116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Last month, the Iowa Department of Human Rights released data that showed racial disparities in the Iowa criminal justice system extend to children in the Cedar Rapids Community School District.
This information seems less than surprising; Iowa is already known to suffer some of the worst racial disparities in the country. Introducing an arm of this institution into public schools and expecting a different result is nonsensical. People and institutions carry their implicit biases with them wherever they go.
When the in-school disparities came to light, the Cedar Rapids Police Department reacted by describing the school-to-prison pipeline as a myth, a fragile response that was both tragically unhelpful and woefully predictable.
Having taken my own trip from sophomore year to juvenile incarceration, I have no intention of attempting to prove the existence of the pipeline to those who refuse to acknowledge it because to do so disrupts their own self-image. Instead, I got in touch with some of the people working tirelessly to create pathways to success for our youth despite the systemic barriers that threaten to render them a statistic.
The youth are not the problem.
Cedar Rapids’ oldest nonprofit, Tanager Place, provides a variety of support and empowerment services including on-site therapy in over 35 schools, a scholarship program and the only LGBTQ youth center in our community. CEO Okpara Rice said of their work, “We are having much more deliberate conversations about the school-to-prison pipeline. We are looking at the needs of our youth related to absenteeism, behavior, training for teachers … This is about a deeper relationship than just providing services — we must have a treatment mindset but more alignment with our clients holistically.”
Rice also touched on the current efforts by the district to address the disparities in SRO engagement: “There is a lot of work yet to be done, but people are coming to the table differently and having conversations about what we can improve on.”
This sentiment was echoed by Al O’Bannon, founder of Leaders, Believers, Achievers. LBA’s programs are divided into two categories: Healthy Lifestyles and CR Dreams, a leadership development program. “We focus on prevention and inspiring hope. A sense of value and belonging outside of the world that they have been seeing.” This work begins at LBA with the creation of personal goals and purpose statements and is supported by a team of people working to help students achieve them. “They create their own goals. We want them to be accountable for their own starting place.”
The Central City Development Corporation is an organization working to provide restorative justice and restorative practices training in the Cedar Rapids area. Director of Program Delivery and Transformation Dr. Kathleen Bevins described current efforts: “Our current local efforts are primarily focused on restorative practices and gun violence prevention as well as working with the violence intervention initiative with Greater Cedar Rapids Community Foundation. We are in the middle of a deep dive restorative justice series, and our next session will be focused on systems and schools.”
Bevins acknowledges that there is work to be done in generating community support. “We need to build community capacity. If we want this in our school districts and judicial system, then people have to understand what it is and feel comfortable with it first in order to see the value.”
In 2020, Bevins worked with Central City Development Corporation and reSET 2020 on the Youth and Family Challenge. This initiative was one of the many projects supported by the Creating Safe, Equitable, and Thriving (SET) Communities Fund housed at the Greater Cedar Rapids Community Foundation.
I asked Program Officer Rachel Rockwell about the role of SET in disrupting the school-to-prison pipeline. “I would say that it is an explicit goal of SET and the Group Violence Intervention model. The purpose of the program is to keep young people safe, alive and out of prison.”
These are truly only a few of the many resources and individuals working to create positive change for youth in our community. It is also important to state that while these efforts are critical to creating tangible outcomes, the pipeline itself cannot be dismantled by addressing the youth in question, as if they are somehow to blame (or as if you could cure the illness by treating some of the symptoms and never addressing the root cause.) When it comes to these disparities, the youth are not the problem.
I say again: the youth are not the problem.
It is incumbent upon us — us the community; us the collective; us the village — to support the success of our children as best we are able. Please find links for donations to the programs mentioned above here:
The RFP for 2021 SET funding opened July 15. Details may be found at the Greater Cedar Rapids Community Foundation website.
Sofia DeMartino is a Gazette editorial fellow. Comments: email@example.com