Sowing Seeds for Youth Empowerment in Baltimore and Elsewhere

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Andrea L. DennisThe last two weeks of turmoil in Baltimore make imperative the need for interested adults to ask juveniles what they think about police conduct and to support positive ways for youth to create vital change.

Police behavior can potentially traumatize children. Recent reports, however, also revealed the opportunity for children to flourish, if they are given the chance.

Two weeks ago, Baltimore law enforcement ratcheted up their presence and shows of force in response to mounting protests about Freddie Gray’s death although no violence had yet occurred. Police on the ground wore riot gear and police helicopters swirled above the city.

Undoubtedly, many children witnessed this visible increase in police power. And if they did not personally observe it, they surely heard about it from others or media coverage.

Eventually, law enforcement and private citizens clashed, resulting in the use of violence, physical injury and destruction of property at several points throughout the city. The clash between youth and police near Mondawmin Mall at the end of a school day received significant media attention.

Regardless of who or what sparked that conflict, juveniles who participated in the events and others who merely saw or heard about the aftermath will likely never forget the experience.

During the unrest, schools were temporarily closed, preventing children from being educated and receiving needed meals. A mother and her 16-year-old son are now infamous after she was filmed physically disciplining him in public to steer him away from violent interactions with the police.

During the week of violence, police reportedly arrested 35 to 40 juveniles. While held in custody, some of these youth slept on the floor of their cells. And when presented in court, the youth were shackled in chains.

Despite their range of experiences, all of Baltimore’s children face the prospect of trauma as a result of their exposure to aggressive policing and its aftermath. Yet government officials and community leaders have apparently not stepped forward to acknowledge and coordinate efforts to respond to the negative impact of these events. Instead, though well aware of the need to act, they have remained oddly silent.

Researchers, policymakers and professionals who work with children are all well aware that children exposed to violence can suffer physical, social and emotional trauma in both the near and long term. Correspondingly, efforts to prevent and remediate children’s exposure to violence abound.

Generally, though, the repercussions of police violence have been overlooked in all these vital efforts. Those focused on children’s violence exposure usually train their attention on violence committed by family or community members directly on children, or violence that children witness firsthand in the home.

As with other sources of violence, youth can be traumatized by the aggressive behavior of law enforcement, whether they directly experience the behavior or are secondarily exposed to it. With police misbehavior, though, the additional concern arises that law enforcement conduct may negatively influence children’s perspectives on and engagement with police and the criminal justice system.

Research reveals that youth who negatively view police adopt a number of strategies to deal with police, including directly engaging in conflict with law enforcement.

The school system has indicated it will offer children grief counseling to deal with recent occurrences in the city. While counseling will be helpful, helping children resolve their experiences and related effects should also include creating meaningful opportunities for youth to publicly voice their viewpoints and engage in positive action.

There have already been some organic, grassroots efforts in this direction. Youth helped clean up the debris and destruction left over from the violence. Additionally, students self-organized to peacefully demonstrate as a counter to the earlier negative behavior of youth.

Hopefully, these youth-led efforts to address police-citizen interactions will continue and grow not just in Baltimore but in other areas. And concerned adults should make every effort to empower them every step of the way.

Andrea L. Dennis is an associate professor of law at the University of Georgia School of Law where she teaches and researches criminal law and procedure, family law and juvenile law.