Kids released from lockups are vulnerable. They battle the aftermath of incarceration, restitution and the courts, along with childhood traumas. They’ve seen loved ones gunned down, lived in underserved neighborhoods, and watched relatives struggle with the legacy of endemic racism.
And once back at school, research shows, many face another set of obstacles: teachers who view them as troublemakers, violent, unworthy of educators’ time and attention, a nuisance. After being viewed through this lens, they eye those teachers with equal levels of distrust.
A new Stanford University-led community-based research project proposes better classroom relations and an improved launch for these youth — students who are overwhelmingly Black and brown and face high dropout rates and the prospects of reoffending.
The intervention centers on something as simple as a heartfelt letter from a student to a teacher, according to the study published Oct. 4 in Psychological Science.
In the controlled study, conducted between 2016 to 2018, 47 youth incarcerated at the Alameda County juvenile hall were asked to write down who they are as people, what support they need in school, and what they want their teacher to know about them.
“I’m a good kid,” one wrote. Another admitted: “I have a bad attitude and get bored easily.” Other students described liking math but having trouble focusing, or needing “more one-on-one time.” Some had goals that included graduating middle school or attending college.
Next, the students chose a teacher who could help them accomplish their goals in school. Those teachers received the students’ one-page self-introduction letters from a member of the research team.
The outcome: Rather than disruptive children being written off, the teachers who read the letters viewed the students as vulnerable, and in need of support. They expressed greater love, respect and commitment to their education. In short, when formerly incarcerated children were allowed to express themselves directly, there was a shift in the teachers’ perception of them when they later met in the critical classroom climate — and it paid off.
According to the study, creating that positive teacher-student relationship was not only crucial for students’ successful reintegration into school, but it significantly reduced the likelihood they will re-offend. The researchers found that the letters expressing students’ values and goals, and asking for a teacher’s support in achieving them, significantly reduced recidivism through the next semester.
In the study’s control group, where students did not write the letter, or have teachers read them, 69% were re-arrested. When the letter was written and not delivered, 64% of students reoffended. In contrast, for the group of students who wrote letters that were read by teachers, recidivism dropped to 29%, showing the letter had a clear impact.
The study focused on children recently released from the Alameda County juvenile detention center who were returning to middle or high schools in Oakland. Consistent with those arrested and incarcerated throughout the region, 98% of participants were youth of color and 87% boys.
Study authors include Greg Walton, a psychologist at Stanford who has studied how students’ sense of belonging can reduce racial disparities in discipline. He worked with his colleague at the university Jennifer Eberhardt, a pioneering researcher who has examined the impacts of racial bias. The two Stanford psychology professors were joined by their former graduate student, Jason Okonofua, now an assistant professor of psychology at UC Berkeley. Okonofua’s research has focused on increasing empathy to decrease the harmful effects of disparities in school discipline.
To gain a deeper understanding of the youths’ needs and to test out the intervention, the research team spent 15 months collaborating with the Alameda County Juvenile Justice Center, where kids who commit crimes in the area are locked up; the Oakland Unified School District; and after-school programs in the East Bay. Researchers worked with judges, defense lawyers, prosecuting attorneys, parole officers and educators. Across these disciplines, they found a strong commitment to reducing the number of justice system-involved kids and the racial inequality they experienced.
But they also found deep-seated misperceptions and biases getting in the way of students’ success. The researchers sought to tackle possible negative stereotypes that can cause students to become guarded and mistrustful, creating an unproductive cycle in the classroom.
“What we’re trying to do is help teachers to see a student — and not just a kid who is justice-involved,” Eberhardt said in a video describing the study. “We’re not trying to reduce bias, we’re trying to think about the ways in which bias might operate and then make bias less likely, taking it off-line.”
Walton said the research revealed early on that the Black students were wary of interacting with white teachers they assumed were going to treat them unfairly. Teachers, too, appeared to hold stereotypes about kids of color — that they are “out of control, or violent or going to be problematic, that they’re lazy, that they’re not going to work hard in class, that they don’t care.”
All told, Walton added, “we really started to see these are problems of relationships between students and teachers, and for both people, those relationships are made problematic by the stereotypes that exist in the air.”
Instead of taking on the enormous task of trying to reduce or eliminate possible bias, the researchers aimed to “sideline bias,” by bridging the gaps between students and teachers.
Walton said they could not reimagine these relationships by putting teachers on the defensive, or labeling them by saying, “you’re racist and you shouldn’t be racist.” Instead, they approached ways of helping people become who they really want to be — educators making a difference in students’ lives — while acknowledging the stigma and stereotypes endemic to American society that we all live and breathe each day.
One teacher described in the study displayed these dueling internal voices.
When asked how she would respond if she learned that a kid from the local juvenile detention center was joining her class, she admitted her first thoughts would be “Oh great,” or “Why me?” She fretted over the problems the child might bring to her class.
But as she read more of the student’s letter, she realized he had chosen her — and something shifted. “I am immediately reminded that he is a child that has made some mistakes and wants to change. He deserves that chance and, if I can, I want to help,” the teacher stated. “Reading about his passions made me see him more as a person than just another student with problems.”
Hattie Tate, an Oakland Unified School District administrator who works with students detained at the county juvenile hall, described the power of the letter as beneficial for students and teachers alike. “While educators have worked in a system that has failed youth, that has failed them, and is sometimes seen in our society as a failing system, nobody signs up every day to go to work and fail,” she said in a video describing the Stanford research project. “Sometimes you actually inspire and motivate adults to bring their best self to the success of one student.”
Sidelining bias amounts to effectively changing the conversation, the psychology researchers said.
“We’re not even creating a new idea for them, but unleashing something that they feel in their core. Something they wanted, something that would provide them with satisfaction in their career,” Okonofua said. “They just received the letter to refocus that mindset.”
Okonofua’s line of study — mitigating the consequences of bias in education, criminal justice and business — arose from his own childhood in Memphis, Tennessee. He and his two brothers attended seven different schools after repeatedly being suspended and expelled from campuses defined by high fences, hallway security cameras and metal detectors. As a child, Okonofua was once arrested on campus, simply for refusing to sign a suspension letter, he said.
He found this perplexing, given that he was a model student.
“Every school we went to I was in the honors classes, AP classes — the most rigorous classes offered,” Okonofua said. “It was weird to be going through this process of getting kicked out of schools and things that just had to do with how we were perceived as young Black men in Memphis, Tennessee.”
Okonofua described his brothers’ trajectories as negatively impacted by these experiences, while through a combination of luck and hard work, he earned a scholarship to an elite prep school and went on to receive a Ph.D. from Stanford and a teaching job at a top research school.
“This was on my mind going into the profession of psychology in the first place, finding ways to mitigate children getting kicked out of school, but also children going to jail and ways in which bias can shape those outcomes,” he said. “But more importantly, how we can leverage psychological techniques to mitigate the consequences of the bias.”
There is great urgency to this work in the East Bay city where the recent school study took place, the birthplace of the Black Panther Party: Black children comprise almost 75% of all juvenile arrests by the Oakland Police Department, although they make up less than a third of the city’s youth population, the ACLU of Northern California found in a 2013 report. Black youth are nearly 15 times more likely than their white counterparts to be arrested in the county.
Detention did little to alter the children’s course. Re-arrest rates for those leaving California youth prisons run as high as 75%.
But the Stanford research team is optimistic about the next steps for their findings — making interventions earlier on, in classrooms, to interrupt the trajectory of the all-too-well-known “school-to-prison pipeline.”
They’re now working with schools in Alameda, San Francisco and Sacramento counties to develop a similar letter-writing intervention for youth returning from lockups.
“The real goal is that among the tens of thousands of kids who every year come back into school from juvenile detention,” Walton said, “that we’re able to head off a cycle in which they’re not graduating from high school and they’re entering the adult incarceration system.”
Educators on the project described yet more benefits, “building positive adult relationships where students feel protected, listened to, cared for and heard,” Tate said. “All that feeds into a sense of belongingness and feeling like this is where I can be successful. Someone here cares for me, someone here is guiding me. Someone here is concerned about my success.”