Last night, millions of parents stayed up late helping their kids sign, stuff and seal stacks of valentines for their classmates today. Some of them might bring home a bag of red, white and pink wrapped chocolates, perhaps a handmade valentine cut from construction paper for mom.
But for hundreds of thousands of children locked away in our nation’s juvenile justice system, Valentine’s Day is just another day in which they experience the neglectful and forgetful indifference that often defines their lives. These kids, perhaps more than anyone, need someone to extend a hand with a valentine and let them know that they are loved and valued by their communities.
So, this year we’re doing just that.
People from communities across the country (and around the world) are showing their love for children behind bars by sending — some on video and some by hand — to kids in Louisiana’s criminal justice system. Today, these messages of love and support will be delivered directly to kids incarcerated in several Louisiana juvenile detention centers.
We know that expressions of love have a profound impact on these kids, but words, alone, will never be enough; The school-to-prison pipeline continues to steer kids, especially Black kids, out of our schools and into the criminal justice system. In 2016, 43 percent of Louisiana’s public school student body were Black, yet black children comprised 64 percent of the expulsions and 68 percent of out-of-school suspensions. That same year in New Orleans, there were 46,625 out-of-school suspensions, which exceeds the total number of students enrolled in the city’s public school system. We also saw 16,000 kids suspended or expelled before they reached sixth grade, including 1,100 kindergarteners and 239 children in state-funded pre-kindergarten. Even pre-kindergartens in special education were suspended.
This criminalizing of our youth also diverts precious resources away from programs we know help kids grow into contributing members of society. While it costs Louisiana $105,928 per year per child in juvenile detention, we only spend a pitiful $8,402 per child a year on public education.
The money we waste to keep our kids behind bars would be put to much more effective use were it invested in more humane ways of helping them. Incarcerated children need education, job training and vocational programs (including special education). We also need an open line of communication with teachers and school personnel, so that their progress is carefully monitored and they’re less likely to fall through the cracks. These kids, many of whom have experienced heartbreaking trauma both in and out of detention, need onsite counseling services to help diagnose and treat mental health issues. They also need coordinated aftercare with community services upon reentry.
While incarcerated kids need our help, we can’t stop there. Teachers and administrators often lack the resources to address the needs of students struggling to overcome incredible barriers to learning, like mental health issues, poverty, learning disabilities and the too-frequent deaths of their peers and family members. Until our schools have what they need address these problems, our kids will pay the price — often in prison.
So, today we hope that, through an influx of love and compassion, we can raise awareness to the plight of children who have been trapped by the criminal justice system. The Stand In Love campaign tells children who have been too-often forgotten that they, too, are loved. But it’s also a clarion call for adults to show solidarity with these children by demanding more resources from policymakers to give Black children and communities the support they need to be successful.
There’s still time for you to Stand in Love to show some love for these kids. We are continuing to collect videos that will be compiled and used as a therapy tool throughout the year with kids in Louisiana’s youth detention facilities. Please consider creating your own video and posting it to the Stand in Love Facebook page.
Together, let’s wish these kids a happy Valentine’s Day and show them they’re loved and valued by their communities.
Gina Womack is the executive director and founder of Families and Friends of Louisiana’s Incarcerated Children. Visit www.fflic.org for more information.