I have stared into the eyes of a 14-year-old child who committed murder, and it’s an experience that still shakes me, especially since his victim was a little girl even younger than he was.
He looked traumatized, revealing little emotion. And even though he pleaded guilty to second-degree murder, when I spoke to him, I didn’t hear the voice of a killer. I heard the mumbles of a confused boy who was the product of a toxic environment.
Every year around this time, I think about this young man and many of the young offenders that I have encountered in the field of youth rehabilitation. Among them, the phrase “back to school” means something totally different than new backpacks and school clothes. For youth reentering society after leaving juvenile detention facilities, how they’re greeted and treated when they return to school can mean the difference between regression and rehabilitation.
Each year, about 2.1 million children and teens are arrested in the U.S. Although many are quickly released, there are about 43,500 incarcerated minors in the country at any given moment, according to the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. Through my mentoring organization, the Choose Life Project, and my job with the re-entry program ECOP Memphis, I work to lower the youth and adult recidivism rates, often preparing incarcerated or recently incarcerated teens for their unique journey back to school.
To help these students, policymakers and educators must speak less and listen more. Because when I talk to young Memphians, they often tell me that they have no voice and that no one truly listens to them. This is one of the reasons why social media matters so much in youth culture — it’s where teens can broadcast their concerns.
On social media, it’s clear that children and teenagers are just as troubled as the adults around them by the rising homicide rates in Memphis — and cities across the country — and the violence in their communities.
The young people I have worked with have shared that they want their classes to cover more than academics; they want them to cover the issues that are relevant to their generation, such as gun violence, mental health, and criminal justice reform. They also want to do more than attend community outreach programs; they want to help design and run them. Importantly, they also want compassion from adults as they navigate high-crime neighborhoods where drugs are prevalent.
At some point, all children will explore risky behavior or make ill-informed decisions. And social media encourages some of these poor choices because it promotes instant gratification and discourages impulse control. To riff on a line by the rapper Drake (who grew up spending summers in Memphis), “Twitter fingers” turn to “trigger fingers” when online arguments escalate into school fights and sometimes even neighborhood shootouts.
In my work, I teach teens to combat impulsive behavior with de-escalation techniques, but we need such training as a regular part of curriculums so that students practice them weekly or even daily. Most incarcerated or formerly incarcerated individuals I work with have never taken an anger management class until a judge forced it upon them. What if we provided all students with these coping strategies proactively in a weekly course instead of retroactively in a court-ordered program? We could move the needle on youth crime and help formerly incarcerated youth, and distressed teens calm hot tempers with cool heads.
More after-school programs for high school students could also reduce youth crime and help formerly incarcerated students transitioning back into school. Youth crime spikes on school days between 2 and 6 p.m. because many students with working parents are unsupervised during this period. After-school sports and the arts provide outlets for some, but children not involved in athletics and the arts also need safe-havens. They need access to job training, college classes, tutoring, accessible community service, and event planning programs where they can design the kind of outreach that is most likely to appeal to their peers.
Providing more money for adults to work with teens after school will disrupt the crime prime time by creating more job opportunities for adults and more mentorship programs for teens.
I have worked with many young people over the past ten years, and so often, I hear them say things like “I didn’t know” or “No one ever told me that” or “No one ever asked me.” Our teens are hungry to learn, engage, and share, and while I have great admiration for teachers, we can’t rely on overworked educators alone to be our students’ sounding boards.
Many parents are equally overburdened and in need of community support of their own. For example, the 14-year-old boy I worked with who killed the little girl was being raised by a parent struggling with severe mental health issues.
All too often, I’ve seen that family dysfunction is a precursor to delinquency, which is why incarcerated and formerly incarcerated children and teens need more life skills classes and mentors to coach them through the obstacle course of adolescence.
And as they enter back to school in August and throughout the year, formerly incarcerated youth need educators and support staff willing to listen and willing to see them not for their crimes but for their courage to atone and begin again.
R.L. Thompson is a father of two and a community organizer who started the Choose Life Project to help lower the incarceration rate and support formerly incarcerated individuals as they navigate life after lockup.