Transcription of the episode “School behind bars: Meeting the needs of traumatized kids”

[00:00:15] Amy H-L: I’m Amy Halpern-Laff.

[00:00:16] Jon M: And I’m Jon Moscow. Welcome to Ethical Schools. Our guest today is Melissa Svigelj-Smith, graduate fellow and PhD candidate at University of California at Santa Cruz. Ms. Svigelj-Smith was an educator in Cleveland, Ohio, public high schools for two decades and taught high school students at the Cuyahoga County Juvenile Detention Center during four of those years, which we’d especially like to discuss. Welcome, Melissa! 

[00:00:42] Melissa S : Thank you so much for having me. I’m delighted. 

[00:00:45] Amy H-L: Would you tell us a little bit about the young people at the juvenile detention center where you taught? 

[00:00:52] Melissa S : Yes, I’d be happy to. And I’m only sorry that I am not able to offer their voices themselves and that I have to act as a mediator. But the young people arrive, often traumatized from the entire incarceration experience in addition to other traumas that they’ve experienced in their neighborhoods, in their local schools. And then they also arrive very hopeful for their futures and very willing to work as much as they can on that, getting through some of their high school courses and earning some credits and getting caught up. And I have found them to be extremely grateful to have an opportunity to work towards their educational goals.

[00:01:42] Amy H-L: What was the average stay of a student at the center? 

[00:01:47] Melissa S : Right. So there are definitely extremes at both ends, but on average, while I was there, it was under a month. I believe it was around 25 days, but currently there are different things happening at that particular detention center. And from what I understand the stays have been longer in recent years, but when I was there the average was around three weeks.

However, the students that I worked with were older students that were there and their cases tended to be a little more serious, that they were there. And often those students did end up staying a little bit longer than the average, but there were definitely extremes at both ends where sometimes a student would be in class for a few hours and then he would go for a court appearance and I’d never see him again.

[00:02:35] Jon M: Were most of these students, students who are sort of awaiting hearings or trials, or these students who had been found guilty or responsible for an action and were in with a sentence? 

[00:02:47] Melissa S : Right. And that’s an important clarification. So the students that I worked with were there pending outcomes of their particular cases or allegations. So in juvenile court there aren’t these same sorts of, I guess in an adult court, you would call them protections. But in juvenile court they consider this like a right to a speedy trial to actually be as something that works against fairness for young people, because they want to give the young people enough time to assess their situations and to work with them and to investigate what’s going on in their lives. So a lot of times there aren’t the same sorts of demands that there would be in an adult situation where they would need to sign some kind of waiver to speed up the process. So the process can be very long, especially if the courts have a lot of cases going on. And so the young people there are not convicted of anything necessarily at all. It’s usually a temporary placehold, kind of like an adult jail, but structured very differently, with juveniles and young people in mind. 

[00:04:01] Jon M: How are the classes structured, the educational program?

[00:04:04] Melissa S : I arrived there a year after my principal that I served under during my four years there. And prior to his arrival, the high school at the detention center was structured very similarly to people’s ideas of high schools in general, where there were different subject teachers and the students transitioned among the teachers throughout the day. When my principal arrived, he reorganized the structure to make it more similar to some of these successful alternative educational opportunities within the district. And so rather than having the students move throughout the day, the students were assigned to one teacher who could get to know them very well, get to know their educational background very well, hopefully get to know their out-of-school likes and dislikes very well and get to know them very well as people over there, so we were in what are called “self-contained classrooms.” And so that means the students were with us their entire time during the school day, and rather than go around to different experts, that one instructor was charged with bringing experts to the students in that classroom as needed through a blended learning environment of online courses and in- classroom instruction led by the teacher and then also by, we had paraprofessionals there to help. And we also had intervention specialists to work with our students with special educational needs. 

[00:05:30] Jon M: You’ve mentioned the School of One as an approach that was used. What is that and how did it work?

[00:05:38] Melissa S : Right. The School of One was part of the vision of the principal of who ended up being in charge of the school at the detention center. And so the school at the detention center is still part of the CMSD district because it’s located within the city proper. So even though it’s a county detention center and services students from multiple school districts throughout the county, we’re still affiliated with CMSD, the Cleveland school district.

Our principal had this vision of schools with alternative educational opportunities for students who weren’t necessarily being successful in a sort of traditional high school environment. And he refers to those that as a Schools of One, and that’s an emphasis on the individual, sort of catering and programming for individual students to try to ensure that they can be successfully graduated from high school.

And it incorporates the same sort of environment that we have at the juvenile detention center, where students are in self-contained classrooms with an assigned teacher for a certain number of hours. But also, instead of having to have guidance counselors, teachers are able to provide those services. And then you hire social workers and additional help, like additional people, additional roles to support the students. And he coordinates all kinds of activities outside of the School of One to expose students to different opportunities, find opportunities that they might otherwise not experience. 

Schools of One are all over the district and often located in traditional larger high schools, but they’re also located in sort of unique places as well. There is one School of One where the students might go to school in the morning or in the afternoon, and then the other part of the day is spent learning about rowing crew and sailing, and they are paid to work at that particular place for part of the day. There’s also one at an LGBTQ+ center in the city, which I thought was really exciting because they saw a need for students with those identities as being pushed out of schools and they saw a need for them to have a safe place where they could be in school and feel supported.

[00:07:51] Amy H-L: How did the communications work between the students’ high schools and the detention center program in order to maintain some continuity for the students, both in terms of their academic lives and their social emotional needs?

[00:08:09] Melissa S : Right. So that was always a challenge, perhaps not necessarily getting academic records, but definitely a challenge with having their social emotional needs met because of the very diverse resources in the district. Whereas some resources were given very heavily to certain schools and others not so much. So records wise, if the student was from Cleveland, we were able to access their records because we’re all part of the CMSD system. So we get access to students’ records in Cleveland. It was extremely challenging when students were coming to us from charter schools, because charter schools in my anecdotal experience were very, very difficult to get records from. They were not responsive or they were very, very long in getting a response. And so it was really difficult to try to create one transcript for the student with a combination of everything that that student had accomplished in multiple different places. Because a lot of times the charter schools were not responsive at all, and it’s really difficult. And then there are also situations where students would leave, supposedly to go to a charter school, but the charter school is not keeping track. And so they would end up nowhere and not in school. And unfortunately, often would end up back with me at the detention center. 

So for the social emotional learning aspect, because of the diversity of resources, we often recommended that students attend a School of One if they were interested and if they wanted to because of the extra supports that were available to them through school as part of the way that the school is designed. 

And then if students did not take that route and ended up in other places or in other districts, what I found to be most effective for those students was if there was a really strong mentorship program established at that school that could connect that student with someone who would continue to follow up with them for a certain amount of time and just make sure that they’re able to get back into the flow of things. 

As far as guidance counselors, we did have a call to action with a local community group my second or third year at the detention center because the guidance counselors or the local schools were not being properly trained on how to accept the transcripts from the detention center, how to properly read them or assess them. So we had a call to action, and asked our superintendent, who is referred to as the CEO of the district, to offer some better training around the issues that students confront, not just academically, but socially and emotionally, when they leave the detention center to return to their neighborhood schools and someone was hired in a position over the guidance counselors at that time and was, was designated as the one that was going to implement the program to better educate guidance counselors in other districts and implement some better tracking of them and some better understandings of their transcripts. And so I can offer one example that I expressed that the call to action, where a young person had taken and passed the exact same semester of Algebra 1 three times because guidance counselors were not requesting updated transcripts. So we’re not following the student through his multiple educational experiences. Obviously that can be extremely frustrating for the students and make them want to give up. I mean the same semester, three times! I don’t want one semester of algebra. So having to do it three times would mortify me. No offense. The Algebra Project sounds amazing, but for me and math, yeah, that’s not something I’d want to do three times.

[00:11:51] Jon M: Speaking of social emotional needs, what were some of the ways at the detention center that teachers and people in the educational program were able to offer social emotional support to the students? 

That’s a great question. So built into our schedule was specific time designated that the teacher would lead a whole class environment, even though they’re very small, whole class environments, specific social emotional skills or needs, that would be useful for the students. And we had a lot of professional development about it and a lot of access to resources about it. And so I had my own little program that I felt would best meet the needs of my students and it was based on their interests. Since I am an educator with a certain identity that didn’t always align with the identity of my students, I often integrated outside voices that represented more of where they were coming from, what they looked like and interests that they had. It may have been someone from sports or someone like, lots of TED talks from people like Bryan Stevenson and prosecutors and oh, all over the spectrum, just giving them different perspectives and ideas and ways of healing some of the trauma that they experienced. And I also wrote a grant that was funded through the Novo foundation, which is Jennifer Buffett’s organization. So for two years, I was able to bring in, after partnering with the local community organization spaces, I was able to bring in art workshops that were led by professional artists, local and national, I actually even had someone from Italy come in and lead our workshops with the students. And I found it to be very therapeutic for them and also allowed them an alternative outlet for feelings that they were working through. 

[00:13:40] Amy H-L: Were the staff able to be culturally responsive to the students and their families?

[00:13:47] Melissa S : As much as possible. Yes. And of course there are varying degrees among staff members because we all have different backgrounds and experiences and pedagogical influences, but I felt that I was. My principal was very supportive of offering the access to alternative resources and using whatever funding you had available to offer resources outside of sort of traditional types of curriculum.

The unfortunate part of it all though, was that while I was teaching there, we were still heavily invested in high stakes testing in Ohio, and we still have high stakes testing in Ohio for graduation. So there were times where we had to stick to a very rigid curriculum so that students would have an opportunity to take those tests and graduate from high school.

[00:14:37] Amy H-L: Did you have any interaction with the students’ families? 

[00:14:41] Melissa S : Yes. Yes. Very coalitional. Definitely. Their families, I have found to be very supportive. Of course they were always exceptions because other things were going on and families found it difficult to be as supportive as they want it to be. And there were also a lot of students, there’s a connection that other research has documented between the foster care system and the juvenile detention system. So we definitely had young people in foster care as well, but I even had foster parents who were actively involved in trying to help the student that they were charged with and caring for. So even lots of alternatives, sort of kindred relationships and lots of support for the young people from their communities and families for them while they were there. And because many of the parents, even though there’s a lot of transition going on in their lives because of the racist, classist, segregationist sorts of structures that exist in the city, they managed, I was able to have coalitions with parents with records that they had carried throughout their child’s schooling in order to establish the student did indeed qualify for special educational services. And I was able to have students reevaluated and given proper Individual Education Programs and placed back with those special services because parents had kept those records over the years for their children.

[00:16:24] Amy H-L: When students were ready to transition back to their high schools, what kinds of services were provided and which do you think were the most helpful? 

[00:16:34] Melissa S : Services definitely varied across the county, but definitely services that involved strong mentorship programs, especially mentors that were able to relate to the young people on multiple levels and not just on an education level. Those programs seem to be the most effective when students felt that they were connected with someone and had someone to support them as they continued their education. 

[00:17:02] Jon M: What did mentorship look like in your experience? What kinds of things are considered mentorship? 

[00:17:08] Melissa S : Right. So the best ones I would say were ones that are models, something like our Ginn Academy, where there are a set of young people assigned to a specific adult mentor who stays with them during their school day, works with them outside of school, after school, before school, and is assigned to be there for them. Someone that kids need. 

[00:17:32] Jon M: And did these tend to be, do you know whether it was structured so that it was over a period of time, like a couple of years?

[00:17:39] Melissa S : That particular one could go the entire four years, their high school experience, or it might [inaudible] their grade level.

[00:17:47] Jon M: I think you currently are teaching a course around ethics and education. How would you describe some of the ethical issues in the education of the young people at the detention center? And werre these ethical issues that differred from those in the regular district schools, or do they overlap?

[00:18:05] Melissa S : Certainly. Yes. All of those. They overlapped. They were different. Exactly. Like the box at the bottom. So one of the tensions for educators, especially educators who have a more liberatory approach to education or philosophy or outlook, is trying to implement changes and not repeat patterns, oppressive patterns while simultaneously operating within a system that is oppressive and recognizing that you can’t just blow it up. So it’s sort of always on my mind. It was always on my mind then, too. How can I give these students access to the best of everything that they need in this moment and advocate for that while simultaneously not reinscribing this idea that the detention center is a great place for children? And certain the nightmare ethical dilemma that haunts me is I’m actually expanding the carceral system, because you’re advocating for things for young people that are in this particular moment and have this particular need, but last thing you want to do is advocate to a point where you’ve actually expanded incarceration and encouraged people to send children to detention, because it’s a horrible place and children should never be in a detention center or in anything that resembles a prison. It’s not a place for children, but at the same time, you know, while I’m there with those children, of course, I want to be able to offer them the best that I can.

[00:19:48] Jon M: And I think you’ve mentioned some of the larger ethical issues about where policy makers’ priorities are, and not being with young people. Could you expand on that a little bit? 

[00:20:00] Melissa S : Certainly. The students I work with right now here at UCSC are far more brilliant than I was at their stage in my education. So they recognize easily that education is a political act, that it is not a neutral act. And so they are already thinking about the way these larger systems impact things like schools and local communities. For me, it took me a little longer to get the big picture as I was progressing through my early years as a teacher.

But what I found to be true is that the priorities of those who are in leadership positions in the community, both as leaders politically and in the business community, do not prioritize certain young people in the community and particularly in certain neighborhoods that have been heavily divested from and in poverty and continue to be lead-laden and have low tree canopy.

Of course, meanwhile, the city has been exposed nationally through the Republican National Convention, for which the city received a $15 million grant so that the visitors to the city could be kept safe while it was going on. Recently, we also had the NBA finals there. These experiences are great for the city, but what about the young people who live there every day? I just want to know where that grant money is for them and who is focusing on their needs. 

And there’s also something going on in the city right now where they’re trying to build a new jail because the conditions at the current one are horrific. And rather than invest that $500 or $550 million in the communities that are distressing people and traumatizing people and causing all kinds of social issues, they want to build a new jail and they think that’ll solve the problem. It’s not going to change the system or their thinking or their ethical priorities. 

[00:22:00] Amy H-L: You’ve been a strong advocate for ending the adjudication of young people to adult jails. What happens when these students are in those environments? 

[00:22:12] Melissa S : Great question. So I just want to clarify for people, because it gets a little little tricky, that there’s something called transfer practices that occur in all 50 states, even though all available evidence indicates that these transfer practices that are practiced by prosecutors do a lot more harm than good. Transfer laws or transfer practices mean that a child who is 17 or younger is accused of a crime or accused of an act or some kind of alleged behavior. And rather than leaving that case within the juvenile system, the prosecutor decides to charge the child as if the child was an adult when they committed whatever alleged act.

And so they remove the child from the juvenile system, from the juvenile courts, from the juvenile facility and they place the child in an adult jail. And so sometimes it’s called a bind over, transfer practices, adjudication. In any case, the child lands in the adult jail, and this happens to thousands of children every year. And in Cuyahoga County, in particular, we have an extremely high rate of using this process, the highest in the state and high nationally as well. When the child’s removed from the juvenile facility and placed in the adult jail, they have no access to any educational opportunities at all. And many of the children, as we know from all kinds of studies, and many people who are incarcerated often qualify for services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which passed in 1975 under a different acronym. Since then young people, even if they are incarcerated, should be receiving services through age 21 federally, and some states they extended all the way to 22. So anyone that is in an adult jail, ages 21 or 22 and under, and qualifies for services under the IDEA, should be receiving services in that adult jail, if they have not graduated from high school. And as we know, many people who are incarcerated, still need to graduate from high school, especially at that age. So when they’re not receiving services, those local county officials and personnel are violating those young people’s civil rights. A lot of my recent work has been around trying to raise awareness around that issue. 

Again, I have this ethical dilemma between wanting to stop an un just practice and not wanting to expand carceral systems. I want it to be a potential means or I think it might be a potential means to stop the education of young people or the bind over of young people to the adult system. But what I don’t want to happen is that jails start building little schools inside of them for young people. Rather, I would prefer that they abolished cash bail systems so they’re not holding people unnecessarily for ridiculously long just because they don’t have financial means. And also just stopped sending young people to jail.

[00:25:13] Jon M: That’s very powerful. Is there anything that we haven’t asked about or discussed that you’d like to mention?

[00:25:19] Melissa S : It’s a tremendous honor to speak with both of you. And I feel really privileged to have had the opportunity to work with the young people and families. 

[00:25:29] Jon M: Thank you very much, Melissa Svigelj-Smith of University of California at Santa Cruz.

[00:25:35] Melissa S : Thank you so much for having me.

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