Addressing Juvenile Detention Center Stigma and Diverting Students from School to Prison Pipeline

Joelle Allen and Saarah Fattouh


He was scaring the teachers. His eyes glazed over as a single tear rolled down his cheek. He spoke to himself while staring blankly ahead. It was like a scene from a horror movie.

This was how Omega Hatchett, a social worker for Detroit Public Schools, described an undiagnosed, 18-year-old student who was suffering from a psychotic episode during school.


“We immediately sent the student to the hospital where he was put on medication. A few months ago, I saw his mother at a store, and she said that his medication wasn’t working. He had taken a knife and cut his sister’s hands open before running away. His mom found him sleeping on the ground with a blanket at a park outside of where she worked,” Hatchett said.


Stories like this are not uncommon for students with undiagnosed mental illnesses, and Hatchett reported that more children enrolled in low income schooling systems in Detroit are exposed to trauma that later affect their health and mental stability.


“I’ve had students who thought they were reincarnated. One girl thought that she was pregnant by Jesus, and another girl would disappear from school. I’ve had four of my students murdered. I’ve had a second grader killed in a car accident with her mother. I’ve had parents that have passed away, actually three mothers died in one month. It’s all just horrible,” Hatchett said.


In Hatchett’s 33-years of work, the devastating effects of mental illness shocked her the most. In cities like Detroit, according to Hatchett, many parents don’t believe in mental illness. When undiagnosed, the weight of mental illness only grows, and for many children it becomes a burden that’s carried alone.


“Sometimes parents are in denial. They’ll say that there’s nothing wrong with their student and that their kid is just trying to get attention, or create drama. However, a lot of students are diagnosed with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD), or Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD) when they’re younger. Then, as they get older, you’ll see a lot of bipolar disorder, depression, and schizophrenia diagnoses develop as well. When you do further investigation, though, the new illnesses were the same illnesses that led to the ADHD and ODD diagnosis when they were younger. Some parents don’t believe in medication, but I do suggest seeking help for distressed or mentally ill children as soon as possible. If parents address mental illness earlier on, things would be better for many of these students. From what I've seen, parents wait until it’s too late. Their child's illness will manifest into much more serious disorders and will affect the students’ education and much more,” Hatchett said.

A sunrise lights up the Oakland county juvenile detention center on November 12 2020. The East Court is a modern glass building, surrounded by cozier residential areas that exude an atmosphere contrary to the stereotypes about a traditional detention center. “When we picture detention centers, we picture bars or a toilet in the middle of a cement floor. It's not like that at all. At the detention center I visited in Cincinnati, most of the students' day is spent in school, so they had access to those resources one would in a normal school,” Groves principal Dr. Susan Smith said.


Other educators who work with students in Detroit agree that mental illness and outside influences force education to take the back seat. Burton International Academy Principal Edwyn Bell Jr. highlighted the importance of a school providing more than an education. School has become a second home for those who struggle and many need social emotional guidance to help them in the more dangerous world.


“The students are fighting so much. They’re fighting against the home environment. They’re fighting against the neighborhood. And sometimes kids just want to know that you care. Once they know that you care, authentically care, they will listen. And you just hope that during the time that they’re not with you, they make the right decisions. Because as long as they’re with you, you know that you can protect them and keep them from coming into contact with situations where they’ll make bad decisions,” Bell said.


Like many schools in Detroit, Burton International has begun to implement practices that help students mentally prepare for the day at school. Teachers recognize the importance of a safe classroom environment and have worked to provide a space for students to learn.


“We have a practice called Calm Classroom that focuses on mindfulness to get students to focus on today’s lesson. With Calm Classroom we teach our kids tools like yoga and mindfulness meditation and breathing to help them feel as well as communicate their emotions. So that’s the strategy that we use to get kids to focus on school even though they have other variables going on in their life that may distract them from being engaged in school or coming to school just to get away from home,” Bell said.


Programs like these work to improve the lives of students inside the classroom, but it also provides tactics that can be used outside of school.


However, not every student can be saved. Even if schools provide help to those in need, conditions that’ve been untreated or undiagnosed can easily take over a student’s life. According to Ricky Watson Jr., executive director of the National Juvenile Justice Network, those who fall through the cracks are more likely to end up in the school to prison pipeline.


“If you’re in the juvenile system, the odds that you have some mental health issues are much higher. As far as the help students receive, sometimes they could be required to take medication, go to doctor's visits, or attend individual or family therapy sessions. Every jurisdiction is different, but any decent juvenile system should have some component that looks to treat a child as a whole individual and offers resources to the student for their mental health needs as well,” Watson said.


Watson lamented that some schooling systems neglect to account for students' mental health and social emotional needs. Franklin High School in Livonia has zipped tied the hands of their students and forcibly removed students from school grounds and into police cars in front of their peers. Administration and security at the school conduct randomly selected searches that leave students feeling uncomfortable. Senior Halle Marie was subjected to this her freshman year at Franklin.


“It was my first year at the school and I had already been searched three times. From my experience, it’s typically all men performing the search. Vice principal Diponio and the school cop were in the room each time. They patted my legs down, made me take off my jacket, and took and searched my belongings. They went through my whole backpack too, dumping out and going through literally everything. I had to shake out my bra one time. If I had pants pockets I would’ve had to empty them too,” Marie said.


This treatment of students is allowed as a stop and search procedure that grants school officials the right to search students for illicit substances, only with reasonable cause. A 2017 article “How the School-to-Prison Pipeline Works” published by Justice Policy Institute states that “When schools have law enforcement on site, students are more likely to be arrested by police instead of discipline being handled by school officials. This leads to more kids being funneled into the juvenile justice system, which is both expensive and associated with a host of negative impacts on youth.”

Children’s Village, a juvenile detention center in Oakland County, is one example of a system working to do better for its youth. With a focus on recovery rather than punishment, Children’s Village dispels many stigmas about juvenile detention centers. Joseph Hall, the Chief of Treatment Services at Children’s Village, feels that nothing can be gained from punishing their residents. Hall instead believes that detention centers should focus on their residents’ needs and mindsets.


“It’s been shown time and time again that punishment alone doesn’t fix anything in the behavior of juvenile or adult offenders. They have to own some of their responsibility in changing their own behavior. That’s a big part of why we are a treatment facility. We are looking at long-term growth, and we aren’t looking at people to be perfect. We want to help those who come here so they can live in the community and have their needs met without hurting anyone else,” Hall said.


Children’s Village lives up to that idea through their restorative programs. Kids at Children’s Village are often given programs rather than sentences; to be released, the residents must complete a program that addresses why they are there.


“There's a company that we work with called the ‘Change Company’, and they make what's called our ‘Interactive journals’. Each program has a journal series we use and they complete one journal a month. So, just like homework in school every week, you have to complete certain pages of the journal, and they're based on cognitive behavioral therapy, motivational interviewing, things like that. Most of our programs have five core journals that revolve around things like family life, communication skills, why they’re there, etc. If you have some additional issues, however, you have to do that one as well. But that one you would work on individually with your therapist,” Hall said.

While additional journals do add to the length of a resident’s stay, Children’s Village also works to keep students motivated through incentives. Privilege programs have been implemented to boost the morale of residents. Listening to music, watching television, and playing video games are all a part of the program, but residents most valued privilege is time at home.


As of November 12 2020 the Children’s Village campus holds a juvenile detention center, buildings holding birth and death record data, veterans services, and an animal adoption services center. Few are used for residents, but the ones that do hold kids aren’t how people would imagine them to be. “The only building that has individual cell rooms or individual rooms is detention. The other buildings, we told them the outbuildings, all the residential programs, they’re cottages so they have dorm rooms and they can have four or five kids in a room. They’re almost like a fraternity or sorority house. There is a group living area, a group dining room, a recreational room in the basement, horseshoes and all kinds of games outside, barbecue pits and all those kinds of things. The dorms are not intimidating. It’s like how it would be if you went away for a camp at a college dorm,” Joseph Hall, the Chief of Treatment Services at Children’s Village, said.


“Covid has made it hard because the court won't let kids go home, but prior to COVID-19, after 30 days in the program, kids could start running passes back home. They’d start out with an overnight pass and could move up to a weekend pass. So, if you're on stage four or five, you could actually be home every weekend,” Hall said.

Staying at home works to build the residents' relationship with their family and helps to integrate them back into their community, and Hall feels that removing a child from their community should be avoided, that detention centers should be a last resort.

“The earlier that we can intervene between kids and families, that's the way to break the cycle of unhealthy behaviors that would otherwise put them in the system. The more programs and services that we can offer kids so that they never come into the system in the first place is great. The system does the best it can, but it’s a justice system and there’s a lot of hoops to jump through. Sometimes people get stuck in the system. So the way to prevent that is to never let them come in. The more diversion programs and community-based programs that we can divert kids into when they come to us, if they meet the requirements, is the best way to stop that,” Hall said.

Principal of Wylie E. Groves high school, Dr. Susan Smith, is another person who has advocated for the development of diversion programs for kids who have faced trouble with the law. Smith saw similar problems with the juvenile system in her old school district in Colerain Township, Ohio, and she worked with a group of people to create a diversionary court system to keep students out of detention centers and to lower the prison to pipeline syndrome.

“Students aged kindergarten to twelfth grade were able to divert their court appearances and their court documents to our portion of court. The program was meant to be restorative in nature instead of punitive. Instead of sending our truancy cases downtown to juvenile court, we heard their cases at a building in our township. The ultimate goal was to figure out why the students were absent instead of enacting a punitive measure for the absence. The program addressed some of the barriers keeping students from coming to school instead. In the process of hearing these cases, we heard that there were transportation, mental health, or financial issues at home. There were parents who were working third or night shifts and unable to get their kids up for school. There were substance abuse situations with both students and parents and their families. We found out a lot, and we connected those families to resources for whatever their barriers were,” Smith said.

Truancy charges are the most common school related reason for students to end up in detention centers. Not going to school is no longer a matter of not wanting to go, some simply cannot. Walking to school has become less common, and students have become more dependent on public buses or rides from parents for transportation. Bell explained that, when those options aren’t available, students are forced to choose between education and safety.


“I’ve had situations where I’ve had to take a knife or a carpet cutter from multiple young ladies. I didn’t suspend them because they were walking to school by themselves during the winter time when it’s very dark out in the morning. They had these weapons to protect themselves, not to hurt others. They would stay after school because they had an activity, but then they wouldn’t have transportation home, so they would have to walk home, in the dark in dangerous neighborhoods, by themselves,” Bell said.


While social workers in Detroit work with students to help find them shelter, providing safe transportation to and from school becomes a more difficult task as home situations become more unstable and some students are rejected by their own families.

“I see students come from unhealthy families. In some situations, students got kicked out because they’re eighteen. Just because you turn eighteen, that doesn’t make you an instant grown up. I’ve also had a lot of students who are gay or lesbian, and their parents don’t accept it so they get kicked out. In these situations we work to find a shelter for the students, ” Hatchett said.


Diversion programs help ameliorate these unhealthy environments and can provide resources to these families while working to keep students’ records clean. Students can work with their school, local police department and a magistrate from juvenile court to get the help they need without sacrificing their reputation. These second chances have been demonstrated to improve how kids see themselves, and those kids often make use of the opportunity they’ve been given.


The magistrate would say, ‘We're giving you this opportunity, you got your one freebie today. The next one's not a freebie.’ I think that helps deter a lot of students from making other poor choices because they don’t want to go to real court. They don’t want this on their record. Students would even come up to me when they were doing better. They'd ask me to tell the judge that they’ve been better,” Smith said.


Smith has observed no downsides to these diversionary programs as students are rarely seen in diversion court again, and along with low recidivism, diversionary court is less expensive than the juvenile court system and can allow students and families more privacy.


“We had a magistrate that the city gave us for free. She was able to come down from district court one day a week so we’d pull her from juvenile court downtown every Thursday. In doing a cost analysis, it actually cost less for families who didn’t have to go downtown, pay to park, and wait all day for their case to be heard. We just had one docket, where juvenile courts are going through many more cases than we are, so they would get behind. However, if students wanted a lawyer or attorney, they would have to go downtown,” Smith said. “The diversionary court actually saved families money in the long run because, when going downtown, you could sit there all day and have to pay lawyer fees. As a district we weren’t charged anything. We used an administrative center where they would hold board meetings for Colerain Township police officers, so they didn’t charge us to rent it even. We didn’t want to have the cases held at school because we didn’t want people to see the students coming in and out with their families. We thought that wouldn’t necessarily be fair, and so we used an offsite location, but they didn’t charge us to use it,” Smith said.


With diversion programs that are less expensive than going to court and give students a better future by preserving their record, why aren’t diversion programs used more today?


I think that the barrier for schools is that they don't know that diversion programs are even a possibility. Before I got involved, I didn't know that we could even host our own diversionary court. So I don't even know if people know that this is out there. The second biggest hurdle was getting a magistrate to be available one day a week to hear our cases because you're pulling them from downtown. Our magistrate had her boss agree to allow her to come to us once a week. If we were to start something in Oakland County, or for our district, I think those are the two biggest hurdles that would occur,” Smith said.


For kids struggling inside or outside of the juvenile system, diversion programs provide hope. Watson worries that many may not understand the inner workings of the juvenile system and how easy it is to get trapped in that system. Those who work to raise awareness and develop new systems ensure that these kids aren't forgotten by society.


“People aren’t aware of how easily young people find themselves caught up in a court situation or caught up with charges and having to deal with everything involved in being in the system. People also don’t realize how early that criminalization starts or understand how easy it can be to become licensed in the juvenile system and how hard it is to get yourself out of it,” Watson said. “But, these kids deserve to know that they are not the sum of their worst mistakes and that they are definitely not alone. There are people who are working really hard to try and improve opportunities for young people in the juvenile system.”


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