A bridge over troubled water

“Kids in jail are children too” ~Fuzz

This was my summer motto. I had the wonderful opportunity to work as a counselor/instructor for the Teens and Police Service Academy summer program. TAPS Academy is a non-profit organization that provides interactive learning programs to help reduce the social distance between teens and law enforcement. This organization meets at-risk youth right where they are in socially disadvantaged schools and detention facilities. The relevance of their work cannot be overstated. (Please click their link for more background and program information.)

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“Social distance between at-risk youth and law enforcement has risen over the past few decades.”

We need practical ways to bridge that gap. We need people to fill that space with hope, love, and skills of empowerment.

Bridge-building-takes

I had the absolute pleasure and terror of facilitating empowerment lessons to nine males, ages 14-15 years old. Talking about a hard crowd to please. My jokes were outdated. My swag is rusty. But my candor seemed to be a respectable trait. Just tell the truth as you know it. And don’t forget that kids in jail are children too.

His business is his to keep…

I did not know the circumstances of why each young man was there in that dorm. I did not ask to know their crimes. As a matter of fact, if one tried to tell me about another I quickly shut that down with “That man didn’t ask you to tell nobody his business. His business is his to keep. I suggest you keep to yours.” Of course, some of the young men would tell me of their struggles in their journals or our group discussions and I welcomed that openness. Kids want to talk to people they trust, but it has to take place in an environment of emotional and physical safety. Without showing fear or doling out judgement, my only job was to listen and suggest coping tools.

What I learned was that kids in jail are just children. This was a “not-so-obvious” lesson.  When you hear about property crimes, school threats, and teen violence, all you know is that the perpetrator needs to be locked up.  They are to be held responsible for their crimes, whether ditching school, fighting, or stealing.  They must learn that there are real life consequences for anti-social behavior.  But I was not there as a judge or as part of a jury, I was just an instructor trying to give a handful of young men tools that they can use to avoid further troubles. And they taught me an important lesson too.

Boys will be boys…

Everyday my boys argued over games, complained about boredom, and begged for candy as rewards. Some would get mad and brood.  Some would get sad and retreat. Under constant surveillance, expressing emotions was tightly controlled. So we talked at length about developing emotional intelligence.  Learning the physiological response that your body has and connecting it to the correct emotions.  Understanding that being sad and being mad can look the same if you do not know how to express sadness. Frustration and anticipation feel the same, so you must connect the “feeling” to the root to understand what reaction you are actually having.

This was a hard lesson. Here is my opening speech:

“In our society, the feelings of boys and men are dismissed and discarded. Happiness, joy, anxiety, anger, frustration, guilt, and fear are all human emotions, yet men and boys are only allowed to be either happy or angry. Do not allow society to strip away your humanity by numbing your range of emotion. Learn to know what you feel and why you feel it. This will make you a strong man, a supportive husband, and a loving father. Without emotions, you are only a paycheck for your family or for the state.” Even the guards nodded in agreement to that!

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Image: http://www.sonyaparker.com/2014/05/men-get-used-hurt-abused-and-played-too.html

Everyday my boys had to resolve conflicts in their dorms. If a person was being released, the entire dorm went through a range of emotions. At first, everyone would be happy for the person, even helping them pack up their belongings. After a few hours of waiting, many of the other boys would “crash”. They would become sad, depressed, and/or angry. They wanted to go home too. If they were expecting a family visit that did not come through, this same cycle of emotions took place.  It was not uncommon when these things happened that a fight would break out. Tensions were high and they struggled with what to do with all the emotions that they were experiencing.

Side Note: Don’t worry, my safety was never in jeopardy. The juvenile security officers were on their jobs! They always knew what was brewing in advance and who to look out for. They treated every situation with the upmost respect, authority, and compassion. And I’m no fool! I caught on quick! 

I witnessed a young man graduate with his GED and no family showed up to the ceremony for support.  The pain was unbearable. It was no surprise that later that night he got into a fight.  He had nowhere to put his hurt. He responded like an abandoned child.  Knowing these things happen, the program focused on teaching them skills to channeled their negative emotions through writing, group discussions, art, reading, and/or playing games. We worked on developing conflict resolution skills that could help move them a little closer to diffusing negative emotions in the moment.  The residents did not do all of this willingly.  Remember they are teenage boys.  Oh they bickered through it all. I heard a lot of “he keeps interrupting me”, “he keeps trying to take over everything”, “he touched my puzzle”, and “he took the picture that I wanted”. Typical tattle-telling.  And just like any teacher, I spent a lot of time redirecting us back to the task at hand.  “Stop doing that.” “Don’t touch his paper.” “Everyone listen.”  I felt like a parent of young children all over again.  Sigh.

I used a variety of games for play therapy and team-building. My observation was that their maturity level stopped at the age that they may have experienced trauma or that their behavior turned delinquent.  So even though they were 14 or 15, they behaved in many ways like they were 10 or 11.  Activities in that age range let that inner-child out to play and let their emotional guards down for a few hours.  They loved using the beach ball! They looked forward to Battleship tournaments.  They really enjoyed the game of Clue. They hated worksheets, but they would do them anyway.  Some liked journal prompts, but most liked to draw.  Puzzles were a big hit! We made a lot of poster boards! Games and art opened our conversations up and helped them cope with difficult topics.

Bullies are homegrown…

You cannot talk about domestic violence without child abuse. You cannot talk about bullying without talking about domestic violence and child abuse. You cannot talk about the dangers of human trafficking without talking about victimization, domestic violence, and child abuse.  There was not one child in my dorm that did not have personal experience with bullying/victimization, domestic violence and/or child abuse. They shared with me how some of their anti-social behavior was learned in their family, whether they were being groomed to be aggressive or as a bi-product of violence they witnessed.

100% of the time, the boys told me that bullies are homegrown.  They are created by their environment. “Miss, if you follow a bully home I bet you’ll find a bigger bully.”  One of them told me he was/is a bully.  I asked him if he thought he learned it at home and he said “yeah, how else would I know how to get over on weaker people.”  I am not going to debate whether their theory is true.  They said it.  I believe they had reasons and experiences that told them this was true.  I was much more interested in what they thought the solution to bullying is.

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Image: https://www.boredpanda.com/cousin-gets-revenge-school/?utm_source=google&utm_medium=organic&utm_campaign=organic

A 15 year old, who had previously been found guilty of assault for intervening in a bully’s assault of another young man, gave me a very emotional response when we talked about our experiences with bullying. He told me that he got tired of seeing a “tough” guy pick on someone weak, so he jumped in to help the victim. The original victim refused to tell authorities that he had intervened on his behalf, because the victim was afraid of what would happen to him at school if he told the truth. This is the solution that my resident offered:

“Miss, they need to stop focusing on the bully. He’s already been beat into beating people, so he’s not finsta’ change. You gotta focus on the victims, because once you’re a target, you’re the target of the whole school. The bully. The teachers. Everybody cus they know what’s going on and they don’t do anything. They let it happen and then the parents send you right back to school for it to keep happening. So it don’t seem like nobody cares about that kid ’til he’s dead…or becomes the bully.”

From the mouth of babes? Maybe. I know that not in-spite of, but because they are in detention, the environment and interaction forced me daily to remember that these were still children living out very adult consequences. Each one has a story, so you don’t get to have sympathy, but you can have empathy that somewhere along the way someone failed these kids. We can’t go back and fix it, but we can teach them new tools to use going forward.  Bridges are the only solution.


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