Camille Landry is a writer, activist, and social justice advocate who lives in Oklahoma City. This post is part of our “Neglected Oklahoma” series, which tells the stories of Oklahomans in situations where the basic necessities of life are hard to come by. These are real people and their stories are true (names have been changed to protect privacy).
Kyron Dean perches uncomfortably on a sofa in his grandmother’s home in Del City. “Still trying to get used to being free,” he says. He was released from prison two weeks before we met, after serving 30 months for possession of marijuana with intent to distribute.
“He was always a good boy. Polite,” his grandmother says. “He was raised to be respectful.” So how did he end up in prison? “It’s like they greased the chute. Back when he was in the 9th grade, Kyron got into a fight. Boys fight. Always have. No guns, no knives, just two boys tussling. Next thing I know he is locked up. That’s just crazy! It’s wrong.”
“Kids would just walk up and punch me,” Kyron says. “I got tired of it. Teacher didn’t do nothin’. One day I fought back.” He and the other kid were both suspended.
The following year Kyron got in a shouting and shoving match with two boys in the school cafeteria. A police officer stationed at the school arrested both children. The judge gave Kyron probation. His absences mounted up. Kyron was told to attend summer school or he wouldn’t matriculate. Family issues caused him to go live with his grandmother, across town from his former residence. He couldn’t get to summer school and ended up repeating a grade for the second time.
Kyron’s second time in 9th grade didn’t go much smoother. “I tried to join the football team but they told me I couldn’t play because of my grades.” He says he is pretty good at math but not so good at reading. “They put me in a special class for reading. Like I’m stupid or something.” He wanted to study auto mechanics but his suspension and poor grades worked against him, and he didn’t get accepted into the program.
Angry, struggling in school and trying to adjust to living with a grandmother whose strict rules were much different from his mother’s, Kyron was in a downward spiral. A counselor told him that he couldn’t graduate without raising his grades and passing a test and recommended that he be transferred to an alternative school. Kyron just stopped going to school.
“I tried to make him go. What could I do?” his grandmother said. “The police came here and said he had to go to school. I asked them what they expected me to do, beat him? Set him out on the street? I just had to give it up to God and pray he’d do the right thing.”
Kyron isn’t alone. His high school had a dropout rate of more than 9 percent when he attended. The numbers look even worse for young males of color: Just 64 percent of Oklahoma’s black and Latino males graduate high school.
Kyron’s suspensions and arrests fit with an approach to school discipline known as “zero-tolerance. According to the ACLU, “Zero-tolerance policies criminalize minor infractions of school rules, while cops in school lead to students being criminalized for behavior that should be handled inside the school. Students of color are especially vulnerable to push-out trends and the discriminatory application of discipline.”
Suspension or expulsion from school are strong predictors of failure to graduate. In Oklahoma City Public Schools, students who have been suspended or expelled have no right to an education at all. In some instances they may be sent to disciplinary alternative schools. Students may even be suspended or expelled for actions that do not occur at school.
Dropping out of school violated the terms of his probation, and a warrant was issued for Kyron’s arrest. He was standing outside a convenience store with other young men when a police officer approached the group and asked for ID. A warrant check landed him in the juvenile lockup. “We weren’t doing anything. The cop said he was looking for some dudes who did a robbery, but it wasn’t us. I got locked up for not going to school, but the school didn’t want me.”
Kyron was released and returned to his grandmother. “She told me I had to get a job or get in school. I couldn’t do school so I went to work.” Kyron worked at several fast-food places but couldn’t make any headway. “I’d work and work and on payday there wouldn’t be enough money to pay my gram’s light bill,” he said. He also had court costs to pay.
He turned 18 and started selling marijuana. “Yeah, I sold weed. I couldn’t make any money off of hamburgers.”
Kyron was arrested, tried and sentenced to prison, where he served 85% of his sentence. Now he is a felon. He hopes to find a job before he gets a parole violation and is sent back to prison for being unemployed.
African Americans in Oklahoma are 2.84 times more likely than whites to be arrested for possession of marijuana, even though blacks and whites consume marijuana at similar rates, according to a recent study. Oklahoma ranks second in the nation for incarceration of African American males at 9.7 percent (the national average is 6.7 percent). Blacks are overrepresented in Oklahoma prisons and jails, representing 26 percent of the incarcerated population. Nearly one in 12 Oklahoma adults and almost one in four black Oklahoma men has a felony conviction.
“I was just a young boy, doing what young boys do. I got locked up for protecting myself in school. I feel like I got pushed out of school. I started selling marijuana to make a few dollars and got busted for that. Now I’m just another thug with no future.”
The opinions stated above are not necessarily those of OK Policy, its staff, or its board. This blog is a venue to help promote the discussion of ideas from various points of view and we invite your comments and contributions. To see our guidelines for blog submissions, click here.