Searching for solutions: Why are black kids arrested more often than white kids?

In recent years, black youth have been arrested as much as four times as white kids, while representing 40% of the population. In recent years, black youth have been arrested as much as four times as white kids, while representing 40% of the population.

Author’s note:

With race at the heart of this story, an editorial decision was made to identify every person’s race in this piece. This may appear jarring or unnecessary to readers, but the aim is to be fair in our descriptions of people and, more so, to draw attention to racial conceptions and how they influence awareness and decision-making processes.


There’s good news: Over the last 15 years, Charlottesville police have drastically reduced the number of kids they’re arresting—from 324 children in 2000 to only 26 in 2015. With more than 4,000 school-age children in the city, that means less than 1 percent will ever be arrested.

But there’s a problem. Nearly every year, the vast majority of youth police arrest are black. And it’s not just arrests. Black kids are stopped and frisked by cops more often. They’re sent to court more often. People call the cops on them more often. They’re placed on probation more often. Schools suspend them more often.

And here’s the rub: Black juveniles only make up about 40 percent of Charlottesville’s youth, while white kids make up 51 percent. And yet, black kids have been arrested as much as four times as often. This is called racial disproportionality: When black and white children do not enter the criminal justice system at a rate that’s proportional to their population levels. The phenomenon, called Disproportionate Minority Contact, is true for both black kids and adults.

For the last 20 years, in one way or another, the city has been collecting and analyzing data on DMC in an attempt to reduce and, ultimately, stop it. Nearly four years ago, the city got more serious about tackling juvenile DMC and brought together more than 40 people—about half white and half black—to form the Charlottesville Task Force on Racial Disparities and Disproportionality, or what’s become known as the juvenile DMC Task Force.

Since then, the task force has devoted thousands of hours to the issue. And in 2014, a team of UVA researchers with a $50,000 state grant issued a 110-page reportAround this time I became aware and interested in the issue. I grew up in the city and went to Charlottesville High School. I’m white, and as a teenager I was on probation in the juvenile justice system myself. For the last decade, I’ve been working as a journalist, and as I watched the task force make more than a dozen recommendations and prompt a bevy of wide-ranging training, education, policy and outreach changes in the city, I became aware of the importance of this story. So, over the last two years, I’ve conducted hour-plus long interviews with more than 30 people either directly affected by DMC or deeply involved in examining it. I wanted to find out what has been done, why some in our city remain frustrated and angry, what the future holds for Charlottesville’s youth and, perhaps the most complicated of all, why DMC exists in the first place?

‘The question we continue to ask is: “why?”’

Mike Murphy, head of the DMC Task Force, says it will re-examine the latest data from the Virginia Department of Juvenile Justice every six months, keeping a close eye on disproportionality, and that programs and trainings will be tweaked as needed. Photo: Amy Jackson
Mike Murphy, head of the DMC Task Force, says it will re-examine the latest data from the Virginia Department of Juvenile Justice every six months, keeping a close eye on disproportionality, and that programs and trainings will be tweaked as needed. Photo: Amy Jackson

Last summer a group of five frustrated DMC task force members sent a letter to City Council. “Despite the significant expense of time and resources in pursuing this mission, the Task Force has fallen short of many of the reasonable expectations we have had for it. Three years after its inception, the question we continue to ask is ‘why?’” they wrote. In total, more than 100 people signed on, many of them black community members.

In their lengthy report, issued a year earlier, UVA researchers examined nearly every available piece of state and local data from the police department, the commonwealth attorney’s office and probation and court services. At each juncture, researchers and the task force looked for behavior patterns that exposed bias either against black children, or for white children.

“We asked the question, and that was the purpose of our research—to see what is, and try and figure out why. And I understand that from certain parties there’s dissatisfaction that we can’t point to: This is what it is,” says Mike Murphy, smacking his hand for emphasis on the table in his City Hall office. Murphy, who is white, is the head and driving force behind the task force. He’s worked for the city for 21 years, most recently as director of human services and now as assistant city manager. He says it would be a different story “if we knew that this came only from this particular sector, or these were all officer-initiated, or they all came from probation violations, or they all came from the school system or only these two people, right? But that’s not the story of what we learned.”

The task force’s report found several reasons why DMC exists. “Low socioeconomic status” and “a lack of parental supervision and guidance” played significant roles among kids involved in the juvenile justice system, it stated. But, Murphy points out, while these are likely true, the data on these fronts is lacking. Intake officers don’t keep detailed records about a child’s financial situation, the quality of their home life or what other risk factors they may be exposed to, such as drugs, violence or abuse.

“Everybody has background experiences that provide assets and barriers,” Murphy says. “You would need to do that individualized look, and even then, you can’t factor out for resiliency, and all these other factors. You would have to look at the kids who never got involved with court. I don’t know how to do the research that would get us to what that ‘why’ is, unless it is something…” Murphy trails off, taking a moment to think. “It’s not an obvious, glaring thing,” he says. “We would have unpacked that in what we’ve already done.”

If no overtly racist cops, probation officers or prosecutors emerged from the data, it begs the question: What about something more subtle? The task force’s report also says that “unconscious racial bias” contributes to DMC.

Emily Dreyfus is one of the most active Task Force members—about half of the 40 attended meetings regularly—and an author of last year’s letter to City Council. She’s the community education and outreach director at JustChildren, the state’s largest legal advocacy program for kids, run through the Legal Aid Justice Center. “The real root cause is something that is uncomfortable for people to discuss, it’s difficult to discuss, it’s hard to measure,” says Dreyfus, who is white. “I think there are a lot of people working within this juvenile justice system who are doing their best and trying really hard and may or may not know whether there are ways that we could address bias, implicit bias. Or decision-making that affects black children in different ways than it’s affecting white children. Those are all issues that we should spend more time with.”

Implicit biases are the prejudicial, usually negative, thoughts unconsciously triggered by the mere presence of someone or something. They’re the result of being raised in our respective cultures, by our particular parents or guardians, in our specific neighborhoods, at our different schools. They vary widely and can center around people of different ages or religions or, in this case, race.

For example, federal studies found that realtors show far fewer homes to black homebuyers than those who are white, despite buyers being equally qualified. Most people aren’t aware of their implicit biases or, if they are, rarely acknowledge them. American culture prizes itself on treating everyone equally, on being colorblind. “A great place to live for all of our citizens,” is Charlottesville’s motto. But that is not the reality that many black residents here experience.

Closed minds

“Oh my lord yes,” says Dave Chapman when asked if racism exists in Charlottesville. As the city’s commonwealth attorney, he sits at the epicenter of the criminal justice system. Racism mostly shows up with witnesses in court, says Chapman, who is white. “From time to time, you get a glimpse of it that’s so stark. You see somebody talking about another person in such a way that they’re laying bare an animosity that doesn’t have to do with anything but their race,” says Chapman, an active task force member.

Racism is a heavy question, and one posed to everyone interviewed for this story. Most agree—whether overt, implicit or systemic—racism still very much exists throughout the country, and Charlottesville is no exception. So, when a report suggests factors such as “low socioeconomic” and “lack of parental supervision” contributed heavily to DMC, it’s hard not to see the role historical racism has played in creating those realities. “There are people, and I’m among them, who understand that even the accumulation of risk factors can be reflective of disadvantage or racism. And it’s longitudinal, over time,” says Chapman.

Charlottesville’s first black city manager, Maurice Jones, shares similar thoughts. “As for systemic racism, there is no doubt that past institutional discrimination has influenced where we are today in our community,” he says in an e-mail. “The denial for many years of equal access to education, training and good jobs has had a generational effect.” Jones stresses that the city is doing a lot to address these issues, pointing to new scholastic, employment and human rights efforts. But it’s worth noting that Charlottesville didn’t magically arrive at this moment.

For hundreds of years, white people in Charlottesville have deliberately disenfranchised, undermined and ignored black people. White people bought and sold black people as property in Court Square. And since slavery’s banning, black people have been systematically refused access to education, employment, health care, housing and voting rights. Only 57 years ago did schools begin to desegregate, and not without vehement protest from many white city residents. Charlottesville schools were closed for five months before reopening and eventually admitting black students. (In 2009 the City Council officially apologized for its role in “Massive Resistance,” the state’s effort to block the Supreme Court-mandated racial integration of public schools.)

In the first half of the 20th century racial covenants in house deeds frequently prevented black residents from buying property in prosperous areas of the city. As a result, the property many black residents did own didn’t appreciate in value. This prevented them from taking out loans—few white-run banks would even lend to black residents—which further prevented their children from going to college. And the University of Virginia has only been admitting black students without serious objection for the last 50 years.


In the fall of 1963 the Daily Progress carried the front page news that the Klu Klux Klan had bombed a black church in Alabama, killing four young girls and wounding nearly two-dozen others. That same day, if readers turned to the paper’s classified section, they’d have found employment ads such as, “Colored short order cook wanted, full time work.” The majority of jobs black residents were limited to in those years were for low-paying work: “Colored man, able-bodied and sober, for coal yard,” read one ad from 1951. “Colored man for janitor work. Apply Monticello Hotel,” read another.

In 1955 a cross was burned on the lawn of a white family’s home on High Street because the father had worked with a prominent black civil rights activist.The following year, another cross was burned outside the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Unitarian Church by a white supremacist group from New Jersey that objected to the church’s support of racial integration. A week later, yet another cross was burned on the lawn of city resident Sarah Patton Boyle, a white desegregationist with strong ties to black civil rights groups.

This was just years before the city’s all-white government moved to demolish the largest black neighborhood in Charlottesville, the 20-acre parcel downtown called Vinegar Hill. The city justified the razing, which it called “urban renewal,” because many houses didn’t have indoor plumbing and weren’t up to code. The city paid homeowners a fair market value and provided moving costs to 140 black families and 29 businesses, most of which were black-owned and forced to permanently close as a result.

Some black residents say too much focus on the past hinders future progress. But for most black city residents—rich and poor—this history is an inescapable part of daily life. And there’s a common thread that pertains directly to DMC, some say. While some black residents have held prominent public positions in recent decades—three of the 16 mayors elected since 1974 have been black—history has largely told black communities that their opinions don’t matter, that they don’t have the same rights as white people and that they aren’t valued as part of the city of Charlottesville.

“We sometimes get fooled because we have a black superintendent of schools, a black city manager,” says M. Rick Turner, the head of the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. “While these are certainly significant accomplishments—in the bigger picture, these positions mean very little when it comes to creating meaningful change in the quality of life for the majority of Charlottesville’s black community. The unfortunate truth is the city has been going along with inequity for so long that blindness to fundamental injustice is embedded in its structure.”

Deirdre Gilmore agrees, saying that people have to first be open to changing what’s in their hearts. Gilmore, who is black, is an active task force member and public housing advocate who’s pushed for better communication between the city and African-American communities.

“If you don’t even want to hear the stories, and you don’t respect what we say to you, then how will anything change?” asks Gilmore. “If you go in with your mind closed, thinking, ‘Those people are like this and like that,’ we’re already defeated. If your hearts are made of stone and your mind is closed, can’t nothing penetrate, nothing is going to change.”

‘I’ve heard it before’

In an effort to engage communities, the task force held a series of forums last year in the largest public housing neighborhoods where DMC is most prevalent—Friendship Court, Westhaven, South First Street and Greenstone on 5th.

On a cold January evening, about 55 adults—roughly 20 black and 35 white—made their way to the community center in Westhaven, the 225-unit public housing community where the city encouraged black residents to move to after “urban renewal.” Task force members aimed to “provide an update” and “gather your input” about the previous 18 months of work and its future plans, according to the event’s flier. It read: “Want less of this?” next to a drawing of three black teenagers in orange jumpsuits with the word “juvenile” printed on their backs. Underneath, it read: “And more of this?” and pointed to a smiling young black man in a graduation cap.

A child’s painting of Martin Luther King Jr. hung on the wall as every folding chair in the community center filled and people crowded the edges of the room. Facilitating the event was Charlene Green, who’s black and been involved in race conversations in the city for more than a decade. She’s now the head of the Office of Human Rights. Green stood at the front of the room using giant white sheets of paper on an easel to write down comments: “Looking for respect in interactions”; “training for police”; “education about citizen rights.”

One by one, people spoke up. “There is a perception that you come in with an attitude,” said Joy Johnson, a longtime Westhaven resident who is black, directing her remarks to the two city police officers in the room. “I wave to the police all the time because I don’t care who sees me talking to them, but a lot of them don’t wave back. They don’t even speak.”       

Another Westhaven resident, April Oliver, described a time she was pulled over by police on her way to work as a nurse. “You pulled me over for nothing, because you were racially profiling me because I was coming out of the projects at 11 o’clock at night,” said Oliver, who is black.

The tension between black residents and white city staff rose to a crescendo when several directed questions and comments toward Chapman, whose office had prosecuted some of their friends and loved ones over the last two decades. Chapman attempted to respond at points, but Green insisted, “I want this to be about the community response.”

Residents said they didn’t trust the police department, the court system or the city. At several points, Green asked the group about task force ideas, such as creating peer advocates to help families navigate the complex juvenile justice system. But they fell on frustrated hearts. “I’ve been through Vinegar Hill and all of it,” said Mary Carey, who is black. “And none of it has changed. Faces have changed, people have changed, but the ideas have not changed. So what you’re saying now, I agree with you, but I’ve heard it before.”

Three hours worth of frustrations were heard. Wanting to know the response to the forums from Murphy and City Councilors, I requested copies of their e-mails through the Freedom of Information Act. Largely, everyone acknowledged the severity of concerns raised, but one email stood out. It was dated the following evening and sent to Murphy from Charlottesville Police Chief Tim Longo, expressing his displeasure with the nature of the forum.

“Frankly, it is not a productive use of my time or that of my staff to be engaged in a conversation that is laced with anger, disrespect and an unwillingness to build trust, develop relationship, and commit to a spirit of positive collaboration to reach a common good,” wrote Longo, who didn’t attend the forum. “I am concerned that future meetings will continue to rehash what has already been expressed since the onset of this process. If there is no desire to get beyond what has already been stated, and restated again, I suggest we pursue another remedy or means by which to facilitate future discussions.”

Longo, who is white, was clearly frustrated that his efforts to build a more community-friendly police force had gone unnoticed. But his comments also resemble those expressed by some other white city residents—though none on the task force—who say black frustrations are old history. Move on, they say. Not exactly, says City Councilor and Vice-Mayor Wes Bellamy, who is black. “You have to provide people with the opportunity to get things off their chest and say why they feel the way they do, because these issues have been going on for so long,” says Bellamy. “You never want to get into a situation in which you’re saying, ‘All right people, that’s enough of that. Let’s move on.’ You always are going to have to be able to listen to people. But it’s going to take building trust and having people trust that you will be working on bringing about a solution and a change.” Longo did not respond to a request for further comment and he has since retired.

Understanding others

Shymora Cooper is an active member of the Task Force on Racial Disparities and Disproportionality, which studies the rate at which black kids enter the juvenile justice system as compared with white children. A mother of three, she frequently tries to get adults and kids alike involved in community issues. Photo: Amy Jackson
Shymora Cooper is an active member of the Task Force on Racial Disparities and Disproportionality, which studies the rate at which black kids enter the juvenile justice system as compared with white children. A mother of three, she frequently tries to get adults and kids alike involved in community issues. Photo: Amy Jackson

As any parent knows, and as Shymora Cooper quickly points out, children are remarkably observant. So while the adult community’s focus on systemic racism and classism may seem separate from the juvenile scope of the task force, it’s actually directly related. Cooper works for the Charlottesville Redevelopment & Housing Authority, and is a public housing advocate and resident. She’s an active task force member and a mother of three. If kids see their parents treated a certain way, she says, that’s how they expect to be treated.

“The children especially lose hope, because they feel like nobody cares. And that’s for the community too,” says Cooper, who is black and frequently tries to get others—kids and adults—involved in community issues like DMC. “Oftentimes I hear, ‘Why would I get involved? Nobody cares, nobody’s going to do something. Y’all been fighting this fight for so long and still nothing’s changed. So why get involved or why do anything? Nobody cares about us.’ And then you take that anger and that built-up frustration that you don’t know how to turn it into a positive, so then you turn it into a negative.”      

That distrust runs so deeply that many black Charlottesville families wouldn’t speak for attribution for this article. They worried there could be negative ramifications. They might get passed over at work during the next round of promotions, labeled a rabble-rouser or worse, one mother said. What’s more, parents of children involved in the juvenile justice system often said they didn’t want the glaring attention an article could bring. And even some parents whose kids weren’t in the system worried that writing about their son or daughter might spell bad news.

One 18-year-old named Kimani agreed to talk on the record, in hopes his story would help adults better understand what kids go through. Sitting on his family’s front porch in the city, we talk for several hours. Kimani says he first became aware he’d be treated differently as a black man in America when he was 6 years old. His grandmother taught him the “rules, regulations and boundaries” that would apply to him, he says. As a young teen he pushed those boundaries, moving in and out of the Blue Ridge Detention Center, mostly for short stretches, two days, five days. The longest was 21 days. By the time he was a junior in high school, Kimani says he had only two of the 22 school credits needed to graduate. He didn’t like that. Over the next two years, he worked relentlessly. And, earlier this year, he earned his diploma.

He says teenagers often feel that people in positions of power—teachers, police officers, judges—don’t take the time to develop compassion and empathy for the kids they interact with. “You’ve got to understand people and their background, what they go through and what they’ve been through,” he says. “Because you could judge somebody that’s been in six different foster homes, and you can never know that, and they’re doing stuff that you’d never understand because you’ve never been in that situation.”

Kimani’s mom comes home during her lunch break from the UVA Medical Center. “I’ve got a good mom,” he tells me before she arrives. Kimani gets up and gives her his seat on the porch, so we can talk. She tells me about how hard it is to climb the professional ladder. She’s constantly overlooked, as her superiors opt to hire and promote their friends and family instead, she says. I ask if race is a factor. “Let me say this, there’s not too many black people who get those positions,” she says. Even black people in positions of power, she says, are hesitant to help other black people for fear of jeopardizing that power. She feels trapped. “It’s like a rat on a wheel,” she says. “You just go around and around because you don’t know where else to go. You don’t know how to get off that wheel and figure out what else to do because ain’t nobody else going to help you.”

She tries to keep Kimani from getting too cynical by focusing him on the present. “I tell him he needs to get a job, and try to do the best he can, because I don’t know what else to tell him,” she says. She takes their dog for a short walk, tells Kimani what’s in the fridge for dinner, and goes back to work. Kimani says he applied for work unsuccessfully at Staples and Boylan Heights restaurant and finally landed a job as a part-time painter. But his real passions are music, English and computer technology.

Reflecting on the state of black communities in Charlottesville, he says it saddens him to see the lifelong struggle many endure. He believes that if more love were shown, people would move past stereotypes and get to know one another, and the city could grow together. Instead, he sees a lot of division and hatred. Asked what form that hatred takes in the city, he says “neglect.”

Showing empathy and gaining trust

Kimani, 18, earned his high school diploma earlier this year after being in and out of the juvenile justice system. He says teenagers often feel that people in positions of power—teachers, police officers, judges—don’t take the time to develop compassion for the kids they interact with. “You’ve got to understand people and their background, what they go through and what they’ve been through,” he says. Photo: Amy Jackson
Kimani, 18, earned his high school diploma earlier this year after being in and out of the juvenile justice system. He says teenagers often feel that people in positions of power—teachers, police officers, judges—don’t take the time to develop compassion for the kids they interact with. “You’ve got to understand people and their background, what they go through and what they’ve been through,” he says. Photo: Amy Jackson

Members of the task force repeatedly stress that Charlottesville didn’t have to study juvenile DMC. There was no state or federal mandate. In fact, only one other city in Virginia has come close to examining it to the same extent. That means Charlottesville cares, says Mike Murphy. Asked if he’s frustrated that the task force hasn’t pinpointed exactly why more black kids are entering the criminal justice system, he says not necessarily. “We’re doing the work. It hasn’t stopped us from generating what we think will make changes. And I think there’s evidence that we’re heading in the right direction.”


Last year, only 26 kids were arrested—15 white, 11 black—compared with 74 in 2011. And the racial ratio was more proportional than almost any other year—58 percent white, 42 percent black. Some of that is an “observer effect,” Murphy says, meaning that the city and task force’s attention on DMC has made people working in the juvenile justice system more conscious of their actions. But part of the new proportionality may also be from actions the task force has taken to focus on prevention, intervention, behavior modeling, education and better communication.

With Longo’s support, the task force last year used a $25,000 state grant—and $2,788 in city funds—to train city police officers in the Strategies For Youth program. By the end of the year, all 115 officers are expected to be trained in SFY. About half have taken it so far.

Day one of the two-day training teaches officers the neurological differences between adults and kids. “Youth interpretations of authority, their interpretations of language and tone, are all different than adults,” says Charlottesville Police Officer Tara Sanchez, who is black and conducts the training. “And we have to refocus our lens to approach them to try to connect with them, to show empathy so that we can gain trust. It gives us the tool to say, ‘These kids are just kids, and what is their world? What are the value systems that they believe and trust in?’ And if we can speak to that, then maybe we can break down some of the barriers and foster more relationships. Officers learn that a child’s brain develops into his early-20s and traumatic experiences, like poverty and violence, significantly alter that growth, causing him to react to situations in ways that may surprise adults.

The second day of training involves role-playing with kids from the community, pushing officers to put their new knowledge into practice. Officers also learn about resources to use for children in crisis, perhaps as alternatives to detention—Region Ten, Ready Kids and Big Brother Big Sisters. “It’s great to see, because, as an officer, it’s like, ‘Whoa! We have all of this help’,” says Sanchez.

Officers learn about socioeconomic biases, says Sanchez. Just because a child lives in a poor neighborhood doesn’t mean he has an unhealthy family life, and vice versa. But that’s as close to the issue of race that the training gets, which has frustrated some on the task force.       

Charlene Green is the head of the Office of Human Rights and has conducted many diversity training workshops over the years. She’s also one of the few civilians to have taken the SFY training. “Because it is my focus, I may have wanted [SFY] to spend a little bit more time on the identity piece of: what does it mean to be a black kid? A bi-racial kid? Perhaps a kid who is gay or lesbian, that sort of thing? Because that affects the way they interact with other folks,” says Green.

Officers took a separate eight-hour class earlier this year, called Policing in the African-American Community, and the department has conducted several other cultural diversity trainings in the past couple years, some focused on Charlottesville’s history and demographics, say Maurice Jones and Charlottesville Police Department Lieutenant Steve Upman.

There is no clear way, however, to gauge SFY’s success. An officer could take the required training and blow it off, or take it completely to heart. But it’s better than nothing, says School Resource Officer Rob Neal, adding that in the 18 weeks of training new officers receive, interactions with juveniles is only covered for four hours.

It all starts with education

For the last two years, Neal has worked as an SRO at Charlottesville High School, where he graduated nearly two decades ago. Within the police department, SROs have the most regular contact with kids. Developing relationships and understanding students is vital, says Neal, who took the SFY training and now trains other officers in it.

“Strategies For Youth gives you the idea of, hey, this kid might be having a bad day. Yes, he’s young and his brain’s not developed, but what’s really going on? Did he get in a fight with his mom before he came to school? Is he stressed out because he has a test? We had a kid here not too long ago, where their father was going through trial. It’s those little things. And we didn’t know it until we talked to him,” says Neal, who is white.

Asking about their lives tells kids they’re valuable, Neal says, and it can address frustrations before they erupt into disruptions or violence. “My job is not to come over here and put misdemeanors and felonies and all that on kids’ records. That’s not what we’re here to do. We’re here to help the kids,” says Neal.

In the SFY training Neal reminds officers that SROs are a valuable resource for them too. If there’s a student altercation during the day, he tries to give officers on evening patrol a head’s up. And vice versa. “If somebody fights over the weekend, it lets us know potentially, hey, it could be coming into school,” he says. That continuity of service makes everyone’s job easier and fosters relationships with kids. “It’s getting better, but it’s not where I’d like it to be,” says Neal of inner-department communication.

In 2014, SROs in all Charlottesville City Schools referred 15 kids ages 10-17 to the juvenile justice system, which was only about 14 percent of the 115 total kids referred into the system that year. That’s not a huge number, but it too is disproportionate—10 of the 15 were black students, five were white. Data for the two years Neal has worked at CHS is not yet available, but I asked him what role race plays in his interaction with kids. “As a police officer, I don’t pick the calls I go to—white, black, hispanic, whatever—we don’t pick it. So when we get there, we’ve got to deal with the situation,” he says. “If I had a white kid and a black kid do the exact same thing, I’d charge them with the same thing. I can’t control what happens after the court gets ahold of them. Once they go through the juvenile intake system, I don’t control what criminal history they have, I don’t control what juvenile intake is going to do, I don’t control what their probation officer’s going to do. So I don’t look at it as, the police officer’s going in with a biased attitude.”

Kids spend nearly half their waking hours in school. It critically shapes their ideas about life and their place in the world. “I believe it all starts with education,” says one black mother of a teenage boy. “Every child needs that fair chance in receiving education and every family should be looked at as they have a gift and they have value to offer their community. That disconnect creates anger, disappointment, self doubt, like you have no value in your community.

Virginia public schools suspended more than 73,000 students—about 6 percent of students—in the 2014-15 school year, according to a recent Legal Aid Justice Center report, which called it “a crisis.” However, the suspension rate in Charlottesville City Schools is lower, 5.5 percent of students suspended as compared with 11.3 percent in Roanoke, for example. And Charlottesville’s suspension numbers have steadily decreased, falling from 648 students in 2011-12 to 240 students last year.


Out-of-school suspensions at CHS—which has the city’s highest rate—dropped from 337 the year before to 115 suspensions in 2013-14. Outgoing Principal Jill Dahl, who is white, says staff began using in-school suspension more frequently to keep students engaged and not sent home unsupervised, and they brought aboard two mental health counselors to prevent suspendable behavior from arising. But, again, suspensions have always been, and continue to be, racially disproportionate. From 2011-2014, black students on average made up 79 percent of suspensions.

Another recent change in city schools is the adoption of Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports, which does away with the old paradigm of punishment, focusing instead on modeling, and even incentivizing, good behavior. “Punishing a child, especially for things that are not serious, and having him out of school is almost like a double whammy,” says Beth Baptist, director of student services and achievement at Charlottesville City Schools. “They might have learned what they did wrong, but not how to do it differently. And then they’re missing the academic part, which is more likely to cause discipline problems because they’re behind and frustrated.”

Shymora Cooper says that training like SFY and PBIS is a step in the right direction for police officers and teachers, but more needs to be done to address the racial disproportionality in how kids are treated. “African-American kids come from different cultures, so before teachers come to the school, they need to be trained on the different cultures that they’re going to deal with,” says Cooper, who has three children in city schools.

Baptist, who is white, says city schools conducted a diversity training several years ago and is looking to do it again, but no date has been set. She says that most training attempts to educate teachers on the cultural backgrounds of Charlottesville families, so that when they model certain behavior—keeping hands to oneself or standing quietly in line—they can tailor fit it to a student’s particular culture.

But Cooper feels her youngest, who’s 8, doesn’t get the attention he needs from his teacher, who’s white. And the attention he does get can be negative, she says. One day, she paid a surprise visit to his school and found him sitting alone at a desk away from his classmates. The teacher said another student had hit him in the face, causing Cooper’s son to scream uncontrollably. The teacher got scared and told him to sit by himself, says Cooper. Another time her son was put in timeout because he didn’t close his computer quickly enough, she says. “Those are things, as a teacher, that you should be able to deal with, and if you can’t deal with that, then guess what? You shouldn’t be teaching,” says Cooper.

ACE scores and Barking Dogs

On a sunny April day, I met Stephanie Carter in the conference room at Lugo McGinness Academy on the west side of the city. It was spring break, and the school, which would normally be teaming with adolescent energy, was quiet. LMA is a city-run alternative school for kids with discipline or behavioral issues that prevent them from attending Buford Middle School or CHS. Carter is the school’s program administrator, the equivalent of a principal. She refers to students as “my kids” and takes each of their successes and failures to heart. After we finish talking, she plans to pick up a student and take her to get her hair done. She’s applying for a job at the new Costco. That level of individual attention runs across the board at LMA. “Our unofficial motto is: Whatever it takes. Whatever you need to help you finish high school and have a good experience,” says Carter, who’s white.

Though LMA has only 26 students—55 percent black, 45 percent white—nearly all of them have been in contact with the juvenile justice system. If children have served 31 days or more in detention, they go to LMA. If they’re suspended from school too often for disciplinary issues, they go to LMA. If they’re chronically truant and miss too many days to rejoin class, LMA is where they go. What do all of these things have in common? What’s at their core? “A lot of the kids that end up in the juvenile justice system and disciplinary schools, who are not well-functioning in school environments, they often come from traumatized backgrounds,” says Carter. “So our kids are dealing with not only the past trauma, but we also are dealing with students whose brains have been overly trained in fight or flight.”

In fight or flight mode, a child’s “brain is not in the position to make sound decisions,” says Carter. Imagine trying to concentrate on a math test when your brain is behaving like a bear just attacked. This holds true for teachers and administrators as well, who can react poorly to escalating situations with overly harsh punishments. So, about 18 months ago, LMA made a huge shift in how it interacts with students by incorporating the PBIS modeling methods, and starting to use two tools called ACE scores—Adverse Childhood Experiences—and the Barking Dog.

An ACE score measures the level of trauma a child has experienced. It uses a series of 10 questions to assess whether a child is frequently physically or verbally assaulted, if his parents are divorced or separated, if a family member abuses drugs or alcohol, if a family member has been imprisoned. It’s never officially conducted with a student—that could risk re-traumatizing him—but rather, it’s a tool for teachers and administrators to use mentally. And although no single answer is a sure indicator that a child has been negatively affected, if taken together, the answers can paint a picture. Out of the 10 questions, staff tallies how many a child could answer yes to.

“Four or higher is considered to be significant and can lead to dysfunction as a kid and adult. And a lot of our students end up with a score of four or higher,” says Carter. “It is a tool that we use to better understand our kids. For me, in a more holistic way, it’s a way for the staff to understand and really humanize our kids, and what they’ve been through and how can we support them.”

The other major shift has been the Barking Dog. When a person’s “dog” is “barking” that means he is entering fight or flight mode. There are indicators: you start sweating, your heart speeds up, your face gets hot, you breathe more heavily, more rapidly, movement gets more erratic, your voice level changes. At LMA, staff teach students to become aware of these signs. But then, staff take it one step further. They give students an out. They let them walk away from the situation to cool down. They’re encouraged to go play basketball for 20 minutes, take a walk around the block and even chew gum, which has shown to be a stress reliever.

“When your needs are not being met and you’re in the survival mode, there’s no self-reflection, because you’re concentrating on surviving, being in the moment and clawing and scraping to get what you need,” says Carter. “Barking Dog was huge because it gave us a language, a theory, a scale, a real foundation for what we wanted to do, which is meet their needs so they can then think about what other choices they could have made.”

Kimani went to LMA. He was in and out of the Blue Ridge Detention Center for short stints, getting in trouble, not going to class at CHS. And then, as he was facing his longest possible sentence of 90 days, the judge told him he had less than a year’s worth of school credits. “It kind of hit me that I can’t be doing this,” says Kimani. “I gotta think, I gotta process, I gotta use my head. Because shit’s not working in my favor. So I gotta make it mine.”

And something shifted. One-by-one, people started going to bat for him. Adults wrote letters of recommendation to the judge. Even the guards at the detention center vouched for the teen. I ask him if, aside from his mother, he’d ever had adults stand up for him like that. “Hell no,” he replies immediately. The feeling of being shunned by the school system, by society, had left him feeling degraded, he says. But this emergence of support gave him hope. At LMA, he made a detailed graduation plan and completed more than three years’ worth of classroom studies in less than two years. For the first time, he got the one-on-one attention he needed, the feeling of being valued by teachers, he says.

“For me, I need individual attention,” he says. “Because when I’m in a big classroom, I don’t get the attention I need. I feel like I’m over-asking and bugging the teacher. At Lugo, you’ve got people that’s going to work with you.”

In Carter’s opinion, if more schools adopted the approach that LMA has, the number of kids entering the juvenile justice system would drop significantly.

‘I do not consent to a search’

The task force hopes the SFY training gives cops more tools to understand kids and reduce juvenile arrests. But Emily Dreyfus and others say arrests don’t tell the whole story. Police interact with kids on city streets every day without arresting them, forming firm dynamics, perceptions and relationships, for better or worse.      

Charlottesville police stop black children on the street three to four times as often as white kids, according to data studied by the task force, which looked at whether those stops were initiated by officers alone or by a civilian report, then prompting an officer to stop the child. In both scenarios, black children were more likely to be stopped, and in some cases officers frisked them or checked their belongings.

Jeff Fogel, a lawyer and vocal task force member, has fought for police to release the details of their street stops, in hopes of better understanding the officer’s decision-making process and any potential implicit biases at play. But last year Charlottesville Circuit Court Judge Richard Moore, who is white, shot down the lawsuit Fogel, who is white, filed on behalf of the Public Housing Association of Residents and the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, saying they were investigative files and not for public release.

In an effort to teach kids how to interact with police and what their rights are, Dreyfus and JustChildren attorney Mario Salas created the Street Smarts workshop, which they’ve delivered to kids in South First Street, Sixth Street, Friendship Court, Lugo McGinness Academy and Westhaven, where I was allowed to observe a session last year.

Ten children, all black, showed up to the community center’s basement computer lab. One young girl, when the group was asked about the role of police officers, said they’re supposed to keep people safe, but in reality they beat people up. Several other kids agreed. Dreyfus said that police are there to protect people and keep communities safe, and it’s also important for kids to know their rights. She and Salas explained how to use phrases such as “Am I free to go?”, “I do not consent to a search” and “I want to help, but I don’t want to talk, I want a lawyer.” They advised the kids to always ask to speak with their parents and a lawyer if they’re detained by the police. “The young people not only benefit from more information, but have been able to process difficult situations, like being stopped and frisked for reasons that did not seem warranted,” Dreyfus wrote in an e-mail following the most recent Street Smarts session this month in Westhaven.

Last year, at the first Westhaven class, one girl said she was outside playing when a police officer started talking to her as he was walking by. She said he was friendly and she felt comfortable. Dreyfus explained to the group why more police were in their neighborhood. “The idea is that they will get to know you and your families and everybody else that lives around here and be able to keep the neighborhood safer by having those relationships,” said Dreyfus.

The move began  under Longo last year after police shootings of unarmed black men sparked an uproar across the country, from Ferguson, Missouri, to Baltimore, Maryland. The local effort has been called relational policing, and is coupled with things like Ice Cream with a Cop. What’s more, the department also took the advice of the task force and made some significant changes to its internal Juvenile Matters policy about how it interacts with children.

Dreyfus is “very encouraged” by the policy changes and hopes they help communities develop positive relationships with police officers, not just in times of crisis or adversity. But there’s more to be done. “I think we need to see what other types of formal policies can be changed and what types of prevention services can be increased and improved,” says Dreyfus.

A world to belong to

Sarad Davenport, director of City of Promise, takes a two-pronged approach in making sure kids in the surrounding community thrive. First, the kids map out life plans, called “future-oriented thinking,” and second he helps immerse them in the world outside their neighborhood, exposing them to art, literature and new experiences. Photo: John Robinson
Sarad Davenport, director of City of Promise, takes a two-pronged approach in making sure kids in the surrounding community thrive. First, the kids map out life plans, called “future-oriented thinking,” and second he helps immerse them in the world outside their neighborhood, exposing them to art, literature and new experiences. Photo: John Robinson

A block north of the Westhaven community center is a two-story blue house with a basketball hoop in the driveway and a large vegetable garden on the corner lot. This is the headquarters for City of Promise, a federally-funded and city-backed program born out of the city’s Dialogue on Race in 2009 and aimed at making sure the hundreds of kids in the surrounding community graduate high school and thrive in the world. While the Westhaven, 10th and Page and Starr Hill neighborhood is the largest black community in Charlottesville, City of Promise aims to serve every child in its footprint—no matter their skin color, income bracket or family background.

A former Westhaven resident himself, program director Sarad Davenport takes a two-pronged approach. First, kids map out life plans, developing what Davenport calls “future-oriented thinking.” Second, kids are immersed in the world outside their neighborhood, while simultaneously learning about the existing systemic racism and implicit bias. Kids are exposed to art, literature and new experiences. Last November Davenport took a teen who’d never been on a plane to the National League of Cities conference in Portland, Oregon. He also took a group to a General Assembly session in Richmond, and another to talk with the head of Virginia’s Department of Juvenile Justice. In April, on the local level, he took a group of young black men from the neighborhood to get Indian food on the Downtown Mall. They didn’t like it, he chuckled, but that wasn’t really the point. “I took them there because they don’t believe that that’s a place they should go,” says Davenport.

These experiences—along with a heightened focus on grades, friends and their families—help enliven and nurture the inherent value and purpose in each child, or, as Davenport likes to call it, “a sense of agency.” Society hasn’t historically been structured to create those opportunities for them, and so many kids aren’t regularly encouraged to strive for more, he says. If careers as mechanical engineers or radiologists don’t exist as possibilities—because of how the outside world judges where they live or the color of their skin—how can they strive for them? “If we’re all created equal, then let’s construct systems that reflect that idealism,” says Davenport.“For years, there would be an anomaly, like there’d be this one great, bright student. We want it to be an anomaly not to be socially and economically and academically and politically engaged in Charlottesville.”

Checking and connecting

As a “coach” at City of Promise for two years, Latara Ragland helped older teenagers in the neighborhood craft future plans and put them into action. But last year she took on a new role supporting a younger group of kids who face attendance and engagement hurdles in elementary school.

Four years ago, Gretchen Ellis, the city’s human service planner, led a study looking at case files of kids placed on probation in Charlottesville and Albemarle. “We found that over half of them had missed more than 20 days of school,” says Ellis, who is white. That same year, Rory Carpenter, a task force member and the city’s juvenile justice coordinator, wrote and received a state grant to fund a program called Check and Connect. Last year, they renewed the grant, this time partnering with City of Promise, allowing them to focus on kids in the surrounding Westhaven, 10th and Page, and Starr Hill neighborhoods. “Truancy, in our community, is a gateway to the juvenile justice system,” says Carpenter, who is white. “So we decided to focus on writing grants for prevention programs that would keep kids in school with the hope that that would help them stay out of trouble.”

Supporting Check and Connect is listed as one of the task force’s recommendations for programs that may help reduce DMC. It’s the first of the four years covered by this grant, and while Ragland focuses on elementary kids, a second coach, Chris Burton, who is white, works with fifth and sixth grade kids in the neighborhood. “We’re checking in with students, with families, with teachers, and then connecting them to other resources and services that they might need,” says Ragland, who is black.

Many nonprofits have traditionally used a we-need-to-help-them approach when trying to support low-income families, but this maintains an us vs. them dynamic that perpetuates relationships based on victimhood and powerlessness. Both City of Promise and Check and Connect have tried to move away from that model, focusing instead on empowering families and restore their value as a part of the community, says Ragland.

“I think it starts with building a relationship and genuinely caring about other people and their well being,” says Ragland.  “I had to retrain my brain a little bit, because I was always focused on: The kids! The kids! And you have to hone in everybody…because it is about the whole family.” And so, while she does give early-morning rides to kids who oversleep and miss the bus, Ragland’s job goes beyond the twice-a-week visits to Burnley Moran Elementary where she engages with her group of 13 kids, or the two times each week she hangs out with them after school, doing homework.

Ragland says she tries to really listen to how families want to be supported. Sometimes she goes to school concerts or takes kids to City Clay for pottery classes. Other times she advocates for parents at conferences with teachers and works with them to craft plans for their child’s success. But it’s all founded on building a partnership with each family. One of Ragland’s biggest points of pride has been working with four neighborhood mothers to help ensure they have transportation and child care—two of the biggest impediments to higher education—as they take classes toward nursing and medical degrees. The moms want to make their kids proud and show them what’s possible when they set their minds to it, says Ragland. “And the attitudes of the kids change,” she says. “The kids are happy, [they’re] going to school. They might be late once in a while, but they want to go. They see their mom happy. They’re happy.”

“I want to see them get to where they want to be,” she says of the parents she works with. “All of us have goals and visions, but sometimes they suppress what they want for themselves because they’re trying to live, trying to survive.”

‘Breaking the cycles’

The systemic poverty that racist historical policies created has far-reaching effects.

Nearly 1,250 families in Charlottesville make less than $25,000 a year, according to the latest Orange Dot report released last September. About 525 of those families are black, and 725 white—or, about 42 percent black, 58 percent white. But black families only make up about 21 percent of the city’s population. 

Ridge Schuyler is the author of the Orange Dot report and the dean of community self-sufficiency programs at Piedmont Virginia Community College, where he focuses on putting low-income residents on career paths to lift themselves out of poverty. “The vast majority of our struggling families consist of women and their children,” wrote Schuyler, who is white, in his report. “Absent a sustained and intentional effort, nearly half of these children born into no- or low-income families will remain there the rest of their lives.”

Within the task force, Gretchen Ellis is known as the “data guru,” because she’s studied the issue of juvenile racial disproportionality for decades. “If you had to ask me, as somebody who’s been involved in this particular project since the very beginning, almost 10 years, and been in this system for close to 40 years, what the underlying problem is, it’s poverty,” she says. “A disproportionate number of kids in the juvenile justice system are poor. And a disproportionate number of black kids in our community are poor.”

Poverty, in American culture, is often looked down upon by others as a personal weakness, says Deirdre Gilmore. Visiting with Gilmore in her living room, she recalled receiving a phone call from an unknown number awhile back. It was an 85-year-old homeless woman. A mutual friend had suggested she try Gilmore, who has a large network of friends and resources. Tapping those, and working with Mike Murphy, they found housing for the woman and an eventual bus ticket back home to North Carolina. “It didn’t matter that she was a white woman, she was a human being,” says Gilmore.

Poverty affects people of all races, but, for black people, it’s twice as hard, she says. And she believes this reality won’t change until people’s hearts change. “The only time you really get it is when you have to go through it yourself,” says Gilmore, sitting in her reading chair. “How you get people to change is to put a human side to it, you need to be in their community. Like you, coming into my living room, people need to come and see how people live. There’s the perception that we don’t care, that we’re lazy, we trifling, we don’t want anything. That is so far from the truth.”

“The most important thing is to form a relationship,” she says. “If we peel back skin, we’re all the same underneath.”

‘Changing the narrative’

Throughout the task force’s work, two realities around juvenile DMC began to emerge. One speaks of injustice, racial bias and disenfranchisement—that black children are targeted by the juvenile justice system. The other speaks to the data, which say that only a small number of kids ever see the system—78 kids in 2014. And though 67 percent of those were black children, while 33 percent were white, the racial disproportionality seems to be evening out in areas like arrests—57 percent white, 43 percent black in 2015.

Gretchen Ellis says anger and distrust that exist in some parts of the city’s black communities are very real and valid, and implicit biases need to be better addressed. But Ellis also says a fundamental shift in perception about black children is necessary. “We need to turn the mirror to our black kids and say, ‘Most of you aren’t in jail and will never be,’” says Ellis, pointing to the data. “The whole story that a black boy is more likely to go to jail than to college is complete bull. It’s an urban legend that I think these kids hear and perceive. I think we need to keep saying, ‘You’re more likely to go college, you’re more likely to have a job that supports your family for your whole life,’ because that’s reality.”


Ellis refers to this as “changing the narrative.” And to that end, she’s thrown her chips behind programs like City of Promise, Check and Connect and the burgeoning Black Male Achievement group. BMA has struggled to find its footing since its creation in 2014, but now it has Sarad Davenport and Wes Bellamy as its co-chairs, and they see it as part of a larger network. “We’re creating an ecosystem where black males can be integral and successful in Charlottesville,” says Davenport. “I think people have come to an agreement that that’s critical to the future of Charlottesville.”

Bellamy says BMA aims to be a group mentoring program for black children, partnering them with older successful black men who can serve as role models. “We have brothers who are doing a lot of great things. They may not be as visible because they don’t get all of the attention, or they’re not as connected with the kids, and that’s what we hope BMA will be, like a conduit of sorts,” says Bellamy. “When kids know that they have role models and they have something they can aspire to, those things pop into their minds before they make decisions that may lead them down the wrong path.”

Bellamy himself is an example, having recently been elected to City Council as the youngest and only African-American member, he’s also a high school teacher, a member of the Virginia Board of Education and holds a graduate degree in education. Davenport too, having partly grown up in Westhaven, in an era when the criminal justice system and violence were a part of daily life, he’s since graduated college, earned his masters in divinity and heads one of the largest development and support programs in the city.

Both Bellamy and Davenport say they understand people’s anger and frustration, much of which is based on historical government failures. But holding people accountable, while important, will only get you so far, says Davenport. In order for change to occur, people need to act, he says. “The question of why, quite honestly, is not a real question. We already know why,” replies Davenport when asked what has caused DMC. “We know these structures and systems were designed in such a way that they’ve produce poor outcomes particularly for people in poverty and specifically for people of color. I think sometimes we pretend as if things were not constructed this way by design. We already know why. We can talk about why all day, but my emphasis and my focus has been more on: So what you gonna do?”

A community with a future

When asked how they’d rank the task force’s success, nearly every member says “unfinished” or “incomplete” or “ongoing.” Last month Al Thomas was sworn in as the city’s police chief—the first black man to hold that position. Under Longo, the department was in talks to form two outside oversight panels—one to look at police department complaints; another to look at stop-and-frisk case files. They would look for behavioral and data patterns indicative of biases, and issue regular public reports.

Thomas, who did not return a request for comment, will ultimately decide their fate. Chapman, a key player in the possible formation of the panels, says he’s fully behind them. “There is nothing to which I am more committed than making sure that a meaningful and appropriate process is put in place, and is one that will contribute to other processes that are addressing the current tension and mistrust that we experience,” he says. “There just isn’t anything more important.”

Additionally, UVA researchers are looking further at probation violation data for potential racial bias, as well as what risk and protective factors they have. Another significant area the task force hasn’t touched is the judiciary. Judges are largely considered to be sacrosanct and, citing privacy concerns, their decisions on juvenile cases are not open to public scrutiny. It’s within their power, however, to carry a wide degree of discretion on how, or if, they sentence a child, which concerns some task force members.

“We haven’t examined the role of judges in the juvenile system—no less the adult system, which is something we may have to look at too,” says Jeff Fogel. “Obviously, we have no control over judges, but that’s no reason not to publicize what we find if there’s a discrepancy in sentencing.” 

There’s also been talk of a separate group doing a comprehensive study of DMC among adults in the city, which would be a much more complex and complicated process because of the data system involved and the sheer scope of the issue. Chapman it would cost an estimated $300,000 to get started. Several grants have been applied for, unsuccessfully.

Critics of the task force say it’s been slow, emotionally grueling and hasn’t delved too deeply into the complexity of race relations in Charlottesville, an area in sore need of attention if community healing and progress is to take place. It’s not that the task force hasn’t done anything, they say, it’s that it hasn’t done enough.

But Mike Murphy and others make a strong case as well. The task force will exist for as long as racial disproportionality exists in the juvenile justice system. It’s work is not nearly done. Every six months, it will re-examine the latest data from the Virginia Department of Juvenile Justice, keeping a close eye on disproportionality, and programs and trainings will be tweaked as needed.

“We’ve been doing this work for a while, and I think that we’ve put a lot of energy into it. It’s been difficult work. And it’s emotional for everybody involved sometimes,” says Murphy. “But I do think it’s important that we do that work, that we’ve got solid recommendations, that we’re committed in a way where—there are other reports that get written out in the world, where nobody can tell you what happened to those recommendations—and we’ve continued to be committed that this isn’t just some report on the shelf. And yeah, I understand that there’s frustration that we weren’t able to say, you know, ‘This is why.’”

This article was updated at 11am July 7 to correct that a white supremacy group did not hold a meeting inside Thomas Jefferson Memorial Unitarian Church in 1956 but burned a cross there.

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