He patrolled the school halls, proudly donning his pull-over uniform vest. It was an honor given to top students in the fifth grade class, and he gladly accepted. Authoritarian, responsible, and trustworthy, he was a hall monitor.
In just three years, however, the hall monitor would be convicted of four gang-related murders and sentenced to a string of consecutive life sentences.
Like all youthful offenders, there was a transformation point. For this kid, it happened in the sixth grade, his life unraveling in the span of a single year.
For reasons unknown to the boy, he was forced out of his father’s stable home. From there, he and his older brother went to live with their mother and her boyfriend. Addicted to crack, mother and boyfriend spent their income supporting that habit, thrusting the family into extreme poverty. They moved from apartment to apartment, finally ending up in a home with no heat, no drywall on wood skeleton frames, and virtually no provisions.
The boys, twelve and thirteen, began hanging out with guys in their new neighborhood, working as low level street dealers for a local drug operation. The gig paid only fifty dollars a week, but the kids were also allowed to pick out a new outfit and new pair of shoes every Sunday. (A perk, he noted, that saved him from wearing the same clothes to school each day, an embarrassment he initially suffered after moving in with his mother.)
After living in the quasi-abandoned apartment for a few months, child protective services removed the boys, placing them in a group home nearby. Physically abused by group home staff, the boy and his brother ran. They returned to their mother’s neighborhood, and within a few weeks the boy was back in juvenile court on delinquency charges.
After serving nearly a year at a youth detention center, the boy again returned to the neighborhood. The thirteen-year-old arrived back home to find his brother associated with a gang that didn’t want the boy. Feeling betrayed, he turned to a rival gang and was taken under the wing of an older gangster.
Not long after that, the boy was ordered to do an armed robbery. Things did not go as planned, and people died. On the run, intra-gang issues flared, and more people died. He pled guilty and was given multiple life terms.
I met him ten years later and listened to his story. Unwilling to blame his current situation on any one childhood moment, he rejected the notion of a transformative event, instead insisting that it was all just life.
However, I could clearly hear an intonation of pride in his voice, and perhaps see a small smile on his tattooed face, when he told me that he was the fifth grade hall monitor. As if to say, while I refute the suggestion that one person or thing is responsible for my situation, I was in fact good once.
What is irrefutable is the fact that no one preserved that goodness. No one fought for this kid. No one that should have intervened intervened. No teacher, no social worker, no juvenile justice worker, no one did anything. Instead, we let this kid, who desperately wanted guidance, choose among the pool of mentors available to him.
Where was this kid’s hall monitor?
Steve Reba is an attorney at Emory Law School’s Barton Juvenile Defender Clinic where he directs an Equal Justice Works project called Appeal for Youth. The project, sponsored by Ford & Harrison LLP, provides holistic appellate representation to youthful offenders in Georgia’s juvenile and criminal justice systems. This blog follows the clients Appeal for Youth represents, hoping to present a genuine look into a system that is largely unknown or misunderstood by the public