As of this Friday, July 28, unsupervised teenagers will no longer be allowed in Madison’s two major shopping malls – East Towne and West Towne – on weekend evenings. Why does the first step towards trying to “fix” a problem always seem to be increasing the punishment? Youth of color in Madison have seen it all before. Specific issues, large or small, might persist in our community, and the response is to try to “nip it in the bud” completely. However, such measures usually don’t work. In fact, they often make the situation worse. As a black girl attending both Sennett Middle School and Madison LaFollette High School, I have seen the effects that punishing youth for the actions of few has on the psyche and the overall dynamic of a community. And let me tell you, it is nothing to be desired.
Take for example what I like to call “The Great Walgreen’s Decision of 2014.” Across the street from Sennett is a Walgreen’s. This Walgreen’s was considered a symbol of ‘good times’ by many. My friends and I would always hang out after school and make any kind of day great by buying $1 Arizonas and Takis, relishing in a sense of freedom from our parents. Sure, sometimes we’d crack a joke or two and make some noise in the store, but we were kids, and that’s what kids do. We make jokes and some noise, and it is entirely harmless.
The more I went to this Walgreen’s, the more I noticed the eyes of employees tracking my group’s movements. They turned their noses up at our group banter, and would stare relentlessly when we grabbed an item off the rack. We knew what was happening; we knew that these employees were expecting us to steal. In contrast, the white shoppers around us never seemed to get the same devout attention. They were ‘valued customers,’ after all. I would always try not to think about it, but it got to me. Here we were, the same group of kids who paid for $1 snacks in crumpled bills every day after school and we were the same group of kids who always wished the cashiers a nice day after getting our change back. But to them, we were nothing but trouble.
“I remember hating going to Walgreen’s by myself because I felt like I was doing something wrong. Not only was I a major dweeb with a closet of Doctor Who shirts and a 4.0 GPA, but I was also a goodie two-shoes. And here I was literally having nightmares about getting in trouble at school. Frankly, I was as harmless as a fly. Yet, I began to ask myself. Was I actually a criminal? Did I deserve this treatment?”
I remember hating going to Walgreen’s by myself because I felt like I was doing something wrong. Not only was I a major dweeb with a closet of Doctor Who shirts and a 4.0 GPA, but I was also a goodie two-shoes. And here I was literally having nightmares about getting in trouble at school. Frankly, I was as harmless as a fly. Yet, I began to ask myself. Was I actually a criminal? Did I deserve this treatment?
These moments of dissociation only increased later on. A policy to leave school backpacks in the front of the store (with limited supervision) was implemented to prevent shoplifting. Eventually, due to “large amounts of shoplifting,” anyone under the age of 18 was prohibited from shopping at Walgreen’s during school hours without a parent/guardian. This was a burn, not just to my group of friends, but to everyone at my middle school. So many of us had been devout shoppers at Walgreen’s. But to them, we were all just criminals. Some of us got angry at the students who had allegedly shoplifted, for spoiling our fun. All of us, however, began to view Walgreen’s as criminals of another kind; ones who generalized a whole population and who took away unfairly.
Another form of somewhat extreme punishment was implemented last year at La Follette High School. Now, I genuinely love my school; there are so many staff and faculty who genuinely want to help students and see us grow. However, I do not agree with some of the methods to promote such “growth.” In the 2015-2016 school year, we had extreme numbers of tardies to classes. Despite being the high school with the least amount of classes in a day (4) in the district, we had the highest number of tardies. Our school’s response to this? To implement hallway sweeps, in which teachers lock their class doors when the bell rings, and students still in the hallways are stalked down and given varying degrees of punishment.
With the integration of these sweeps, I would hear people in the hallway cursing and sprinting to their classrooms in fear of being caught in the sweep. I would hear stories of people trying to stand on toilets in locked stalls to avoid being caught. As these sweeps continued to take place, I noticed an increasing amount of tension within my school. In response to being penalized for being just slightly tardy, students felt like they had to hide from the staff. In response to being hunted down almost like criminals, we felt like criminals. A lot of the respect that students previously had for teachers was gone. We felt that they were being unjust and abusing their power, and how could we respect that? (I will admit that there was a brief attempt, before the hallway sweeps, to educate students on the importance of timeliness, but they gave up on it.)
I fear the same thing is going to occur with the new youth escort policies (YEP) at East Towne and West Towne Malls. This policy will undoubtedly target youth of color, and law enforcement will hunt kids down and penalize them. For what? For being kids and going to the mall? We are unfairly being perceived as a threat, as thugs, and generalized for the actions of a few. We are being held to this unfair standard that every group of youth, especially that of color, cannot possibly be congregating for anything other than thievery and fighting and crime. In what seems now typical of Madison, rather than addressing the source of any problems, authorities have instead decided to escalate the situation.
“Trust between the youth and law enforcement will be broken even more than it already is. After all, there will be no respect where respect is not earned. But what I fear most? That these kids will look at themselves, internalize these messages, and view themselves as criminals.”
Here’s what I think will come from this policy – a mess. Like what has happened at Walgreen’s and at La Follette, youth, especially of color, will be monitored and hunted down in a place where they just want to be themselves. They will be kicked out for simply being a certain age and/or a certain race, at the discretion of management or law officials. They will unfairly find themselves in the criminal justice system when they are not, and never have been, criminals. Trust between the youth and law enforcement will be broken even more than it already is. After all, there will be no respect where respect is not earned. But what I fear most? That these kids will look at themselves, internalize these messages, and view themselves as criminals.
If we want to solve the issues within a community, extreme punishment is not the way to do it. It doesn’t address the root of the problem, and frankly, it just makes things worse. I have been told by so many adults things like “well, if a baby drops his pacifier, he deserves to lose it,” and idioms of the like. Here’s the thing though; we’re not babies. We are capable of intellectual thought and of conversation. We are not criminals and thugs; we are people. We give respect where it is earned. And more than that, we are also customers at the mall. So perhaps if authorities and CBL really want to “improve the quality of shopping” and solve problems at the mall, they had had ought to initiate a civilized conversation with the youth in our area, rather than just taking away from us completely.