MANSFIELD: What to do About the Violence at the Juvenile Justice Center

Before I offer my solution, you’ll have to first read this true story:

Many years ago I briefly — for less than a full semester — taught at my alma mater, East Tech High School. No degree was required to teach welding, a trade in which I had a master’s certification.

I was also assigned a homeroom of 10th graders, perhaps the most rambunctious of the lot on high school campuses. One young woman, Jeannette (who was a hood rat if there ever was one), had a propensity for cursing out her classroom teachers and was frequently suspended for her actions, something she seemingly didn’t give a damn about.

One morning, after one such suspension, Jeannette came into homeroom late (which was her usual), without the note she needed from the principal’s office stating that the suspension was over and she was allowed back in school.

“Jeannette,” I said, “I can’t allow you back into class without that note, you know that.”

She pouted, “Well I ain’t got no note!”

“Then you’ll have to go get me one, young lady,” I said in a very even voice.

She then stormed to the door and shot back at me, “Fuck you Mr. Frazier.”

I, without raising my head from the stack of papers on my desk, nor raising my voice, said, “Fuck you back, bitch.” My “street” instincts had automatically kicked in before I could censure my tongue. I immediately realized where I was and what I had done, but it obviously was too late to take the words back. The other students were sitting in their seats dumbstruck, mouths agape.

My words had frozen Jeannette in her tracks. She stood in the doorway in total shock, probably mixed in with a good deal of awe. I figured “in a little, in a lot” so I then said (in spite of the fact she probably had the lightest complexion of any of the students) “And get your black ass out of my doorway.”

I figured my teaching career would be over before lunch. Oh well.

But something more surprising happened before lunch. Jeannette’s best friend Shontelle came up to me in the cafeteria and informed me that Jeannette wanted to know if she could come talk to me in my classroom, the welding shop, during the next period. I said, “Sure,” thinking all the while that she was going threaten to have a group of her thug-assed cousins kick my butt all around the building and back one day after school.

The conversation started out tentative. Jeannette wouldn’t look me in the eye as she tried to stutter out an apology, but she failed. Then she simply started sobbing, almost uncontrollably. As my all-male class of welding students looked on, I opened up my arms and she rushed into them, holding on to me for dear life. If I did something like that today I’d probably end up in prison on child molestation charges.

Jeannette became my classroom helper, the ideal student. Her grades improved dramatically and I later heard that she went on to graduate, perhaps the first person in her family to do so, thus proving to me that 30 seconds of well-placed trauma oftentimes works better than all of the well-intentioned but ineffectual caring in the world.

What had happened was that some adult in authority that she respected spoke to her in her own language — the language she understood — for the first time in her young life. About a week later the principal slyly commented on my “unusual” chastising style, but then said with a wink, “It seems to be working.”

This is what can help to stem the spate of violence in the Juvenile Justice Center: hire some streetwise staff, not to go in and kick ass, but to talk to them in language they understand. I submit that the real expert is not someone with a PhD in juvenile development, but someone from the hood who is a formerly incarcerated individual —someone that is O.G., someone they will immediately respect.

As it now stands the county is having difficulty hiring staff for the facility, since the feeling is the environment is too unruly and downright unsafe. Why not give some folks who can relate to these youth a chance? And trust me there are enough men of good character to select from.

These are our young black and brown brothers, and to assume that we don’t know how to deal with them effectively and nonviolently is ludicrous, and such a program could be abandoned if it doesn’t prove to work. It’s at least worth a try, isn’t it?

From CoolCleveland correspondent Mansfield B. Frazier mansfieldfATgmail.com. Frazier’s From Behind The Wall: Commentary on Crime, Punishment, Race and the Underclass by a Prison Inmate is available in hardback. Snag your copy and have it signed by the author at http://NeighborhoodSolutionsInc.

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