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How ‘Survival Crimes’ Land Young People in Jail

The report also gathers anecdotal data on the school-to-prison pipeline, a system that disproportionately impacts students of color. Around 20% of the people interviewed for the report received their first juvenile criminal charge when a school staff member or a foster-care provider called the police to handle a conflict. Report participants attended an average of 3.8 different high schools and 41% of them had an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) — intended to document individualized needs for students who need more personalized support — that followed them from location to location. 

Alexsa Ramirez, 17, tells Teen Vogue that she had to go above and beyond to advocate for herself to school staff in order to graduate high school a year early. She says she was detained for the first time at 12 years old when a school staff member called the police to handle a conflict with Ramirez, who was in sixth grade at the time.

“They should’ve talked to me [and] asked me what’s wrong [and] what I needed, instead of being like, Oh no, we’re going to call the cops. We don’t know how to deal with you,” Ramirez says. “I feel like as a teacher, being an educator at a school full of kids, you should know how to have a conversation with a student, how to de-escalate arguments”

Ramirez says she attended five different schools throughout her K-12 experience and the IEP file that school administrators created for her in elementary school stayed with her at each facility. She says the IEP classification made school staff treat her like a problem rather than someone in need of care.

“They viewed me differently based on how the [IEP] file spoke about me. They didn’t care to get to know me as a person,” Ramirez explains. “They didn’t want to get to know why I got like that in the first place or why I even acted like that, you know? They were just acknowledging, Okay, well you did it and that’s all we know.”

Throughout her schooling, Ramirez says she tried to communicate her needs to teachers and other school administrators but they wouldn’t listen. She says she felt lost. “I felt like nobody was there for me the way I needed them to be there for me,” she shares. “I felt like I was doing it all by myself.”

While conducting research and gathering first-hand interviews for the YWFC report, Mati says she was repeatedly met with similar sentiments from young people. All of the YWFC respondents were young people of color, and Mati says that over and over again they told her the same thing: Adults didn’t really hear them even when they dared to speak up for themselves.

“I think what surprised me most is that nobody believes us, you know? Nobody believes anybody’s story. Nobody sees it,” says Mati. “I think that was just the most heartbreaking thing.”

Mati and Ramirez both shared feelings of being misunderstood, misinterpreted, or immediately dismissed by adults and caught up in an intimidating web of disciplinary systems that disregarded their lived experiences. The criminalization that Mati experienced as a young teen from committing survival crimes and the school-to-prison pipeline that ushered Ramirez into the justice system in sixth grade were both administered in lieu of the actual care, access to resources, and proactive support that so many young people need — especially those from under-resourced communities. The YWFC report is full of stories from young people who, like Mati and Ramirez, were ushered towards incarceration, a response that took them away from their homes and disrupted whatever sense of community they might have had while disregarding the underlying causes of the conflict.

“I think with us coming from the hood or with us coming from poverty and us having these beautiful cultures and traditions that we come from, it gets [sidelined] when we mix with the system,” Mati adds. “Because the system doesn’t acknowledge where we come from [or] who we are. They don’t acknowledge our backgrounds. The system already has an image and if you don’t fit this American image, you are literally criminalized for who you are.”

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