaster and the hearing officer knew each other, and I already knew my voice wasn’t going to be heard. I almost gave up. I didn’t think I could win this. Who is going to believe a child over a headmaster? No one is going to listen to me. Who is listening? My lawyer wanted to record the hearing, but the hearing officer refused. At the hearing I told my side of story. I became emotional. I said that I was a good kid, I worked hard, I am a Black queen and didn’t understand why this was happening. If I hurt anyone I’m sorry, I just want to go back to school and finish. After I presented my case, the headmaster said that he expelled me because I had become an emotional wreck and was aggressive and flailed my arms dangerously. I couldn’t believe he had said that, this didn’t make sense. What was I really being expelled for? Was he saying because I’m black and I have an “attitude” I should be expelled? I’m very blunt and everyone at school knew that. But not anymore, my school was a turnaround school, which meant 60 percent of the staff and teachers had been replaced, and everyone who knew me had left. I lost the appeal.

My lawyer and I appealed to the state. The Department of Education overturned my expulsion, ordered BPS to fix my grades and give me extra help. I’m really glad I beat my case, but this experience still really affected me.  During my suspension and my expulsion, I took the time and reflected on my life and how to go about things. I knew where I wanted to go, I wanted to finish school, but I couldn’t see how I could get there. When I got to my new school I walked into my ELA class, Mr. Driscoll’s class. I noticed that his room was covered in black history and Malcolm X. At first, I thought he was just another white guy trying to be black, but then I talked to him. I wanted to figure out how to be me and he helped me. He had read my file and told me that he knew I wasn’t a bad kid, that if I needed space he would give it to me, but if I wanted to talk to someone he was there. I didn’t have to say anything to him for him to understand me and where I was coming from. And we read Malcolm X.

Malcolm’s autobiography helped me see that it wasn’t white people, it was how white people see black kids, it was about the system. “The white man is not inherently evil, but America’s racist society influences him to act evilly. The society has produced and nourished a psychology which brings out the lowest, most base part of human beings.”(Malcolm X, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, 378) This is why black kids are being sent out of school and sent to prison. The system makes white people bold.

I don’t like to share my story and I don’t want sympathy, but I need to share so it doesn’t happen to others. I am sharing my story because I’m tired and I won’t keep sitting around while my sisters and brothers are getting physically and verbally abused by the system. With the help of my family and some of my new teachers, I overcame my obstacles and I am going to be a senior with almost the grades that I wanted, and I’m going to apply to college in the fall. But not everybody is like me and can bounce back the way I did. So for anybody out there that has gone through what I’ve gone through, or is going through what I went through. I just want you to know that you aren’t the only one. Forgive those who have done you wrong, keep building your future and show them how wrong they were about who you are and what you can be.


Trauma Informed Care: What Lawyers Representing Children and Teens Need to Know

DAconley

by Kirstie MacEwen, MSW, LCSW

Practice Tips

Introduction

Modern social work principles present trauma informed care (TIC) as the most effective and safe way to work with clients of any age. TIC is approaching every person you meet as though he or she has experienced some kind of trauma, and doing your best to be sensitive to whatever those traumatic experiences may have been. It is working with intentionality, being grounded in empathy and empathic responses. TIC is vital when working, in any capacity, with children and adolescents, because their brains are still growing and developing. An adolescent brain is malleable. This plasticity allows the brain to readily learn and adapt, which helps the adolescent develop strategies, skills, and habits. If a child is exposed to traumatic experiences, the habits and strategies he or she is taught can significantly influence his or her ability to cope with the trauma. It is therefore critical that adults provide the support children and adolescents need to develop positive habits and strategies instead of allowing negative ones to take root.

Research has proven that trauma and traumatic experiences significantly impact brain structure. Specifically, a brain that has experienced trauma has significantly diminished frontal lobe structure. The frontal lobe is the executive of our brain. This region is the command center that helps us control our impulses, regulate our emotions, and make thoughtful decisions. Because the frontal lobe plays such a key role in both behavior and functioning, children who have experienced trauma display a wide variety of symptoms. Not surprisingly, many children who exhibit trauma symptoms are misdiagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), oppositional defiant disorder (ODD), disruptive mood dysregulation disorder (DMDD), as well as many others. Discussing trauma and misdiagnosis, Bessel van der Kolk states,

Before they reach their twenties, many patients have been given four, five, six, or more of these impressive but meaningless labels. If they receive treatment at all, they get whatever is being promulgated as the method of management du jour: medications, behavioral modification, or exposure therapy. These rarely work and often cause more damage.

Bessel van der Kolk, M.D., The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma 159 (2014).

While the symptoms of trauma can present in a variety of ways that make proper diagnosis difficult, misdiagnosis can be very detrimental to a child’s treatment. Take, for example, the distinction between hyperactivity and hypervigilance.  Hyperactivity (e.g., the inability to sit still or focus) is more closely associated with ADHD. Hypervigilance (including enhanced sensory sensitivity, increased arousal, and high responsiveness to stimuli) can appear the same as hyperactivity but has an added component of anxiety and is more closely associated with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The symptoms of these disorders can look very similar, but it is important for a child to have access to a clinician who is careful and cognizant of nuances so the child can receive the most appropriate treatment and support.

Why, you may be asking, is this discussion pertinent to lawyers? Children with “behavioral” symptoms are often labeled as problem kids. Because of the punitive nature of our systems of school discipline, these students often receive suspensions or are arrested by school resource officers instead of receiving therapeutic interventions. This is true even when therapeutic interventions are laid out in a legal document such as an Individualized Education Plan or 504 Plan. Punishment for school related behavior is often the cause of a student’s first interaction with the juvenile justice system, but it most likely won’t be the last. Juvenile offenders are at much greater risk of becoming adult offenders. Even on an individual level, working to disrupt this pattern by providing therapeutic support over punishment can start a trend for changes in the larger system.

Tips for Lawyers Representing Children and Teens

  1. Remember that trauma significantly impacts brain structures that are meant to help with impulse control, decision making, and emotional regulation.
  2. Always approach clients using TIC practices.
  3. Look for therapeutic supports that are trauma informed.
  1. Advocate for mental health support as opposed to punitive measures whenever possible.
  2. Work collaboratively with mental health, physical health, school, and justice system providers.
  3. Do some reading about trauma!
  • The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander
  • Trauma Stewardship: An Everyday Guide to Caring for Self While Caring for Others, Laura van Dernoot Lipsky with Connie Burk
  • The Boy Who was Raised as a Dog: And Other Stories from a Child Psychiatrist’s Notebook – What Traumatized Children Can Teach Us About Loss, Love, and Healing, Bruce D. Perry, M.D., Ph.D., and Maia Szalavitz
  • The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma, Bessel van der Kolk, M.D.
  • Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence – From Domestic Abuse to Political Terror, Judith Lewis Herman

Kirstie MacEwen is a graduate of Simmons College School of Social Work.  She is an In Home Therapist for the Justice Resource Institute SMART Team.  In this capacity, Ms. MacEwen serves children and families who are engaged in the juvenile justice system.  She is passionate about juvenile justice reform and disrupting the school to prison pipeline.