COVID-19 School Shutdowns Remove ‘Safe Haven’ for At-Risk Youth

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Black youth

Photo by Ryan McGuire Bells Design via Flickr

The prospect of not having in-person schooling in the fall removes a “safe haven” for young people—particularly those who are at risk of involvement with the justice system, a webinar on “Reimagining Juvenile Justice” was told.

“The fact that gyms and bars had a reopening plan but schools nationwide did not really shows us as a society where our priorities lie, and I think that’s concerning,” said Iliana Pujols, director of community connections at the Connecticut Juvenile Justice Alliance, a nonprofit organization working to help youth involved with the juvenile justice system.

“For a lot of kids, school is a safe haven. They will not get the same quality of education from home.”

Pujols and other speakers at the webinar focused on community-based alternatives to youth detention, observing that the momentum for reform in juvenile justice had accelerated as a result of the pandemic and nationwide protests against bias in policing and other parts of the justice system.

Nationwide quarantine orders have increased the need for more programs oriented towards youth, said Tyler Williams, a former youth incarceree, who warned that without them there would be a surge of restlessness and boredom among youth that would likely place them into conflict with authorities.

“It’s important to keep youth active in things like school and extracurricular activities to stay motivated and maintain structure in their lives,” said Williams, who left prison at 19.

“I was lucky enough to be given the training and the tools to build myself back up and not just become another retention statistic,” said Williams.

Williams, now a community organizer for Progeny, a Kansas youth advocacy program, said programs and services for adolescents were critical.

“I don’t think my life now would have been possible without Progeny,” he said.

“There is no bad child. Only a system that fails them,” added Taishma Owens, a youth leader at Progeny, who argued for more programs that humanize youth and help children cope with aggression and trauma instead of sending them to juvenile detention.

“We are not saying that children shouldn’t have repercussions for their actions,” said Tatiyana Whiteley, Justice Advisor at the Connecticut Juvenile Justice Alliance.

“It’s about putting them in a program that helps them learn from what they did and grow, rather than locking them up in a cage.”

Pujols also addressed the problem of racism in the criminal justice system, arguing that the number of children of color apprehended is disproportional to white children.

“Our current system was created to house people of color,” she said. “The next system that we create will not have those roots.”

Williams agreed, commenting on the divide between law enforcement and the communities that they are supposed to protect and serve.

“Cops should have to get to know the people in their community. Cops should feel like they’re protecting a community, not looking for kids to arrest.”

Added Owens: “We need law enforcement to ask themselves: is the system working? The conversation cannot come from just outside. That’s not enough to make change. The self-reflection needs to come [from] within the system.”

“If we help all types of kids and show them the power and influence of local action,” Whitley concluded, “We let them know that it doesn’t just have to be white men in D.C. leading the way.

“For the first time, we let them envision the future with themselves in it.”

Sarah Rose George is a TCR news reporting intern

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