When I was 15, I smoked a joint with a friend. High and goofy, we wandered into a grocery store in D.C. where I unsealed a bag of Pepperidge Farm cookies and started crunching away. My friend – worried about going home looking stoned – opened a small box of Visine and squirted a few drops into his eyes.

People walk through Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, where some have complained of unruly teen behavior, last spring. Kenneth K. Lam/The Baltimore Sun/TNS

Near the exit, a plainclothes cop intercepted us, seizing my friend’s arm. “How’re your eyes, son?”

Burly and loud, he threatened us with jail, sneering at our stupidity. We were scared out of our minds. But in the end, he let us go.

As a teenager, I would go on to make other boneheaded mistakes, including dropping out of high school. Every time I screwed up, I was always given the benefit of the doubt, a soft landing, another chance.

I was reminded anew of my good fortune recently when I interviewed Kristin Henning about her new book, “The Rage of Innocence: How America Criminalizes Black Youth.” A law professor at Georgetown University, Henning documents the ways Black teens are oversurveilled, overpoliced and overincarcerated – often for engaging in the same normal, adolescent behaviors that typified my teen peer group: being loud, impulsive, attention-craving and thrill-seeking. And none of us ever got arrested, as far as I recall.

After 24 years teaching high school in Baltimore, this is a subject I thought I already understood. Henning’s book exposes a crisis that’s much worse than I realized.


For years, I’ve listened to Black teen boys at my school share stories about being stopped, searched and questioned by police: Pull up your shirt, turn out your pockets, sit on the curb, empty your book bag.

But Henning’s research also shows that Black girls are in no way spared the detrimental impacts of racial bias. Black girls are viewed “as less innocent and more like adults than white girls,” she writes. What does this kind of racial bias portend? In 2018 in D.C., it meant Black girls were likely to be arrested at 30 times the rate of white youth; in 2019 in Orlando, it meant Kaia Rolle, a 6-year-old student, was arrested for throwing a tantrum at school.

The arrest of a first-grader may seem extreme, but data from the U.S. Department of Education show Black girls are many times more likely than white girls to be suspended, expelled and arrested at school.

In fact, when Black students comprise at least three-quarters of a middle or high school’s enrollment, the school is 70 percent more likely to be staffed with police. At schools where I’ve worked in Baltimore, I’ve seen how school police and security measures – wands, searches, metal detectors, bins for jewelry, keys and phones – alienate some students.

But as a white teacher, I hadn’t grasped the risk school police and their proxies, school resource officers, pose to Black children. “Ultimately, more police in schools means more arrests – three and a half times more arrests than in schools without police,” Henning writes.

Outside of schools, similar injustices persist: Black children are arrested at far higher rates than white kids – even when the category of the offense is the same.


Even low-level offenses – such as loitering, vandalism, trespassing, subway fare evasion, smoking weed, mouthing off to or running from police – can have devastating repercussions: “With a conviction – and sometimes just an arrest – Black youth may be barred from schools, housing, jobs and professional licenses they need to compete in America’s economy,” according to Henning.

Black youth are prosecuted more severely and handed harsher punishments than white youth. Worst yet: Henning’s research shows a disproportionate share of Black youth are moved to adult jails. “Although Black youth made up only 15% of youth under juvenile court jurisdiction in the U.S. in 2018, they accounted for more than 51% of all youth transferred to (adult) criminal court that year.”

In adult jails youth are particularly vulnerable to attacks and sexual exploitation by both guards and adult prisoners. A staggering number of them will choose to end their own lives rather than remain locked up with grown men or women. “Youth in adult jails are thirty-six times more likely to die by suicide than youth in juvenile detention,” according to Henning’s book.

As a teenager, I was afforded the grace to learn from my mistakes. Adults affirmed my worth, even after I made poor choices. In time, I outgrew my reckless impulsivity and made better choices.

Criminalizing Black kids for minor offenses doesn’t reduce crime. Criminal prosecution often sabotages the lives of Black children. We call it justice, but it sure looks like a setup.

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