Stigmas and Suspensions

Adolescents are criminalized at alarming rates, especially adolescents of color. Criminalization is the process of treating something or someone like a criminal, or at a criminal status. In his book “Punished: Policing the Lives of Black and Latino Boys”, author Victor M. Rios conducted a longitudinal study in Oakland by shadowing the lives of minority youth in the area, specifically Black and Latino boys. These boys are caught up in what Rios calls the “youth control complex”, a web of interlocking systems designed to keep these boys under punitive control not only in the streets, but in the schools and various other institutions as well. Once these boys are labeled as criminals, this label sticks with them in every aspect of their lives. Their parents see them as rebellious, their teachers see them as disruptive, and police officers and probation officers see them as a threat. Expectations are set too high, practically unachievable and unrealistic; they have to show up to school everyday on time, get good grades, not fight, not hang out with their old friends, all while going through probation processes, drug tests, etcetera. They’re set up to fail; no matter how willing they are to try and change their ways, there is always a roadblock keeping them from succeeding; maybe they can’t get to school on time because they have to take care of their siblings, and maybe they failed a test because their teachers and parents won’t help them study, and maybe they have to see their friends because they’re also their neighbors. Life keeps getting in the way for these boys, and everyday is a fight for freedom, individuality and respect.

I found a likeness to myself in Darius. It seems odd that I would make this comparison, or connection rather, to a sixteen-year-old African American male when I myself am a twenty-one year old Caucasian female. From what I read about Darius in chapters five and six of Rios’ book, some of his character traits remind me of myself at that age. Much like Darius in his first years of high school, when I was fourteen, I was what you would might call “dummy smart” in school; I would disrupt class, start fights, hang out with the bad kids, smoke cigarettes in the bathrooms during lunch, all whilst getting straight A’s and perfect attendance. It was my own little form of rebellion. I was a little shit-head, but my parents didn’t know the difference because I got good grades. My teachers expected me to be trouble, but I often caught them off guard with my insight and intelligence.

Granted my high school experience was assumedly very different from Darius’, we do share certain stigmas, one of which is the kid who has been suspended. In my school, people rarely got suspended, and when they did, everyone knew about it. It doesn’t take long for people to assume the worst of you, and since I already had this dummy-smart persona, my reputation went from bad to worse during my freshman year of high school when I was fourteen years old. I was suspended for two weeks when my upperclassman boyfriend and myself were busted for drinking alcohol at an after-prom party hosted by the school. After removing us from the property and calling our parents, the administrators agreed upon a two-week suspension, effective immediately.

When my two-weeks was up, I returned to school. My parents and the principal advised me not to talk to any of my peers about prom night. I got mixed emotions from people, and this made it hard not to talk about what happened because there were some craaaazzzzzyyyyy rumors going around the school. I had to defend myself to almost everyone, but I noticed I was especially defending myself to teachers. I wasn’t seen as a troubled, but intelligent, fourteen year old girl; I was just seen as the fourteen-year-old girl that got suspended for drinking. This stigma pervaded my remaining four years of high school and only enraged my dummy-smart attitude. I hated authority more than ever, and I believe they hated me to.

Why was I acting “dummy-smart” and what I was rebelling against? I was rebelling against the system. All of it. My plan was (and still is) to raise awareness that people perceived a certain way, whether that is “hyphy”, or “delinquent” or “deviant”, need to be empathized with and given structured, fair opportunity. The phrase “cut them some slack” comes to mind. Why are we so quick to punish outcast youths who are perceived to be a problem? This leads to this repeated behavior in adulthood. Intervention is needed, but not the punitive kind. We have to remember that these people are young. We all did stupid things when we were in our adolescent period of “storm and stress”, but should this stigma be allowed to determine our future and ruin our lives? Of course not.

 

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