Kristin Henning has been representing children accused of crime for more than 25 years, and in all that time she only represented 4 white kids. The many thousands of kids she represented have all been Black and Latinx. She spent her life trying to ensure that children whose families did not have the means to defend them against a criminal justice system steeped in bias had someone to speak up for them.
In her book, The Rage of Innocence, Kris weaves together powerful narratives and persuasive data. She explores the criminalization of normal adolescence and makes a compelling case that racial disparities in the juvenile and criminal legal systems are rooted in America’s unfounded, and sometimes intentionally manufactured, fears of youth of color.
In this conversation with Jay, she weaves together powerful narratives and persuasive data to expose the criminalization of normal adolescent behavior and discriminatory incarceration of American youth of color.
Kris Henning: To enslave an entire group of people, one has to create a narrative to justify that.
Jay Ruderman: Hi, I’m Jay Ruderman and welcome to All About Change, a podcast showcasing individuals who leverage the hardships that have been thrown at them to better other people’s lives.
Today on our show, Kris Henning.
Kris Henning: why did he take off running? Well, the, people who are asking that question don’t live in neighborhoods where police officers are present 24 hours pretty much a day
Jay Ruderman: Kris is a Professor of Law at Georgetown University and the Director of the Juvenile Justice Clinic. She has been representing children accused of crimes for over 25 years.
Kris Henning: I saw a line of children being escorted down the hallway in chains, shackles on their arms, shackles on their feet, and so many of those children were black or brown.
Jay Ruderman: In her long career as a Public Defender, the overwhelming majority out of the thousands of kids she represented have been Black and Latinx. But she got a start to her career on the other side of the bench, as a prosecutor:
Kris Henning: We go into that courtroom and I’m sitting with the prosecutor I looked over across the room and I said to her, I’d really want to be over there, and I’m pointing at the defense table.
Jay Ruderman: In our fascinating – and frankly – troubling conversation, Kris weaves together powerful narratives and persuasive data. She explores the criminalization of normal adolescent behavior and makes a compelling case that racial disparities in the juvenile justice systems are rooted in America’s unfounded, and sometimes intentionally manufactured, fears of youth of color.
Kris Henning: One child, a white child is not only, not punished, but is viewed as creative as intellectually curious and is put into advanced science classes where my client, my black client in Washington, DC ends up in court for nine months.
Jay Ruderman: So, professor Henning, welcome to all about Change. Maybe I could start out by asking you – how did you decide to become a defense attorney and focus on, juvenile law?
Kris Henning: I grew up in a family of preachers and teachers, all of whom cared deeply about, young people, working with at-risk youth in the community, in churches. And so I think I just saw it in my house and in my community, and gravitated towards working with young people. And then second, when I was in, in college, I had in my. Freshman year, an opportunity to do an apprenticeship at a local prosecutor’s office. And I will never forget the very first day of that, apprenticeship. I walked into the juvenile courthouse. It was in Durham, North Carolina. I turned down the hallway to go find the prosecutor, and I saw a line of children being escorted down the hallway in chains, shackles on their arms, shackles on their feet, and so many of those children were black or brown. We go into that courtroom and I’m sitting with the prosecutor and I, I looked over across the room and I said to her, I’d really want to be over there, and I’m pointing at the defense table. and that was my aha moment when I knew this was the kind of work that I wanted to do to be a defense attorney and to be a defense attorney specifically for children.
Jay Ruderman: can you tell me about the impact of a child, a juvenile being arrested or even stopped by the police and the impact that that has on, on that juvenile, whether it’s in school or outside of school, and also their family and friends?
Kris Henning: There is a growing body of research on this very question, but there’s a growing body of research documenting the extraordinary psychological trauma that police encounters have on young people, and especially on black and Latina youth. Those have been the, the, the subjects of the, of this particular research. And the research shows that young people, teenagers who live in heavily surveilled neighborhoods, Who attend heavily surveilled schools or who are the frequent stops of, by the police stops frisks searches by the police report, high rates of fear, anxiety, hopelessness. They become hyper-vigilant, really, which just means that they become always on guard and not trusting police officers.
What’s so tragic is that that distrust of police officers very often carries over to other adult authority figures that they begin to see as sort of quasi law enforcement. So teachers, counselors, other people, all of whom might be an ally to that child. So that’s really, what we are seeing.
And, and the research shows that the trauma occurs not just by becoming a direct target of some, police youth encounter, but also by witnessing it. Right, or hearing about it among friends and family and watching it on television. And so a child today, a teenager today watching, the killing of George Floyd on television has an extraordinary impact. We know this as an adult, but think about what impact it has onto an adolescent and what impact it has on a black or Latino adolescent who believes that this could happen to me. And I say all the time, this isn’t an anti-police conversation. This is just the reality of what we see and what young people are experiencing it.
And so the psychological research bolsters that. You also asked about family, the impact on family. And I love that you asked that question because people very rarely think about it. We think about the, the impact of parental incarceration on young people. We rarely think about the impact of youth incarceration on adults and siblings and all of it.
And what we find is that the trauma is real. You think about, how much fear, for example, black parents have when their children walk out the door because they’re afraid, um, of their children going to school and just being criminalized for doing the things that we all did when we were kids, right?
So you worry about their ability to get an education, you worry about them, being singled out and targeted, and you worry about, Biased presumptions about their intellectual capacity and their, prone to violence. These are just stereotypes and myths about black children that black parents have to contend with. And then, black parents always, you know, sort of live with this fear. What am I, what’s gonna happen if I get that phone call? Either that my child has been arrested or that my child has been shot and killed, worst case scenario. And so all of it is very painful, and very difficult to navigate.
We talk about the black parents really having no choice but to give their kid the talk. Do whatever you have to do to get home safe. You know, if you encounter a police officer, be deferential, say, yes, sir, no sir, yes ma’am. No ma’am. Put your hands up. Don’t make any sudden movements. Those kinds of things.
And you know, when I talked to, many white parents, it’s not true for everyone. But when I talked to many white parents, they never even thought about, you it’s certainly not until recently thought about giving that talk.
Jay Ruderman: Hmm.it’s very powerful what you’re talking about. It’s almost like we’re living in two different Americas where in, in white America, parents do not have to give children their talk. But in black America, they’re concerned if is their child gonna come home. Maybe you could talk about the juxtaposition, because I know that, that you opened the book about, talking about Eric and, and what Eric did and what happened to Eric as a result of what he did, and juxtapose that with a talk that you gave in Connecticut where a white mother relayed a similar story.
Kris Henning: Absolutely. Eric was a 13 year old boy who on a Saturday night was watching a movie and he sees someone in that movie with a Molotov cocktail. And in his 13 year old brain, he thinks, oh, that looks cool. Let me see if I can make something that looks like that. To be clear, he does not research it. He doesn’t ask anybody what’s in a me Molotov cocktail. He just goes to the kitchen, he grabs a glass bottle and he begins to pour in whatever liquids he can find, bleach, pine, saw water, whatever he can find, mind you together, And some of them separately are not flammable, but he pours them into a bottle. And my favorite part of the story is that he grabs a piece of toilet paper, right? And he runs the toilet paper from the inside of the bottle to the outside and he closes the bottle. And we know that that toilet paper, he wants it to be a wick, but it’s gonna burn out before it even gets to the top.
Um, but he tapes up the bottle. So that it looks like a Molotov cocktail and he plays with it for a little while, right? he’s 13, it’s Saturday night. He plays with it for a while, but then he forgets all about it. He puts the bottle in his book bag, right, so it will not spill out on his mother’s white carpet, and he goes on about his business. He does not think anything of that. think anything about that bottle again until Monday. Monday morning comes his mother takes him to school, he grabs his book bag and he puts his book bag through the metal detector and a school resource officer sees the bottle and says, what is this?
Eric immediately says, oh, that’s nothing. You can throw it away. Eric goes on to class. Little does he know, this is the beginning of a nine month ordeal in our local juvenile court. Police officers and a fire department show up. and pull him outta class. He gets arrested in the hallway in front of friends and held in detention overnight. He is prosecuted, formally prosecuted the next day for possession of a Molotov cocktail and for attempted arson. Right. He told those officers at the school, told everybody, look, I wasn’t trying to blow up the school. This was nothing. No one believed him. No one gave him the benefit of the doubt. Fast forward several months later, I’m at a conference in New Haven, Connecticut, and I share this story, when I’m talking, at this conference. And, someone comes up after I talk, and it was a white woman and she says to me, my son did the exact same thing. He made a Molotov cocktail and he took it to school. And I asked her what happened and she said, my son was put in advanced science classes. So what an extraordinary contrast, right? That, for me was just another major aha moment in the work that I do. That one child, a white child is not only, not punished, but is viewed as creative as intellectually curious and is put into advanced science classes where my client, my black client in Washington DC ends up in court for nine months, formerly prosecuted, for this.
Jay Ruderman: That’s a very, very powerful story. And I think, many of us are faced, with incidents in the news of, racial disparity in America and the impact that it can have. But, you go back to a basic element that once you’re targeted in the system, and, and as a, as a former prosecutor many years ago in Salem, Massachusetts, I experienced this, once a child was in the juvenile system and brought before the court and charged by the police, they were sort of on the radar, meaning the police were always looking for them, and it was very common to see the same child of color in and out of the court system.
Kris Henning: Yes. once you get arrested, if any of your siblings get arrested, right? The whole family gets labeled or targeted, or if a parent has been in the system before, they are on sort of the watch list.
And these are very informal watch lists though I will tell you that there are also formal watch lists, right where there are, created shadow gang databases. There are surveillance teams now in police departments all across the country that are following social media, Instagram accounts, Twitter accounts, Facebook accounts, TikTok accounts for certain children, And only for certain children in the community. So you’re absolutely right. Once you get targeted, you get, followed. and what we see often too, that, accounts for what you saw in Salem is the allocation of resources throughout the city so that you’re allocating more police officers to certain neighborhoods. And so I talk very often about the criminalization of normal adolescent behaviors. Well, we know, right, that the more police are Present, physically observing those behaviors that quote unquote, are really adolescent, but technically meet the elements of a char of a crime. You can always find a way to arrest a child. Right? and so, to be clear, I think even when police officers mean well, right? They wanna keep a particular neighborhood safe, they wanna be responsive to, purported crime in a particular neighborhood, or they even want to take care of a group of kids, that it still state intervention, right? State intervention, that actually ultimately does more harm than good.
Jay Ruderman: Right, Right, And, and I want to talk about, first of all, what do you mean by normal adolescent behaviors? And also what is it like to live in a neighborhood where the police are all over?
Kris Henning: Yes. I think about, Close. Let’s think back to tie dye T-shirts, right and bell bottom pants in the hippie era commonly associated with hallucinogens, right? And other forms of drugs. We never outlawed the tie dye T-shirt. think about all black attire and short straight black hair. The commonly associated with the goth era and also associated with mass shootings. Of course, we never outlawed all black attire. Think even today about steel toed doc Martins with red shoelaces, which some white supremacist groups, young, white supremacist groups have claimed as their own fashion statement.
We have never outlawed that, but the one thing that we have, Outlawed on the books is sagging pants, and I always tell people I don’t wanna see anybody’s underwear either. But should it be a crime on the books, right, that allow for police youth contact, this is what I’m talking about, the ways in which we have stereotypes and assumptions about hip hop styles, for example, right?
That is criminalizing normal, Adolescent creativity. Another example. Think about music. I think this one’s even more profound. Think about country music, hard rock, heavy metal, pop music. Even. All of those genres of music have the same themes. Themes of, misogynistic lyrics, glorification of drugs, sex, alcohol, violence, all of that appears in all of the genres of music.
But without consequence. You think about hip hop music and rap music and immediately, children who are listening to that music, let’s say loudly in a park, are automatically assumed to be dangerous and violent. That’s what we’re talking about, the criminalization of normal adolescents. You think about kids who sit together in a cafeteria, and I hope all your listeners can envision what it was like. You remember to be a teenager sitting together in a cafeteria and sometimes guess what? You dress alike, and if you’re a black kid or a Latino kid and you dress alike and you have hand signals and like maybe tattoos, you’re presumed to be a violent gang member, as opposed to just being a group of friends that are in a sorority or a fraternity. So that’s what I’m getting at. What I should have also said is, what do we know about teenagers? Again, I could ask your audience and everybody would tell you, teenagers are impulsive, reactive, emotional, they’re fairness fanatics, right?
Everything is unfair. Right? They don’t think ahead to the long-term consequences. They’re risk takers. They’re boundary testers. That’s what teenagers do. And guess what, that’s what actually makes us successful adults pushing those boundaries, being creative, being emotional, and they care about what their friends do and what their friends think of them.
But we criminalize that for, for black youth. We don’t allow, black, adolescents the privilege. Of testing those boundaries, talking back, to a teenager pushing everybody’s buttons, um, and even doing pranks and shenanigans. Right? And you asked about a story. I, write about a, a kid that I represented who, this was a 15 year old kid who was on a Saturday morning, 10 30 in the morning, gets up and he lives in an apartment building and he wants to go next door to the next apartment building over. He walks outta his apartment building, walks down the sidewalk.
As he gets to the end of the sidewalk, he sees one police car in front of him with two officers in it, Staring at him. and when he’s walking, he literally hesitates when he sees these officers and the officers describe that as a stutter step, as if you sort of, Have a little hiccup in your step. and so he stutter steps, but he keeps on walking. The officers look at him. See that stutter step. Think that stutter step is suspicious at 10 30 in the morning and they begin to follow them in their car. they drive up on the curb. our client looks back at them and he begins to run. He takes off running to the next apartment building.
He dives behind a bush, hide from the officers. And to be quite frank, it’s just magical thinking why he thought those officers did not see him. I have no idea. Those officers really, it’s the funniest part of the story, but the officers grab him and they begin to yell at him, why are you running? Why are you running?
He literally says, Because you’re chasing me, right? Like it’s this, this whole, symbiosis between, children, particularly black and brown children and the police officers today. And, people who are listening are thinking, well, if he’s not doing anything wrong, why did he hesitate in his step and why did he take off running? Well, the, people who are asking that question don’t live in neighborhoods where police officers are present 24 hours pretty much a day. the young people that I represent don’t see officers just once a month. They don’t see officers once a week. They don’t see officers once a day. They see officers multiple times a day, parked on their street corner, stationed in front of their schoolhouse. they get stopped on the way into a convenience store on the way out of a convenience store. Many, many of my clients have been stopped multiple times. When I say multiple times, I can, one of the clients that I talk about has been stopped no more, no less than 50 times, most of which for doing nothing at all. Right? That’s what it means. To live in a, in a very heavily surveilled neighborhood.
Jay Ruderman: Are the police following what they perceive as how society is looking at, children who are black and brown as opposed to white? Or is there something going on with the police in terms of how they look at black and brown children?
Kris Henning: I think that’s another just excellent question, and I’m very clear that this is a societal origin, right from the very founding of our country. folks don’t like it when we harken back the founding of the country and the enslavement of black people. But guess what? That’s actually where the narrative starts, right? In order to enslave an entire group of people, one has to create a narrative to justify that. Right. And so some of the narrative, right, that was propagated during the enslavement of, black people, not only was that they were, lazy and incapable and needed a master to make them productive citizens. But also the narrative was that they were dangerous and needed to be controlled.
[Emmett Till News Clip]
He was 14 years old when he was kidnapped, tortured, and killed. The failure to punish anyone for the crime made headlines across the country and around the world.
Kris Henning: fast forward to the era of lynching and that narrative. Also in order to lynch to lynch a 14 year old, like Emmett Till, right, or to Lynch any, sort of black American, you have to propagate a narrative that they are brutes and thugs and that they are a danger to white women in particular.
[Emmett Till New Clip]
For Emmett Till. The trouble started here at Bryant’s Meat Market and Grocery Store in Money, Mississippi. The store was owned by a white couple, Roy Bryant and his 21 year old wife, Carolyn, who was behind the counter the afternoon that Emmett Till, and his cousins came in to buy some candy as he was leaving the store, Emmett Till Whistled at Carolyn Bryant, and she went to get a gun.
Kris Henning: These were very, express, articulate, explicit narratives that were put out in billboards and flyers, on radios, wherever, whatever the media was in that era. They, it was very explicit. So that’s the foundation.
[00:21:54] Then you fast forward into the 1990s and the mid 1990s is the heart of the super predator error.
[Super Predator News Clip]
A super predator is a young juvenile criminal who is so impulsive, so remorseless that he can kill rape maim without a giving it a second thought
Kris Henning: we had a temporary, and it was temporary. uptick in crime in urban America. And, folks, Dr. Or the professor John de Julio. Coined this horrible phrase called the super predator. And in very explicit terms, talked about black children becoming super predators who were gonna basically rape mam and kill all of America by the year 2000.
[Superpredator News Clip]
We’re talking about a group of kids who are growing up essentially fatherless. Godless and jobless. As many as half of these juvenile
Kris Henning: Within a year of him, coining that phrase he had to recant because his, science was not founded. That is still a part of the explicit narrative that was put all over the New York Times, black children accused, falsely accused, of raping a woman in, in Central Park, right? and, whole full page ads about, children, wilding, black children, animals, wilding, all of that was still explicit. All right. Then finally, when it becomes no longer, appropriate to talk about black children in these very explicit thug, actually the, though the term is still used, but it, it becomes less, politically correct to talk about, black youth in these very explicit, racialized ways those narratives live on in the American psyche today.
And so that if you or I, or an average, resident of our country walks through a park and sees a group of black kids in the park, they are afraid. You hesitate in your step because you see those black children. That’s how these narratives, and that’s how our racial biases live on.
That’s, it’s, it’s all a part of the, of the same fabric of America.And so I just say that to say that the, this race relations, the racialized narrative that lead to the fears of black children in particular, starts at the, the onset of American history and is very tied to the policing of America.
Jay Ruderman: So let’s talk about policing today and this may be a sensitive question, are the officers who are, paying too close attention to adolescent, normal adolescent behavior? Are they black, white, or a combination?
Kris Henning: So a combination. And I, I wanna be clear about that. For those of you who wanna read more, Dr Phillip ABA Golf has some excellent research on this, and there is a really powerful article that talks specifically about police bias. And what they talk about is there are series of, bias triggers. One of the bias triggers is ego threat, right? That there’s something about the blue uniform tied together ego threat and masculinity threat sort of together, that that has a deep impact on their perception of what’s happening around them.
Right? most police officers are men, right? And it’s a very masculine, profession, and so a lot of. alleged criminal activity involves males. So you think about that contest between egos, right?
Between a male on the street who’s believed to be, a perpetrator and a male officer, many of whom are very young. So you’ve got, you’ve got that ego threat in competition. I’m gonna add a ego threat that he doesn’t necessarily talk about, and that’s the adolescent ego threat. Think about adolescent bravado for any of you who’ve studied adolescent development. So now you’ve got an officer, right, with the ego threat, and you’ve got an adolescent on the street. It is a complete battle of the egos. The other threats relate to their threats called stereotype threat.the ideas in which police officers are trained to do what they are trained to look for crime. If you’re a hammer, everything looks like a nail. So if you’re a police officer, everything looks like a crime, right? And so it, it, there’s a deep inability for police officers to, differentiate between what constitutes just normal adolescent behavior and what technically meets the element of a crime, right?
Then you add racial bias. Right, that all of us have, not just police officers. So, but you’ve got this, you’re out on the street, you’re looking for criminal behavior. Guess what? Racial bias is so strong in the area of criminal justice that it’s probably one of the strongest areas. So in other words, some researchers have said, when you think about crime, you very often think of a black person. When you think about a black person, you very often think about crime.
That’s how strong that narrative has become in our society. And so that’s what police officers are grappling with. And so I say this all the time, even when a police officer means well, right? Even when an officer is out on the street doing wellness checks, they are still like all of us, succumbing to this, these racial bias threats, around criminality. And then add onto this, the masculinity threat, the ego threat. And you’ve got a recipe for the over-policing of black and brown children.
Jay Ruderman: Yeah, it’s so true.
[Kyle Rittenhouse News Clip]
We the jury, find the defendant Kyle h Rittenhouse, not guilty. Immediately after Rittenhouse burst into tears. Unanim overwhelmed by the moment. For many Americans who believe that a black man who did what Rittenhouse did, would’ve been treated differently, the verdict was painful. There is no justice in America for the oppressed. This is a fact. If you are oppressed in America, there is no justice for you.
Jay Ruderman: Let’s take the extreme, example of, Kyle Rittenhouse and then juxtapose that to someone like Trayvon Martin. can you talk about the difference of how we approach a white juvenile as opposed to. A black juvenile.
Kris Henning: Absolutely. And I use the Kyle Rittenhouse example a a lot because, several things, right? If we even put for just one second, put race and class aside. Think about what Kyle Rittenhouse was doing that day. It’s the absolute epitome of everything we know about adolescents, right? It was an impulsive act for folks who were trying to remember, Kyle Rittenhouse, cross the state lines with a assault rifle of some sort. Across his body and is walking through the streets, right? So this is a 17 year old child who crosses state lines and going to meet up with friends. So peer influence, right? He meets up with a friend who hands him a gun. Why are they out there? They’re outside. Because in his 17 year old brain, he thinks he’s competent enough to protect businesses that somehow need to be protected during this Black Lives Matter protest.
So number one, the fact everything he’s doing, he’s not thinking ahead to the long term consequences, right? He’s taking risk, testing boundaries, all the things, all in the, under the guise of protecting these businesses. so, number one, You ask, how is he treated differently, the fact that he walks through the street as a teenager with an assault rifle, without any consequence whatsoever.
And I know, people will say to me, but that’s an open carry city or open carry state, and he was allowed to have that gun. I’m sorry. If it had been Tamir Rice in an open carry city, if it had been Trayvon Martin in an open carry city, I guarantee you they still would’ve been shot dead in the moment, right? So you think about Tamir Rice as the 12 year old Cleveland boy who is playing with a toy gun, police officers arrive and within less than three seconds he’s shot dead. Right? whereas, Kyle Rittenhouse is allowed to walk. All right, so then what happens? What else? You talk about how kids are treated differently.
Kyle Rittenhouse ends up taking two lives and severely injuring another. And he, his mother, and rightfully so, his defense attorney wanted the world to see him as an adolescent who got in over his head and had to act in self-defense, and the jury accepted that. And so, so, so many of the public completely accepted that that narrative kid gets in over his head.
Again -I ask you to imagine that scenario involving black children. What happens to, Kyle Rittenhouse? He gets a fair trial, he gets due process. He gets to sit in one of the early interviews I’m watching, you know, video. He’s sitting in talking to his mother. Our kids get stripped off the street if they’re even alive, stripped off the street, and, and, and locked away and don’t get to see their parents until they show up in court the next time. Right. But he gets a fair trial, jury trial and gets not guilty. Right. If it were a black child, and I’m just being very honest, like we know this across the country, he would get, the black child gets a phone call. Let’s imagine from a friend who says, Hey, I’m out here at a park and I’m really worried that something is about to go down. Can you come out just so that I have support? the black child arrives. Meets up with his friend. A friend passes him a weapon just for safekeeping things get outta control. Someone you know dies. Tragic, right? We automatically presume that that black child is beyond redemption, is anti-social, was intentional gun bearing, violent criminal. We can’t see the adolescent who got in over their head. We can’t see any of that. I also ask people, I invite people to look at photographs of Kyle Rittenhouse and the friend, as they’re walking through, they’re dressed just alike. They’re dressed in fatigues with their hats on backwards, carrying their rifles. Nobody would call them a gang member. A black child shows up with his friends at a park. And it, they’re all gang members. It pains me, but I, I, think it’s such an important conversation to ask us to draw a distinction between Kyle Rittenhouse and Trayvon Martin and Tamir Rice.
And for those who don’t remember, Trayvon Martin, the kid who had the Skittles right? And he gets stopped by, wasn’t even, it’s an off-duty, watch guard, right? who shoots and kills him because why? You remember what he said before killing him or after killing him, is that he was tired of so many black children robbing their neighborhood. So he’s made an assumption that the kids who are robbing their neighborhood are African American kids, right? and that he has a duty to stop them. And so it’s just extraordinary contrast. extraordinary contrast.
Jay Ruderman: Can you add to that Professor Henning, where you talk about how we as a society look at black and brown children, and we don’t see them as children, we see them as adult. We see them as the, the police see them as bigger or describe them as bigger than they actually are.
Kris Henning: That’s absolutely right. And, and guess what? That’s grounded in research also. So there is also a growing body of research that looks specifically at how racial bias operates with young people. And so there is research showing that, both civilians. And police officers view black boys in particular as, older than they actually are, and significantly older than they actually are.
Some research again by Dr. Phillip Atiba, golf shows that civilians and police officers perceive, black boys to be more than. Four and a half years older than they actually are. So when you’re looking at a 12 year old, Tamir Rice, you’re seeing a 16, 17 year old. When you’re seeing a 17 year old, Trayvon Martin, you’re seeing, a 21, 22 year old.
Not only that, there’s research by other scholars, empirical research showing that, individuals perceive, black boys to be taller. Heavier, more muscular, stronger, more physically, powerful than they actually are, again, has a huge impact. And for those of you who are listening and wondering about black girls, there is research showing again, empirical, research showing that individuals, civilians, Perceive black girls as older, more mature, more knowledgeable about adult topics than they actually are. Less innocent and less in native protection.
All of this has a profound impact on how we discipline children in school, how we react to them when we see them on the street. And guess what we haven’t really talked about? I’ve been talking a lot about normal adolescent behavior. We talked a bit about serious crime, you know, with Cal Rittenhouse, but the research also shows that even when black children commit serious offenses, right, we treat them truly as if they are beyond redemption. And they shouldn’t, barely get a trial. If they get a trial, they they’re sent to adult court for prosecution. They are given severe sentences like life without the possibility of parole. So even on that back end, Right In the very small percentage of black children, of any children who are committing serious crimes, the racial disparity at the sentencing level is extreme. And it’s extreme because of this racial bias that you’re talking about, this adultification of black, children.
Jay Ruderman: That is so profound. let’s shift to policing in school and how did we get there and, and what, what, what’s happening right now in terms of, of policing in schools and, I know in, in, after Columbine, there was an effort to, put more police in schools to prevent mass shootings. But it seems like more policing is put into predominantly black and brown schools than white schools.
Kris Henning: That’s right.Before I wrote the book, the Rage of Innocence, I accepted the often repeated narrative that we have police in schools because parents and teachers were afraid to send their children back to school after the mass shooting in Columbine, Colorado. But when I began to do research, I realized that the first police in schools actually appeared in 1939 in Indianapolis. After the first conversation about even an inkling of a possibility of integrating schools. Fast forward to the 1960s, the civil rights era and police were sent to schools in, an effort under the guise of creating a safe passage for black and brown children to be integrated into schools. And then we fast forward again to 1990s. Remember I already talked about the super predator error mid 1990s. This is still mid 1990s when the super predator error was, was enacted, or was, was coined, was. Still, five years, five years before Columbine even happens. And during that mid 1990s, the federal government created the Cops in Schools framework. This is the framework that allowed the federal government to funnel dollars into state and local school systems that would agree to hire police in schools. Again, this is mid 1990s, then Columbine happens. And indeed we do increase federal funding for police in schools. But where do those police officers get sent? And you already gave a preview. We, they get sent to the urban schools with a disproportionate presence of black and brown students. They are not get getting sent in droves to Columbine, to the sandy hooks, to the Parkland. They’re not getting sent to white suburban schools where the, the majority of the, the mass shootings had. Been occurring. and so the reality is more police in schools in these black and brown schools, but more police in schools means more arrest in schools. More arrest in schools means more arrest of black and brown children.
A 17 year old girl, black girl that I represented. She got into an argument with her boyfriend at school, which is, I dare I say, I dare I ask your audience, how many of you got into to an argument with a partner? and during the course of the argument, she became convinced that, her boyfriend was cheating on her.
And so she grabs his cell phone out of his hands and begins to walk away down the hallway. As she’s walking away, she’s scrolling through his text messages to see who he’s been communicating with this. A school resource officer sees this and decides to intervene. Tragically, his intervention was to arrest her.
So this child, the 17 year old child, was literally arrested in school again, in front of friends, held insecure detention overnight, brought to court the next day and formally prosecuted – for what? For robbery. Taking the property of another by stealth or force. Right. Just, absolutely normal adolescent behavior. And I always ask people, dare I ask you, have you ever done anything that impulsive, And this is what happens when we have police in schools. Again, that interaction looked like a robbery, technically probably fit the elements, but is this really what we mean, by robbery in our society?
Jay Ruderman: what about having police officers or other professionals understanding the psychological and development of the adolescent brain, which you talk about, dealing with, children from different backgrounds, children with disabilities? I mean, I’m a, I’m a father of four teenagers, one of whom has adhd. I know what it’s like, dealing with a child with adhd and how the schools do not know how to respond to someone like that. So what are some of the solutions? Instead of having police officers in the schools who could be in the school, that could actually help the school function?
Kris Henning: Really, again, great question. The starting point has to be that we have to radically reduce the footprint of police in the lives of all children, but especially black and brown children who are so disproportionately targeted. And so you ask who else, right? It’s not as radical as it seems to have a police free schools movement, If we would invest in, a range of mental health services, a continuum of mental health services, that means having counselors and having counselors both in the community and in the school system, that can engage in culturally competent ways with all children, right? in ways that are not stigmatizing and embarrassing for the child.
Right. And so it also means having a continuum of, counselors, social workers, vocational experts. It means having folks who are behavioral, intervention specialists, right, who can go in and, and, and negotiate, navigate conflicts between kids, teenagers have conflicts. It’s also about adding social emotional learning to the academic curriculum so that children learn these skills of, social engagement, communication, empathy, compassion, all of that, can be taught.
It’s about having restorative justice, within, in the school system. And in those schools that really do have evidence of violence and crime, we can have what we call violence interrupters and credible messengers. Those are folks who look most like the kids who are most impacted, going in and navigating, right, navigating Trus and helping them find another way through an alternative to violence. Those are just some examples of what we need. We also need, like back to the mental health, having what we call, mobile, mental health. crisis vans, right. and especially as you talk so beautifully about disabilities and about the ways in which the school system is ill-equipped, I write about that quite a bit.
This, this idea that so many of the children who are, disproportionately disciplined in school, treated and responded to, I punitive ways our children with some form of disability, whether it’s speech and language, concerns, whether it’s emotional, learning disabilities or traditional learning disabilities or emotional, disabilities, autism, all of those, continuum of, Disabilities are disproportionately targeted in the juvenile legal system in large part because teachers aren’t trained. Counselors aren’t trained, there aren’t enough, behavioral tech experts to sit in the classroom. School resource officers certainly are not trained in working with young people with disabilities. And then the intersectionality with race, the research shows that black and brown children with disabilities are even more likely, to be disciplined at school and then referred outside of school for arrest, for, by police officers.
Jay Ruderman: Right. It’s so true. I mean, the first white paper that our foundation did, not on juveniles but on adults, and the interaction of police with people with disabilities, showed that half of the people killed by police officers have some form of a disability. In terms of the listeners, uh, students, Teachers, parents, community leaders, what should they be doing to advocate to have, better policies in their school system?
Kris Henning: Do I think we will get there and I have to say, My answer has to be yes or I can’t keep doing the work. Right. I have given, sort of my life work over to representing children individually in court cases, but also to doing systemic reform. And so I have to believe that we as a society can get there. Right. I will confess to you that my greatest fear as I sit here today is that in moments like this, and I could imagine some of your listeners are thinking, but crime is going up. Well, we are in a moment where it feels like crime is going up. And indeed we are seeing more high profile shootings happening, irrational shootings happening. But what what I, I think happens is that we are beginning to conflate the increase of crime with our fear of young black children again. Right. And that we, we do that to ourselves. And if we stop and we think about what, what is happening, where we are seeing an un uptick in gun violence and shootings, who’s doing those shootings? Is it the young black kid that you see in your park? Or is it someone else? And is it fair, to criminalize even in your mind, all black children. The other thing is even among the black children who are engaged in criminal activity, the statistics show that it is such an incredibly small percentage of, of black and brown children or children really of any race and class who are committing the serious violent offenses that we’re most afraid of – carjacking, murders and the like. It’s the what gets highlighted in the news and makes us afraid, but it’s still, still the smallest percentage. And the reason why I want to highlight that is because, we are punishing, the whole, for the sins of the one or two. If you will. And I think that’s, that’s so, so my hope is yes, we can get there, but it means we have to be honest about the data. We have to be honest about what’s really happening. We have to understand what the research says about best practices. We have to meaningfully invest in those best practices. And even when there is a mass shooting, we can’t roll back. all of the policy changes that we’ve made, from the science, from the following, what’s in the best practice, we’ve gotta stay the course.
And so that’s why I think we can do it as a country if we don’t overreact to those moments, to these moments like we did in the eighties and the nineties. I mean we radically changed the juvenile legal system as a result, of that eighties and nineties. And we cannot do that again. We are on the road to understanding that there are better interventions than traditional law enforcement interventions.
And then your last question is, what can people do? know, Everyone lives in a local community, and I urge you to pay attention to local politics, right? Local politics, like who’s your elected da, right? Your, your elected prosecutor. who is your elected juvenile court judge? In, in cities that have an elected juvenile court judge, pay attention to critical questions about police in schools and funding for police in schools.
And what does the budget look like? Can we, reallocate the, the traditional. The funding for traditional law enforcement responses to school safety to more effective strategies for school safety. Are you paying attention to what that budget looks like? Advocating for mental health services. And for those of you who are listening and have children, and for those of you who have white children, know what’s going on in your local school with black and brown children.
And if your kid goes to a predominantly white school, pay attention with to what’s happening down the road to the black and brown schools right in your local community. What are the comparisons And bringing attention to that being that voice. Right around that. and so those are the, the, primary pieces of advice.
And I think my, closing piece of advice for everybody, separate and apart from the policies is – someone taught me once, a psychologist friend taught me that every single child needs at least one irrationally caring adult in their lives. And I add to that, that every child would do even better with a team of irrationally caring adults in their lives.
And that simply means, you know what, when we were a teenager, and when we look at our own teenagers, we know they make mistakes. They do really, to be quite frank, stupid, impulsive, irrational things. But we don’t shame them. We don’t embarrass them. We don’t lock them up. Instead, we guide them, we redirect them, we give them whatever support they need for their trauma.
We get them mental health services, and that’s what every black and brown child needs to. So that’s my urge and my plea to everybody be that adult for some child that’s not your own.
Jay Ruderman: Yeah. I love that. I love that. And thank you so much, professor Henning for all of the work that you’ve done throughout your life and, and you’ve really made a tremendous impact on our society. And I really want to thank you for being our guest and all about change this week. Thank you.
Kris Henning: Thank you so much for having me. It’s a wonderful conversation. I really appreciate your thoughtfulness and your questions. Thank you.
Jay: All About Change is a production of The Ruderman Family Foundation. This show is produced by Yochai Maital and Mijon Zulu.
As always – be sure to come back in two weeks for another inspiring story. I’ll be talking to Dr Benjamin Gilmer. You know, usually, as I say at the top of every episode, we showcase people who have leveraged the hardship they faced to better other people’s lives. But sometimes it’s the randomness of life – putting us in weird unexpected situations, that propels and compels us to action. In our next episode we will dive into the truly unbelievable story of Dr Gilmer. And I mean that in the most literal sense – it’s one those ‘you just can’t make that stuff up’ stories. Trust me you’re not going to want to miss it. In the meantime, you can go check out all of our previous content – live on our feed and linked on our website – Allaboutchangepodcast.com
Lastly – If you enjoy our show, please help us spread the word. Tell a friend or family member, or consider writing a review on your favorite podcasting app. I’m Jay Ruderman and I’ll catch you next time on “All About Change”.
You can still listen to all of our previous podcast episodes on our old ‘all inclusive’ website – CLICK HERE
GET THE NEWSLETTER.
Stay up to date with news on our next episodes, featured guests, and the Ruderman Family Foundation.