Three years before I landed in Aspen, six students at my high school, Enloe High, in Raleigh, North Carolina, were charged with disorderly conduct. The arrests followed an incident in which students took part in an end-of-year prank involving water balloons.
As a freshman, I saw my high school swiftly get labeled in the media a part of the state’s “school-to-prison pipeline.” This inspired me to spend my high-school career working on efforts to dismantle the statewide pipeline and to engage in service opportunities with redemptive and restorative missions. Enloe High is home to a diverse blend of students; when I was a student there (I have since entered the University of North Carolina), I had the chance to study and work to reverse this daunting trend, which affects youth across the state’s juvenile-justice system. My biggest opportunity to address this issue, though, was with the Bezos Scholars Program.
On arriving at the 2015 Aspen Ideas Festival, I was blown away by the level of professionalism and passion for change exhibited by 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 to the panels on politics and social justice. A discussion on “The Law and Campus Rape,” led by the former federal district judge Nancy Gertner, was followed by an evening seminar with student activist Clifton Kinnie on police brutality and the systematic targeting of minorities in state criminal-justice systems. Both sessions exposed the necessity of reform within my own community.
North Carolina is one of only two states in the United States 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, has led to the school-to-prison pipeline that the misdemeanors at Enloe High first made me aware of. When Kinnie shared personal accounts of the increased policing of nonviolent offenses committed by juveniles, I realized that the growing number of misdemeanor cases referred to Teen Court—including simple assault, drug or alcohol possession, and property damage—was not a coincidence. It was the effect of outdated legislation and zero-tolerance school policies for misbehavior.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 statewide. During this same period, 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 to advocate on behalf of students bearing the brunt of these archaic policies and the increasing rates of suspension, expulsion, and truancy. Taking up the Bezos Scholars Program challenge to create a Local Ideas Festival, my educator, Kevin Shuford, and I aimed to inspire legislation and public discourse around the institutional limitations faced by North Carolina’s juvenile and adult prisoner populations. We hoped to begin to dismantle the school-to-prison pipeline by encouraging greater contributions of state resources to diversion programs.
Motivated by the Bezos Scholars Program, in April 2016 we proudly opened the doors of Raleigh’s State Bar Association, which made a beautiful and fitting backdrop for our own festival. The framework for the event, “Beyond the Bars,” mirrored the Aspen Ideas Festival, featuring panel discussions and significant audience engagement. Participants watched a documentary created by the Duke Center for Documentary Studies and Youth Justice Project; attended monologue performances and panel discussions on prison conditions, mental health in state prisons, and reform movements; and browsed informational booths set up by organizations working with the criminal-justice system. Inmates from a state correctional facility’s art-therapy program created art for Beyond the Bars, and we highlighted the results of our book drive, which raised funds for more than 100 books, textbooks, and study materials for a local nonprofit’s juvenile-diversion program.
Allayne Thomas, a junior at Enloe High and community-outreach director for Beyond the Bars, served as the panel moderator for a conversation about reform movements. “At first I was very nervous,” she told me. “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.”
The inaugural Beyond the Bars garnered 75 attendees from area schools and organizations, local city government, and even the North Carolina General Assembly. In my eyes, it was a huge success—one that will continue through this school year, thanks to our small founding team at Enloe.
“I want to continue to grow our program,” Joey Johnson, a sophomore on the team, said. “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 made a measurable impact. For example, one of the high-school teachers in attendance, Tara Sivamani, is working with the festival’s team to learn how to incorporate behavioral-learning programs into the classroom. The inspiring discourse and presentations encouraged community members to be active parts of the solution. And they encouraged school representatives to reevaluate the factors behind increased suspension rates and to push for alternative responses like restorative justice.
Following younger attendees’ recommendations, the Beyond the Bars team plans to explore mass incarceration, recidivism, and the death penalty next year. School-district representative Rosa Gill has offered increased funding to bolster our efforts. Since graduating, I am helping out and consulting as much as I can from UNC Chapel Hill. With support from the Bezos Scholars Program and our newfound connections, we hope to continue to erode the school-to-prison pipeline in North Carolina.