Address by Patrick Keenan-Devlin: Why all the violence and what can we do about it?

Piper Hall, Loyola University (Monday, October 2, 2017)

I would like to attempt to answer the question, “Why do youths resort to violence?” through the lens of 18-year-old Aiden. As an 18-year-old, just a couple of months shy of walking the stage to receive his high school diploma, Aiden was arrested for bringing a gun to school.

Despite the fact that the gun was unloaded, stashed at the bottom of his backpack, and only discovered in his backpack after being searched by school security officers after a scuffle with another student. Aiden was arrested, taken to jail, and charged as an adult with a Class 4 Felony which carries a minimum sentence of 3 years.

Pretty stupid, right? Who does that? Why on earth would Aiden decide that it was a good idea to bring a gun to school? Why on earth did he even have a gun in his possession?

It is utterly unfathomable, I am guessing, for those of us here in this room to imagine engaging in this kind of behavior as teenagers. And unthinkable that any of our own children or grandchildren might somehow find themselves in Aiden’s situation. Am I right? So that is the first realization with which we must come to grips with. We must understand that there are entire communities of people living within our larger community for whom guns and violence is simply part of their everyday life. We are now seeing the 2nd and 3rd generation of young people who are emerging from the confluence of the war on drugs, the militarization of police, mandatory sentences, stop-and-frisk, zero-tolerance school disciplinary policies, a dearth of legitimate economic opportunities, a booming illegal drug market, and systemic racism. These are kids who have lost friends and relatives to prison AND gun violence. These are kids who don’t talk about “when they grow up” but “IF they grow up.” When I think about these kids’ lives, kids like Aiden, I am surprised that there isn’t more gun violence.

Kind of overwhelming to think about, right?

I am not a mind reader, but I think I have a pretty good guess what many of you might be thinking right now. “Where are the parents?!?” “Why don’t they do a better job of raising their children?” “Why don’t they teach their children to stay away from the drug trade? And to stay away from guns?” Well I can tell you, after years of working very closely with parents of children who become entangled in the criminal justice system, these parents care for their children just as deeply as all of us care for our own children and grandchildren. Ta-Nehisi Coates describes African-American parental love in the following way: “Black people love their children with a kind of obsession. You are all we have, and you come to us endangered. I think we would like to kill you ourselves before seeing you killed by the streets that America made.”

It is easy to fall into the trap of blaming the parents, but I have come to realize that that simply is not true and grossly unfair. And it lets us - all of us who knowingly and unknowingly contribute to the social construct of white supremacy and racism - off the hook.

Black children do not behave any differently than their white peers. But they are watched differently, seen differently, disciplined differently, and punished differently than white children. And these differences in treatment start when children are very young. Studies show that preschool teachers spend a disportionate amount of time monitoring the behavior of kids of color compared with white kids. Black students are disproportionately suspended and expelled from schools. Black neighborhoods are policed more heavily. When stopped by police, blacks are more likely to be searched than whites. Blacks face a higher conviction rate and consistently receive stiffer sentences. The black experience of reentering society after incarceration is fraught with discriminatory practices. Our celebration over “ban the box” in which employers can no longer ask applicants if they have a criminal record was short lived when a study released shortly after the passage of “ban the box” showed that since employers can no longer ask if an applicant has a background as part of the initial interview, they now assume that all black applicants have a criminal background record resulting in fewer interviews for black applicants. So, even if you have avoided the pitfalls of court-involvement, if you are black, our society assumes that you are criminal.

Like 90% of Moran Center clients, Aiden is black, and because of his black body he has been marginalized by a society that has normalized and glorified whiteness.

And then, of course, Aiden is YOUNG. All youth are immature. In fact, by definition, being young means you are still developing. You are not adult yet. You are practicing to become an adult. Brain science has proven this to be irrefutable! But truthfully any of us who have been around teenagers and even kids in their early 20s - like all of you - don’t need research to know that teens are prone to making mistakes and predisposed to engage in risky behavior. It is literally how their brains are wired. But in our risk-averse, fearful society, we have essentially criminalized teenager behavior.

Aiden was 18 years old. Barely old enough to vote. Not yet old enough to rent a car. Not yet old enough to purchase alcohol. But old enough to be tried as an adult.

Trauma is also contributing to our culture of violence. We have a generation of kids living with chronic trauma. There is no “post” to living in poverty, to witnessing violence, to witnessing domestic abuse, to being exposed to drug use. The kids we work with everyday are very adaptive - they have developed well-honed skills that are perfectly appropriate for their environment. Every-day interactions trigger impulses that, while very appropriate given their trauma, can land them in the principal’s office. or in jail or, worse, in the hospital or morgue.

Something triggered young Aiden to possess a gun. Being familiar with where he lives, I could certainly understand that he felt like his personal safety was at risk walking to and from school. When a classmate confronted him, something triggered him to act aggressively. And when confronted by school safety officers, something triggered Aiden to call the officer a “rent-a-cop,” which, as you can imagine, escalated the altercation and ultimately led to the search of his backpack. All of these trauma-informed impulses, combined with his race and his age, created a situation in which Aiden found himself locked up in Cook County Jail.

Prior to being incarcerated, Aiden had already faced several adverse, traumatic experiences in his young life. While both parents (no longer married) were in his life, these relationships were strained and Aiden floated between the two households without a lot of structure or routine to his daily life. Money was always scarce. His father had a history of drug abuse and both of his parents had criminal records. From the fourth grade on, Aiden had consistently tested below the 25th percentile for reading and math. He had hearing and vision issues that were undiagnosed and impaired his ability to learn. He also had a speech impairment. He was often bullied by other children. When he was in 8th grade, Aiden’s mother requested that he be evaluated for special education services but the request was denied.

Aiden took summer school before starting high school in the hopes of getting off to a strong start. However he was accused of stealing a bicycle from the school property and was placed on social probation for his first semester of high school. This meant he was banned from the school at the end of the school day and prohibited from participating in any school-related activities. As a football player, this was devastating. As a new freshman trying to get a fresh start, the system was already starting to push him out by banishing him from any opportunities to build connections and engagement.

Aiden’s academic struggles persisted. He was frequently absent or tardy. His frustration in the classroom led to him alternating between withdrawing and acting out. But he did continue to try. He always got A’s in PE and in Art and in Business Management. He demonstrated great resilience in spite of his challenges. He cared about graduating from high school. And he was so close until that fateful day in April when he was arrested for bringing a gun to school.

At the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center, 65-70% of detainees have at least one diagnosable mental health disorder, 70% have experienced a traumatic event, 48% function below their academic grade level, 30% have a diagnosed learning disability, and 30% have a history of abuse prior to incarceration. The Moran Center believes that we need to stop punishing kids who have had punishing lives. Behind each of those startling statistics is a story like Aiden’s.

So given all of Aiden’s “risk” factors - being black, young, having learning disorders and several adverse childhood experiences - it would seem nearly a miracle if he had been able to beat the odds and not find himself entangled in drugs, violence and police-involvement. The cards were stacked against him. But Aiden’s time in prison was not - is not - going to “reform” Aiden. Aiden needed - needs - help, not incarceration.

Aiden deserved equal justice as much as anyone. But he also needed to be protected. He had the full weight of our state baring down on him. He was ill-equipped, alone and frankly did not stand a chance in having his voice heard.

These are the kids that I have been honored to serve throughout my career at the Moran Center.

What is the Moran Center model?

The Moran Center is working to disrupt the school-to-prison pipeline, the PRE-school-to-prison pipeline, the foster care-to-prison pipeline, or any pipeline that funnels kids out of our community and into incarceration or other institutionalized care. We serve all Evanston children age 21 and under and their families. What makes our model unique is that, along with legal representation, we provide children and families with a dedicated social worker. Our social workers, working in close coordination with our legal team, help youth and families recognize social and emotional challenges at home, in school, or in social interaction with others. The Social Work Services Program has the capacity to provide outreach, case management, short-term crisis intervention, and individual, family and group counseling. Through the Moran Center’s integrated programs, we are able serve our clients’ needs not only in the courtroom, but with the family, at school and in the community.

Our legal team provides comprehensive legal representation of young people charged with felonies and misdemeanors. Most of our cases are litigated out of the Second Municipal District Courthouse of Cook County (Skokie Courthouse).

In 2010, the Moran Center launched the Special Education Legal Advocacy (SELA) Project with the goal of further stemming the school-to-prison pipeline. Today, the SELA Project serves all low-income families in Evanston struggling to access educational services – supporting children transitioning from preschool to kindergarten, children with autism struggling to make yearly progress in middle school, or youth already caught in the criminal justice system.

Of course, we would like to prevent youth from ever becoming entangled in the maze of the school discipline system or the criminal justice system. We run several proactive, preventative programs to provide early interventions and address small issues early so they don’t become big issues down the road.

We partner with local preschools to educate parents about educational rights and encourage parents to advocate for their children when they enter the school system. We have alternative-to-discipline programs for kids as early as 4th grade in which our social work team goes into the schools to work with kids who have been identified as being at risk for school discipline or police-involvement. At the City of Evanston administrative hearings, we advocate for young people charged with small possessions of weed. We help them avoid expensive fines and offer counseling and community hours as a way to divert them from court-involvement. Our Project Bridge program facilitates sessions between disconnected youth and officers from the Evanston Police Department. This program uses restorative peace circles to build trust and improve communications between officers and youth. We strongly believe that our proactive and preventative programs are critical to creating systemic and sustainable change.

And we also help individuals who have criminal records in their past that hinder them from pursuing opportunities and achieving success as adults. We run an Expungement & Sealing Help Desk at the Skokie Courthouse every Tuesday and Thursday. Each year we help over 600 adults clear their criminal records, removing barriers to education, employment and housing. We also run a “Certificate of Rehabilitation” program which has helped nearly 400 adults with non-expungeable records obtain a clean slate certification so they can seek employment in healthcare and other fields from which they have been banned.

At the beginning of 2017, I, along with the Moran Center Board of Directors, launched a long-term strategy of creating a “Restorative Justice City” which includes initiatives such as creating a school-based civil legal clinic, expanding access to mental health services, and launching a community-based restorative justice court. These strategic initiatives positions the Moran Center and the City of Evanston to become a model of how restorative practices can create a more just, merciful and peaceful community. We have our work cut out for us, but I am hopeful that we can effect change and provide ALL kids with hopeful futures.

You can read more about the Moran Center in the brochures that have been placed at your tables. I encourage you to visit our website, sign up for our newsletter, and follow us on Facebook and Twitter. By signing up for our newsletter, you will receive information about these events. We would love to see you at one of our upcoming events.

So what can you do?

When asked this question, I often defer to the 4 guidelines that one of my heroes, Bryan Stevenson lays out.

1. Get proximate. “There is power in proximity.” Volunteering at schools, soup kitchens and community centers can provide experiences that take you out of your “bubble.”

2. Change the narrative - “disrupt the ideology of white supremacy.” Become an outspoken advocate against racism. Understand systemic racism. Watch 13th, read The New Jim Crow, read Between The World and Me. Get Woke! Stay Woke! And get others woke!

3. Get uncomfortable. Get out of your comfort zone. Give of your time and talents in a way that goes beyond casual dabbling - get invested. Give financial support beyond writing a check for an amount that doesn’t cause you stop and think. Give to a cause that you feel passionate about in an amount that “kind of hurts.” Dig deep.

4. Remain hopeful - “you cannot be a change agent without hope.” Don’t become overwhelmed by the enormity of the issues that create inequalities and inequities. Celebrate small victories and look for ways to effect incremental change.

Patrick Keenan-Devlin leads the James B. Moran Center for Youth Advocacy, which provides low income Evanston youth and their families with integrated legal and social work services to improve their quality of life at home, at school, and within the Evanston community: http://moran-center.org/