Editor’s Note: Earlier this month, during the release of his revised state budget, Governor Gavin Newsom revealed more of his plan to, as he put it, “end the juvenile justice system as we know it.” Newsom was referring to his decision to transfer California’s long-troubled Division of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) from the umbrella of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to the Department of Health and Human Services, effective July 1, 2020. According to the report below by Alberto “Beto” Gutierrez, the reform the governor calls for is urgently needed now, not later.
Last Friday, May 17, I was sitting inside my social studies classroom, at a northern California Department of Juvenile Justice facility, waiting for correctional officers to bring my nine students for their period 4 class, the first class after lunch. Suddenly, I heard a commotion inside the unit. At first, I thought nothing of the noise until I stepped outside my classroom, and saw two white vans arrive, disgorging two drivers each holding their non-lethal pellet guns.
Once both drivers, security correctional officers (COs) entered the building, more backup officers continued to arrive on foot, some in golf carts, others in another van or two.
My classroom is situated in the facility’s intake unit, where kids stay when they first arrive at the DJJ facility. Intake tends to be more volatile than the other units because kids are nervous and have yet to settle in, thus commotions are common. This fight was three boys on two, but there was the possibility it could escalate.
I was still outside of my classroom when a CO brought the first youth out of the living unit where the fight had occurred, his hands cuffed behind his back.
(It is protocol to handcuff everyone involved in a fight.)
“I can’t breathe! I can’t breathe!” the youth said, gasping and clearly distressed, as he walked alongside the officer.
His shirt was covered with the chemical residue left by the aerosolized Oleoresin Capsicum, commonly called OC-spray or pepper spray. It was also on his face, neck, and upper body, but was mostly visible on the white fabric of his t-shirt.
“He was attacked, he’s the victim!” said the guy who was bringing out the obviously suffering kid, as he passed another officer.
I stood and watched for a few seconds before I ran to my classroom to retrieve my water canteen, intending to pour water on the youth’s burning face and into his eyes.
When I returned, I realized I had to ask the correctional counselor for permission to relieve the kid’s suffering, although the question felt awkward and irrational. The DJJ was, after all, committed to helping kids change their lives for the better, not retaliation, punishment, and leaving pepper spray on a kid’s skin and in his lungs for no reason that in any way relates to safety.
The first correctional officer I asked, who was also a supervisor, shook his head no.
I acted as if I didn’t notice him, and redirected my question to another correctional officer who gave me a nod of approval.
I slowly poured water over the youth’s upturned face, but it was difficult to get it right. His legs were wobbly, and he continued to struggle with his breathing, still audibly gasping, “I can’t breathe!”
Close to him, I could smell the chemicals on his body.
Eventually, the youth dropped to a knee and managed to spit out some of the OC spray that was irritating his throat. But he continued to struggle with his breath.
As I slowly poured the rest of the 40 ounces of water, he seemed to gradually cool down a little, as if the burning was lessening.
The medical staff arrived a few minutes later and the youth, still handcuffed, was escorted to a van and eventually transported to the medical unit.
The entire incident, from first seeing the handcuffed, gasping kid, until he left in the van, took no more than ten minutes, maybe less. On many occasions, it’s far worse. I’ve seen youth who have been sprayed sit handcuffed for 20 to 30 minutes, sometimes as long as 40 minutes, before they are taken for decontamination.
To be clear, these were 20 to 30 minutes that occurred well after the youths had been separated, handcuffed, and after any possible threat had passed.
In one case, I saw COs take an OC-sprayed youth and interrogate him for 15 minutes or more, without any decontamination. I remember, the youth was in obvious pain and couldn’t open his eyes at all.
I was new at the time, and afraid of getting in trouble if I tried to help the kid. So I did nothing.
I vowed to never let that happen again.
Echos of the past
When I first began teaching at a state juvenile detention facility in August 2015, I was cautioned/warned/advised by a fellow teacher that time would eventually teach me to not trust or be nice to the wards. When he gave me this advice, he used far more descriptive language. I said nothing in return, but silently disagreed.
Four years into my tenure as a DJJ instructor, I continue to disagree and have come to conclude that to treat the young people in our facility as anything less than kids who belong to all of us, regardless of their crime, is to systematically produce an army of Frankensteins.
I did not have to teach at a detention facility for four years to arrive at this conclusion.
The idea of dismissing the needs of certain youth is extremely troubling for me, as their actions are a reminder of the years in which my needs were dismissed by too many professionals who were paid to prepare me for the future.
I was 17-years-old when I began college. I applied after the college advisor at my high school suggested that I attend a vocational school and learn how to paint cars.
I was also 17-years-old when I decided to permanently walk away from the homies. Five years earlier, what began as a group of junior high school kids walking to and from school together, and playing football at the park, morphed into something else due to pressure from local gangs, routine racial profiling by the Los Angeles Police Department, the crack epidemic of the 1980s, and the street wars that ensued and eventually escalated.
At the time, I was a mediocre student but wise enough to understand the end result of the homie lifestyle. I would regularly mentally map out my options, and didn’t care for any of the foreseeable finales.
In that decision to walk away, I also walked away from a support system, my Go To’s in moments of emergencies. Yet, actually, the distance had been steadily growing before I made it official. It grew when the homies dropped out of high school in the 10th grade and I remained, the lone ranger of the original cohort, on a school campus where I regularly saw members of rival factions and dealt with mugging gazes and promised threats.
When I went off to college, I did so with a lot of uncertainty about my future and regularly considered returning to the nest. Even as I stayed away, I remained informed about the escalating wars and their casualties. I vowed to not attend the funerals. I needed a complete separation in order to give my new life a fair chance. But I always knew who had died, and how each death had occurred.
In college, I encountered an unfamiliar model of teacher-student relations. Unlike K-12, where teachers seemed focused on what I came to call drill and kill, in my first college classes, I met a sociology instructor named Pat Allen, who was provocative and the topics of her discussions provided an additional layer of understanding on the crack epidemic and street wars I’d lived through. This deeper understanding, along with the geographic distance from the homies, also initiated a kind of healing process. I came to believe that my decisions would have been different if I’d been exposed to Pat Allen’s work at a younger age, so I decided to become a teacher and to carry her torch.
There were other inspiring instructors, like Dr. Gloria Miranda who taught my Chicano Studies Class, and awakened my interest in pursuing a Ph.D.
After completing my Master’s and Ph.D. at UCLA, I was hired to teach social studies at a state youth prison.
As a social studies teacher, I was there to impart book knowledge, but soon enough I learned that to be able to keep the attention of these traumatized and angry youth, I needed to build relationships on a much deeper level than at any previous teaching assignment.
(While I was getting my Master’s, I worked as a substitute teacher in the Los Angeles County juvenile halls and camps where youth have much shorter sentences than those kids in the state facilities. I also taught social studies at two different Los Angeles Unified High School’s, both of which struggled with gang violence and graduation rates. Just before arriving at DJJ, I taught for several years at Cal State Northridge, while pursuing my Ph.D.)
The first year at DJJ was a trial phase in which the youth repeatedly tested my commitment to their lives. They wanted to know if I was “real,” or just another state employee putting in time, who was encouraged to use write-ups, and punishment to force-feed behavior.
Certainly, I’ve met some very good people during my years teaching at DJJ. But, it seems that too many choose to turn a blind eye to staff misconduct as a means to avoid escalating a confrontation with the powers that be.
Building relationships paid off. In my initial 32 months of teaching in the general population school area, only two fights occurred in my classroom. (In the mornings I taught in the mental health unit. In the afternoon, in general population.)
Looking back, I think that even those two fights might have been prevented, had I been working in a setting that used restorative justice techniques to lower tensions, and to talk through the problems.
In contrast, other teachers had students fighting in their classes on a regular basis.
The need for advocacy and healing
I certainly made mistakes along the way, but the youth appeared to understand that my mistakes were the result of a lack of experience within a confined setting, and plain old human error, but not the result of any intentional malice.
At the beginning of my fourth year of service, after spending three years teaching every morning in the mental health unit without a fight, two months into the semester, two fights broke out in my class within a week.
The experience of back-to-back fights was unsettling— especially when I had a working relationship with the youths who were fighting.
Wondering what had changed, I did a little investigating and found we had a new teacher in our unit, a veteran to the system whose approach to the kids was highly confrontational. She regularly incited the youth. Even when fights didn’t break out in her class, I noticed that students frequently arrived in my 4th-period class unraveled by what occurred two periods earlier.
After the second fight in my class, I emailed the principal about the situation.
There, I was, after all these years, standing up for the homies, but this time within a confined setting that the governor has newly promised will be focused solely on healing and rehabilitation.
To be clear, although I used the word in this essay, I do not refer to my students as homies. Not ever. But do find myself regularly advocating for my students. They don’t need a big homie, they need a mentor, a teacher, a life-guidance counselor, and even at times a friend. And, also, sometimes they need an advocate.
My willingness to speak up is not always welcomed. I am not supposed to “side” with them, some CO’s and educators have suggested to me, in so many words. They are criminals, thugs, not like us.
No. They are our children who have made mistakes. I was once one of them.
Alberto “Beto” Gutierrez, Ph.D. is a teacher, a student of life, and an advocate for all living beings.
His essay is the first of a series that will take us inside California’s Department of Juvenile Justice.