Three years before I landed in Aspen in 2015, six students at my high school –William G. Enloe High School in Raleigh, North Carolina – were charged with disorderly conduct. The arrests occurred following an incident that unfolded at the school: students took part in an end-of-year prank involving water balloons.
As a freshman during this event, I saw my high school swiftly become a “school-to-prison pipeline,” and labeled as such in the media. This change inspired me to spend my high school career working on efforts to dismantle this statewide pipeline and engage in service opportunities with redemptive and restorative missions. Enloe High is home to a diverse blend of students. As a graduating senior in 2015, I had the opportunity to study and reverse this daunting trend affecting North Carolina youth in the juvenile justice system. My biggest opportunity during my senior year was to address this issue through the Bezos Scholars Program.
Upon arriving at the Aspen Ideas Festival in 2015, I was immediately blown away by the level of professionalism and passion for change exhibited by notable speakers from all different walks of life. Given my deep interest in criminal justice and rehabilitative programs such as Teen Court, a diversion program specific to juveniles with misdemeanor charges, I was drawn towards discussions of politics and social justice. A panel discussion on “The Law and Campus Rape,” led by Judge Nancy Gertner, followed by an evening seminar with Clifton Kinnie on police brutality and systematic targeting of minorities in our state criminal-justice systems heightened my interests and exposed the necessity of reform within my own community.
North Carolina is one of only two states in the US that prosecutes 16- and 17-year-olds as adults in the criminal justice system. This, combined with the presence of more than 800 law enforcement officers on school campuses in the state of North Carolina has led to a “school-to-prison pipeline,” arising from misdemeanor offenses such as the one that occurred at Enloe High in May 2013. In Aspen, when Clifton Kinnie shared personal accounts of increased policing of non-violent offenses committed by juveniles, I realized the growing number of misdemeanor cases including simple assault, affray, drug/alcohol possession, and property damage referred to Teen Court, was not a coincidence, but the effect of outdated legislation and zero-tolerance school policies for misbehavior.
In fact, during the 2014-2015 fiscal year, North Carolina schools reported 207,943 short-term suspensions, 1,085 long-term suspensions, and 42 expulsions state-wide. During this same timeframe, 94 percent of school-based delinquency complaints in North Carolina were for misdemeanor offenses, such as assault, possession of drugs or a weapon, and trespassing while truant.
It was time for my educator, Kevin Shuford, and I to advocate on behalf of students bearing the brunt of these archaic policies and increasing suspension, expulsion, and truancy rates. Taking up the Bezos Scholars Program challenge to create a Local Ideas Festival (LIF), Mr. Shuford and I aimed to inspire legislation and public discourse around the systematic limitations faced by North Carolina’s juvenile and adult prisoner population. We hoped to begin to dismantle the “school-to-prison pipeline,” by encouraging greater contribution of state resources for diversion programs.
The framework of our LIF, Beyond the Bars, mirrored the Aspen Ideas Festival, featuring panel discussions and significant audience engagement. Proudly, we opened the doors of the State Bar Association in Raleigh on April 16, 2016 as a beautiful backdrop for our Festival. Participants at Beyond the Bars watched a documentary, created by the Duke Center for Documentary Studies and Youth Justice Project. They enjoyed monologue performances and panel discussions on prison conditions, mental health in state prisons, and reform movements. They browsed informational booths from multiple organizations working with the criminal justice system in a variety of ways. Inmates in a state correctional facility art-therapy program created art, and we highlighted a recap of our school book-drive raised over 100 books, textbooks, and study materials for juvenile diversion programs run by a local non-profit.
Allayne Thomas, a junior at Enloe High and Community Outreach Director for Beyond the Bars, served as the panel moderator for reform movements. “At first I was very nervous,” she says, “but the opportunity to lead a discussion on changes that would affect some of the most vulnerable sections of our population made me more aware of the issues in our community and even more driven to solve them,” Thomas said.
The inaugural Beyond the Bars garnered 75 attendees from area schools and organizations, local government, and even the NC General Assembly. In my eyes, it was a huge success that continued after my graduation through our small founding team at Enloe.
“I want to continue to grow our program,” says Joey Johnson, a sophomore on the team. “I saw the impact it had this year, and I know we can always play a larger role in serving our community. Prison reform is an issue that is all too often ignored, especially in North Carolina, and Beyond the Bars gives us a chance to take up that role and make a change.”
Already, Beyond the Bars has measureable impact. One of the high school teachers in attendance, Tara Sivamani, is working with the LIF team to discuss ways she can “incorporate behavioral learning programs into the classroom.” The inspiring discourse and presentations, and the moving works of art created by inmates, served to encourage community members to actively be a part of the change – and for school representatives to re-evaluate the factors behind increased suspension rates and push for alternative responses like restorative justice.
Per recommendation from youth attendees, the Beyond the Bars team plans to explore issues including mass incarceration, recidivism, and the death penalty in future years and district representative Ms. Rosa Gill has offered the opportunity of increased funding to support our efforts. Though I graduated in 2016, I plan to support and consult as much as I can from UNC Chapel Hill, where I attend school. With our newfound connections, we hope to continue to erode the “school-to-prison pipeline” in North Carolina.
Take an inside look at Beyond the Bars:
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This article was originally printed in the November 2016 issue of the Aspen Institute IDEAS magazine.