Youth Justice


What’s on the minds of many high school students these days—the start of a new school year, getting a driver’s license, worrying whether they’ll make the team, perhaps daydreaming about college and sweating over SAT exams? But that’s not what three Black male high school students told a Children’s Defense Fund audience this summer they’re thinking and worrying about.

Aijalon “AJ” Morris is beginning his senior year at Pearl-Cohn Entertainment Magnet High School in Nashville, Tennessee. “I have no friends that I grew up with. I have lost five this year and I have lost three to prison . . . I was in fifth grade and I lost my [first] friend. He got killed. Seventh grade, my friend killed somebody, and he’s in jail for life . . . From my freshman year to now, I have been to 12 to 13 funerals. And I grew up with everybody that I went to those funerals with, and now they’re gone. It’s hard to cope with it. It’s hard to—sometimes I cry all night, you know, and I ask God why.”

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L to R: E’Darrius Smith, Jermaine
Simmons, Aijalon “AJ” Morris

In middle school AJ was a star athlete. By eighth grade he was already receiving offers to play football in college but after he was sidelined by injuries his sophomore year everything changed. “I lost hope. I stopped going to school. And during those times I was going through a lot with my family. I was homeless. I didn’t have anything to wear, didn’t have anything to wear to school, you know, nothing like that. I didn’t even know where I was going to get my next meal. And everything was gone.” No one seemed to care. “I remember a whole month—a whole month we ate bread. We ate toast for a whole month.”

E’Darrius Smith, a budding and talented artist, is also a rising senior at Pearl-Cohn. “I had a good friend that I grew up with . . . He ended up dying because he was robbed and he tried to fight back and they ended up shooting him in the chest. So they ended up killing him. And when I found this out, you know, I almost cried, but at the same time [you’ve] seen so many classmates and so many people …you just sort of say, ‘Man, I sort of knew that was going to happen.’”

Jermaine Simmons is a junior at Pearl-Cohn. “We live in the worst conditions where nobody helps you. And we live in a condition where you’ve got to watch your back every 30 seconds. You know, you don’t know when you’re going to get robbed, you don’t know [when] you’re going to get shot, you don’t know [when] you’re going to get stabbed . . . For some of us that is our reality.”

The daily violence, poverty, despair, and isolation that saturate the lives of these youths are morally unconscionable. Where are the adults who should be providing safe harbors for children? E’Darrius talked about some of the missing adults in his life: “Most of the men in my family, they were either locked up or dead, so I didn’t have a lot of attention at home. So when I got to school it was all about rep. It was all about making a name for yourself.” But then when students got into trouble he said school discipline polices hurt more than they helped: “When we act up and that zero tolerance policy hits us, instead of actually sitting us down and asking us, you know, ‘what’s wrong? Why are you doing this?’ . . .  the only thing they do is they send us to ISS [in-school suspension] or they detain us and they deny us…the education instead of actually trying to teach it to us.”

Everywhere children and youths like AJ, E’Darrius, and Jermaine are crying out for help—cries that often fall on deaf rather than discerning ears. Where are the adults? Where is the church when parents are in prison or AWOL on drugs and children are left to cope alone often struggling to care for younger siblings and to find food for long periods without a soul to turn to? Where are the neighbors? Where are the schools and community organizations? Who reaches out to see what the problem is? Does anyone see this child/youth desperately in need of help and hope? Who listens or offers a helping hand amidst the violence and despair they face daily?

These three teens are very lucky that they have a mentor in Reverend Damien Durr, a gifted teacher-preacher they can rely on. Damien is a member of the Children’s Defense Fund’s Nashville organizing team but also is a social and emotional counselor at Pearl-Cohn High with a special focus on helping Black male students stay out of the cradle-to-prison pipeline who is available 24/7. Every school should be like Pearl-Cohn and find ways to offer the additional support these struggling children need. AJ now dreams of becoming a kinesiologist, Jermaine — a social studies teacher, and E’Darrius — a freelance artist, one of whose fine paintings I look at every day when I step out of CDF’s national headquarters elevator.

Damien and the school’s innovative program are helping fill a deep void for these Black male teens struggling to survive and grow up at the treacherous intersection of race and poverty. But he is a drop in the bucket of need for these drowning children. Where are the other neighborhood, community, school, and faith congregation mentors and role models? And where are those calling for common sense gun laws so that walking down the streets or to school is not like a showdown at the OK Corral? Where are the outreach workers from community agencies to knock on doors from time to time and see who’s there and what children’s needs might be? Wouldn’t it be wonderful if all schools had a Damien or two in them for their high needs children?

All children need adults who will listen and care, AJ says: “Especially dealing with young troubled Black youth, because we go through so much . . . and people don’t take the time out to see it or to think about what we have gone through, trying to come to school and learn and go home and deal with the problems that we have to deal with.” He had special advice for teachers: “I may not want to do this lesson today.  I might need some motivation. I might be feeling down. I might have just lost a friend last night or this morning and I don’t want to do any work. And people take that—never asking—as an act of defiance, and you get sent to ISS or you get kicked out of class or you get expelled, when all you needed to do was just, ‘Hey, what’s wrong?’”

AJ seemed to speak for them all when he said it would be good if every adult made the effort to really understand Black boys. “If you walked down the street, you wouldn’t know that I have been through what I have been through. You know what I’m saying? . . . I’m not trying to be racist or anything, but that’s what most White people think: Oh, he’s just another Negro. You know what I’m saying? And they don’t take the time out to get to know us, and I feel like people should.”

Yes we should — adults of every color, those who work with children of any color in our schools and other community institutions, and those responsible for keeping them safe in the war zones of their daily lives. The violence, poverty, and trauma these young people face would be unthinkable for anybody—and yet we leave countless children to cope with death and fear daily and often all alone. What are our responsibilities to our children and youths to offer them respect and hope and education and jobs and open up rather than close doors to a positive future?

E’Darrius said Damien Durr has been an invaluable mentor because he taught him he can’t wallow in self-pity about the circumstances he comes from—he must rise up. But countless other youths need but lack a Damien in their lives to help them overcome the overwhelming odds threatening to drag them down. They need parents and grandparents. They need caring teachers and principals and social workers and health care workers. They need faith communities whose doors are open to compete with the drug and gun dealers. They need positive alternatives to the streets and the gangs and sadly too often to the police and law enforcement agencies entrusted to protect them. They need positive role models who have experienced many of their struggles and show them that they can overcome them with perseverance. They need people who will simply speak to them and say hello and good morning and see their strengths and give them a sense of being seen and heard. They need community and political leaders willing to fight for fair opportunities against the grinding structural poverty, racism, and relentless violence that envelope them and choke their lives and dreams. They need people who care and help rather than judge or ignore them.

Where are you and the adults you know and the organizations you belong to who could extend a hand and voice to these invisible poor children and youths who need hope?

Marian Wright Edelman is President of the Children’s Defense Fund whose Leave No Child Behind® mission is to ensure every child a Healthy Start, a Head Start, a Fair Start, a Safe Start and a Moral Start in life and successful passage to adulthood with the help of caring families and communities. For more information go to

Mrs. Edelman’s Child Watch Column also appears each week on The Huffington Post.