Standing against injustice

The debate regarding the treatment of youth in the United States criminal justice system is heating up. I predict that 2013 will be a year of change and progress when it comes to juvenile justice issues. Over the last few months alone I have seen more people rising to the cause then I have observed in years. I am dedicating this post to pictures from three separate rallies that were hosted on behalf of teenagers facing injustice in various forms.

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Blake Layman
Rally Location: Elkhart, Indiana Prosecutor’s Office
Date: April 3, 2013
Case summary:

Blake and four other teenagers were charged with felony murder after breaking into a home they believed was unoccupied. Upon entering the home, the owner got a gun and fired shots at the group as they tried to escape. He shot two of them, fatally injuring one. Instead of charging the surviving teens with the crime they actually committed, Prosecutor Curtis Hill charged all of them with felony murder. One of the teens has already accepted a plea for 45 years in prison.

Again, these teens did not murder their friend. They did not shoot him, nor did they ever imagine he would die. However, if the prosecutor goes through with the felony murder charges and obtains convictions these teenagers will spend all or most of their lives in prison.

On April 3rd, Blake’s family held a rally on his behalf.

Friends, family, and other supporters rallied against felony murder charges involving four teenagers.

Friends, family, and other supporters rallied against felony murder charges involving four teenagers.

Felony murder is not the appropriate charge in this case. Blake's family and friends refuse to allow him to suffer this injustice silently.

Felony murder is not the appropriate charge in this case. Blake’s family and friends refuse to allow him to suffer this injustice silently.

The Elkhart Truth printed a story about the rally, with additional pictures here.

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Josh Young
Rally Location: Louisville, Kentucky courthouse
Date: April 2, 2013
Case summary:

Josh Young is set to stand trial this summer in connection with the murder of his younger step-brother, Trey Zwicker. Though the prosecution has still not presented physical evidence, within the case’s discovery files, connecting Josh to the murder, the prosecutor is moving forward with the charges. It is important to note that Josh’s own father – Trey’s step-father – has since admitted to committing the murder and to manipulating others into throwing his own son under the bus.

Many of Josh’s friends and family believe he is innocent of the charges. This includes his former foster mom, Susan Stoneburner, who firmly believes in the teen’s innocence. In response to the judge’s decision to delay Josh’s trial for another couple of months, a group of Josh’s supporters took to the streets near the courthouse to express their distastel. Though the event was somewhat impromptu, it sent a strong message.

Those who believe in Josh will not give up this fight.

Friends, family, and other supporters rallied in front of the court to express their belief in Josh's innocence.

Friends, family, and other supporters rallied in front of the court to express their belief in Josh’s innocence.

Those who attended communicated the same simple message: "Free Josh Young"

Those who attended communicated the same simple message: “Free Josh Young”

Josh will stand trial jointly with his own father - the person who originally accused him of committing the crime before admitting he was the real perpetrator.

Josh will stand trial jointly with his own father – the person who originally accused him of committing the crime before admitting he was the real perpetrator.

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Robert Richardson
Rally Location: Bel Air, Maryland Courthouse
Date: January 16, 2013
Case summary:

Robert is facing trial for the murder of his father in Maryland. In the days, weeks, and months following the crime people began to emerge to describe stories of suspected verbal and perhaps even physical abuse perpetrated on the teen by his father. Robert was reported as attending school in well-worn clothing and neighbors described hearing many loud fights – including one where the father threatened his son. This case is a tragic reminder that we all have a responsibility to stand up for children when we suspect they need help. If this had been done for Robert previously his father would almost certainly be alive.

This is not lost on those who are now very vocal about their support of the Maryland teenager. His supporter base is growing and those who have grown to care about him refuse to turn a blind eye to this terrible situation.

Robert's supporters stood in the rain on behalf of the Maryland teenager.

Robert’s supporters stood in the rain on behalf of the Maryland teenager.

Those holding signs communicated a number of different messages regarding juvenile injustice.

Those holding signs communicated a number of different messages regarding juvenile injustice.

Those in support of Robert plan to keep standing against injustice until their voice is heard loud and clear.

Those in support of Robert plan to keep standing against injustice until their voice is heard loud and clear.

A third rally for Robert is scheduled to take place on April 19 at 10 a.m. Those attending plan to meet in front of the courthouse at 9 a.m. at the Harford County Circuit Court. If you are in the area and would like to attend there are more details on this Facebook event page. Please help spread the word to anyone who might be in a position to attend.

An article about the January rally is here.

Jason Baldwin, after life without parole

Jason Baldwin stood trial at 16-years-old for three murders

Jason Baldwin stood trial at 16-years-old for three murders

Jason Baldwin spent more than half of his life in prison before he was released in August of 2011.In June of 1993, he was charged with the murders of three 8-year-old boys – Stevie Branch, Michael Moore, and Christopher Byers –  in West Memphis, Arkansas. Three teenagers were eventually tried in connection with the homicides. Jessie Misskelley was the first to receive a trial that resulted in a conviction. Jason subsequently stood trial with his best friend, Damien Echols, in 1994. Jason received life without parole, while Damien was given the death penalty.

In the nearly two decades since the murders occurred, the three have fought a seemingly uphill battle in the courts to prove their innocence. DNA testing has helped to support these claims in that none of the three convicted match DNA obtained from the crime scene.

The story behind their conviction and fight for freedom is one that has captivated countless people. However, the events that have taken place since their release and the steps each have taken to rebuild their lives is just as interesting. A quick look at the past of one of these men, Jason Baldwin, sheds some light on his most recent endeavors to raise awareness about juvenile justice and wrongful convictions.

Life in Prison

Jason was 16-years-old when he was convicted and sent to prison, presumably for the rest of his life. After his trial and transfer to prison, Jason spent two months on the diagnostic unit because officials felt it was the safest place for him given his young age and the nature of his conviction. “The administration feared I wouldn’t survive,” he told me during an interview. “They tried to get me to sign up for the suicide prevention unit.” Jason declined and opted to move on to the Varner Unit.

Jason’s initial experiences, as a teenager in prison, contrasted sharply with how he remembers it just prior to his release. When he first began serving his sentence he was the target of significant violence. “I’ve had my skull shattered,” he recalled, “…My collar bone broken.” He had to learn to adapt to the volatile conditions in the adult prison system quickly. “I just tried to treat everyone with respect,” he explained. “But I stood my ground and didn’t take any crap from anybody.”

The light at the end of the tunnel for Jason was the documentary film release of Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills in 1996. Jason believes that Paradise Lost helped to corroborate what he had been expressing to those around him since his arrest – that he was innocent of the triple homicides for which he was convicted. The film’s release marked a turning point for Jason by changing the way people viewed him inside and outside of prison. The movie also sparked the movement that would eventually lead to the release of all three – who became known collectively as the West Memphis Three.

In prison Jason encountered others who were sentenced as juveniles and given life without parole. He came to understand the complexities of the prison system – especially as it pertained to the incarceration of youth and the imprisonment of those wrongfully convicted.

I asked Jason what he thought about life without parole sentencing for those who are innocent of the crime as well as those who did in fact have involvement. “It does not matter the length of the sentence when you condemn any person for a crime they did not commit,” he said in response. “One moment of incarceration is too long for the innocent.”

Jason then turned his attention to the matter of juvenile life without parole in general. “I was raised with lifers. I would personally love to see many of these guys granted their second chance at living free.” He then added, “On the flip side I’ve met people who I believe are not ready to live in free society. That is not to say that the future won’t bring change for them as well…there are those that I feel deserving and others not at this juncture for that second chance.”

Holly has stood by Jason for over a decade. The two now call Washington their home.

Holly has stood by Jason for over a decade. The two now call Washington their home.

Starting Over

Immediately after Jason’s release he and Damien went to the Department of Motor Vehicles in Marked Tree, Arkansas to get a state ID. The following day, he and others traveled to Washington with Eddie Vedder and stayed in his beach house. He quickly took a liking to the Washington area and has remained there since. He lives with his girlfriend, Holly Ballard, whom he met while he was incarcerated. She learned of his case after reading Mara Leveritt’s book, Devil’s Knot.

The two now spend time together doing what they both enjoy, such as riding bikes and watching movies. Jason has also caught up on some of the things he missed out on while he was in prison, such as learning to drive a car.

Jason, Damien, and Jessie’s release from prison was a dramatic and controversial event. Jason was initially reluctant to take the Alford Plea because he wanted the opportunity to achieve exoneration and clear his name. Even now – nearly two years after the agreement was signed – Jason acknowledges that it has complicated exoneration efforts. “It’s tricky now,” he said. He still remains hopeful in this regard though. “That’s where all these films come into play. They put pressure on all the people in Arkansas to do the right thing.”

While discussing the present status of Jason’s case, I asked if he had an opinion as to who may have perpetrated the crimes. He told me that he did not know who committed the murders. Like so many people personally touched by the tragedy, Jason would like definitive answers. However, he was clear he would never want to make the mistake of accusing the wrong person or people. He maintains an open mind as new information continues to come to light about the murders that happened nearly twenty years ago.

After his release from prison, Jason eventually became involved in the film version of Mara Leveritt’s book, Devil’s Knot. He described approaching those in charge of putting the movie together because of concerns Damien had about the direction of the script. He met with Elizabeth Fowler and inquired about the approach they were taking with the film. She invited him to take a look at the script and recommend changes. Jason took her up on the offer and went on to become an executive producer of the film.

Jason described the film version of Devil’s Knot as a broader view of what happened to West Memphis when the murders took place. It stars Reese Witherspoon and Colin Firth, among others. Jason said the film shows “how a community can be so hurt that they will sacrifice innocence.” He talked about the experience of being on the film set with Pam Hobbs, the mother of Steven Branch. He was impressed with the love and respect those working on the film paid to her, saying that it was comforting to see the healing she experienced as a result. He described the work as “one of the greatest things I have done or experienced in my life.”

The film is scheduled for release toward the end of this year.

Jason - free at last

Jason – free at last

His Advocacy

Since his release, Jason has maintained a balance between building a new life outside of prison and his sense of commitment to helping others. He has been attending college on a scholarship established through Eddie Vedder’s Vitalogy Foundation. He is close to earning his associate’s degree and plans to continue his education and obtain a bachelor’s degree at the local university.

In 2012, Jason was invited by an organization to attend the oral hearings before the United States Supreme Court for Jackson v. Hobbs and Miller v. Alabama. He gave a speech at a luncheon that took place afterward. Months later the Supreme Court issued a landmark ruling that struck down life without parole as a mandatory sentence. Though juveniles may still receive life without parole sentences, the courts are now required to use discretion. Judges must consider potentially mitigating factors such as a person’s age at the time of the crime and degree of involvement.

On February 5th of 2013, Jason testified in support of Washington House Bill 1338. The bill proposed changes to the state’s approach to the long-term sentencing of juveniles in the system. Jason began his speech with the following: “My name is Charles Jason Baldwin and at the age of 16 I was tried and wrongfully convicted for three counts of capital murder in the state of Arkansas. Facing the death penalty, I was instead given life without the possibility of parole. Both of these sentences present the harrowing aspect of dying in prison, which is unfathomable to a juvenile who should have his whole life ahead of him. In the end I would serve more than 18 years of that sentence – more than fifty percent of my life – before finally being released.”

During his testimony he touched on some of his experiences in prison and how he made a conscious decision to go into that environment with an open mind.  This enabled him to see the people he was incarcerated with as human beings. He also noted how he personally observed the growth of those sentenced to life without parole during his time as substance abuse counselor and GED teacher. “I can list a great number of these individuals whom I believe are redeemable and deserve a second chance.”

Jason closed his testimony by saying he made a promise to those he was incarcerated with that he would not forget them. “Today I’m here to keep that promise. For the remorseful inmate who has turned his life around, I say that we must grant this person mercy. We prove in doing so that life cannot be disregarded or thrown away. All life is sacred and worth a second chance for those who honestly seek it. This is possibly the greatest lesson I learned as a former inmate, serving juvenile life without the possibility of parole.”

Most recently, Jason co-founded a new organization known as Proclaim Justice. I asked him to provide some insight into the mission of the organization and how it came about. “Proclaim Justice was put together in an effort to prevent and prevail over wrongful convictions,” he began. “Injustice occurs everywhere in the world. It is a complicated issue, the factors of which can range from shoddy policy work to downright abuse of power.” He explained that he was fortunate because HBO filmed his trials, providing the world with an intimate view of the trials and convictions. Without the documentary, no one would have had the opportunity to view “the surrounding atmosphere that contributed to that injustice.”

Jason, Damien, and Jessie were heavily scrutinized by local media covering the trials, but Paradise Lost was a powerful reminder that the media may also help to compel people to take action in the face of perceived injustice. Armed with this knowledge, John Hardin who has extensive experience in media relations, approached Jason about founding an organization that would focus on bringing attention to specific cases of injustice. “We believe that by bringing awareness to the other side of cases where there is injustice that discussions can be made to correct and prevent these wrongs,” Jason said of the organization’s objectives.

I interviewed John about the organization and his decision to partner with Jason. John described Jason to me as “activist-minded”. He went on to say, “I know he’s got a passion for working the rest of his life to help people who are in the same situation he was in.”

Though Proclaim Justice is still in its beginning stages, the organization has already signed on to help two people incarcerated within the Arkansas prison system, such as Daniel Risher and Tim Howard. John has also been assisting an organization known as Centurion Ministries with the case of Benjamine Spencer. Following Spencer’s conviction in relation to a 1987 murder, a judge declared during a 2008 hearing that he was innocent. Three years later the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals rejected the judge’s finding. To date Spencer has served 26 years in Texas for a murder that many believe he did not commit.

John and Jason have high hopes for the organization, but recognize it will take a great deal of work to reach the goals they have established. Both seem fully committed to the cause, however.

Though it is hard to predict what is in store for Jason in the future, it seems he is on a unique and promising path. I was impressed with what Jason has already accomplished in the fairly short amount of time he has been released. If the past is any indicator, he will likely go on to achieve great things. I, for one, am looking forward to seeing the much-needed change he helps to ignite.

For more information about Proclaim Justice, click here to go to the organization’s site.

Trial by convenience

Damien Echols (left) and Jason Baldwin (right) stood trial together in 1994

Damien Echols (left) and Jason Baldwin (right) stood trial together in 1994

In cases where two or more people are charged with the crime of homicide, the question about whether or not to try the accused together is almost always raised. Theoretically, trying two people for a single crime appears to make sense because it decreases the costs and time associated with multiple trials. This also reduces the trauma experienced by families and friends of the victim when exposed to these trials.

However, the truth of the matter is that combined trials usually contribute to an atmosphere of prejudice against at least one of the defendants. When deciding if this approach is truly responsible, one might ask if it is appropriate to favor efficiency over a defendant’s right to a fair trial. If you are undecided on this issue, perhaps the following cases will help demonstrate why combining trials is an unjust practice.

West Memphis, Arkansas

In the summer of 1993, three teenagers in West Memphis, Arkansas were arrested and charged with the murders of three 8-year-old boys. Two of the defendants – Jason Baldwin and Damien Echols – faced trial together. The defense attorneys argued against a combined trial for several reasons. For starters, Jason’s attorney, Paul Ford, was concerned about the impact negative media coverage of Damien would have on his client. In Mara Levitt’s book, Devil’s Knotshe wrote the attorney “did not want Jason to be painted with the same broad brush as Damien”.

Ford also raised issues pertaining to the contradictory nature of some of the evidence. For example, one of the witnesses for the prosecution stated she had observed Damien on a service road in the general area where the three boys were found. However, her eyewitness account did not include Jason. This was problematic because the prosecution based their case on the claim that Jason, Damien, and another teen by the name of Jessie Misskelley, were together when the three boys were murdered.

The presiding judge, David Burnett, decided against two separate trials for Jason and Damien. His reasoning was that combining the trials was a matter of “judicial economy“. He also added that he did not feel that a joint trial would jeopardize either of the teenagers’ right to a fair trial.

The jury on that particular trial was advised to consider Jason and Damien separately in terms of their alleged involvement in the murders, but we will never know if the jury was truly able to do that. Based on the case files made publicly available, a number of people provided information to the police that directly contradicted the prosecution’s contention that Jason and Damien were together the evening the murders occurred. Providing proof in the form of alibi or eyewitness accounts that the two were separated would have significantly damaged the state’s case against all three teens. However, in a joint trial this can create confusion and hinder each of the defendants’ defenses.

An unfortunate aspect of Jason’s defense was that witnesses could have provided an alibi for Jason throughout the evening of May 5th, but they were never called to the stand. Jason’s defense rested after calling a single witness: Charles Linch. It is fair to conclude that a separate trial, combined with a more zealous defense on Jason’s behalf, might have resulted in a completely different outcome for Jason.

With that said, the three teens accused of the murders were subsequently convicted in two trials. Jessie received his trial first. Jason and Damien’s trial came second. Over the course of 18 years, a time-consuming and expensive legal battle has taken place in the appellate courts to acquire freedom for the three convicted. DNA testing has helped to support Jason, Jessie, and Damien’s claim of innocence.

In August of 2011, the three who had became known as the “West Memphis Three” were released from prison after entering an Alford Plea. Such a plea does not require an admission of guilt. Instead, it depends upon the person’s willingness to acknowledge the prosecution’s ability to meet its burden of proof in court. The precedent for this plea arrangement stems from the Supreme Court case North Carolina v. Alford.

The West Memphis Three are now free, but at what cost?

Louisville, Kentucky

Josh Young (far left) could receive a joint trial with his accuser, Josh Gouker (far right)

Josh Young (far left) could receive a joint trial with his former accuser, Josh Gouker (far right)

Josh Young is now 17-years-old. He was only 15 when his stepbrother, Trey Zwicker, was murdered in May of 2011. The police arrested Josh in connection with the crime after his father fled the state with the teen. At the time it appeared as though detectives considered Josh’s father, Josh Gouker, a suspect in the case.

Gouker and his son were arrested in Alabama in June of 2011 on gun charges. Gouker was also held on a kidnapping charge in relation to a woman who claimed he forced her to drive at gunpoint. He was released from jail in the state of Alabama during the month of September, but was remanded back into custody by October.

During this time period, Gouker contacted the detectives investigating Trey’s murder. He told them that his son had committed the crime and that he had not known about Josh’s involvement until after. His claims contradicted statements he made previously. In an attempt to prove he was telling the truth to police, Gouker orchestrated phone calls to several family members and friends. Though he tried to get various people to corroborate his claim that Josh was the perpetrator, some of conversations that took place presented clear red flags that Gouker was trying to divert suspicion off of himself by casting it onto his own son.

Eventually Gouker admitted that he had murdered Trey on his own, but by then the damage was done. Now the younger and elder Josh both stand accused of the murder. Moreover, the prosecution wants to try the two together. This, despite Josh’s defense attorney’s claim that he “plans to introduce 20 new factual items that will show the teen did not kill Zwicker, 14, by beating him with a baseball bat.”

Josh Young’s defense attorneys want him tried separately from his father. Trying Josh beside his father presents a number of hurdles for the defense, including the potential for Gouker to influence or attempt to manipulate witnesses for Josh’s defense. Discovery evidence demonstrates he has done this in the past and so there is reasonable concern he may do it again.

A combined trial would also force Josh to stand trial next to his accuser. Instead of having the opportunity to challenge his accuser in court in the traditional sense, he runs the risk of being perceived negatively when the jury learns more about Gouker. This is a similar dilemma to the one mentioned previously in which Jason Baldwin’s defense attorneys worried that he would be impacted by the evidence presented against Damien – even though much of it had nothing to do with Jason.

Gouker’s defense wants a separate trial as well.

Judge Barry Willett is expected to make a decision about trying Josh and his father separately or together on March 22. Hopefully the judge will preserve each defendants’ right to a fair trial. Only time will tell.

Ryan’s words

Ryan with his sister and mom during a December 2011 visit

Ryan with his sister and mom during a December 2011 visit

Below I am posting the second guest blog, written by Ryan Holle, that gives a little insight into the basics of prison life.

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Thinking about what next to write about is not easy. Being raised by my mom, having my grandparents and other relatives around me, the one thing that they taught me – especially my mom – is what it means to be independent. Can you imagine a woman practically raising two children by herself and trying not to be dependent on others? She did awesome and I will always be grateful for her and my family in my life.

When I graduated high school, I left home at 17 and began my independence. I maintained that and prided myself on the fact that I was able to do so. When I got locked up I lost that. In prison there are no paying jobs – not to any great extent in Florida anyway. At the prison I was last at, on a compound of over 1,200 people, there were a handful of paying jobs. If you were lucky enough to be one of the five canteen operators or the one staff barber then you were able to make something. If you don’t have anyone out on the street to help you, you are out of luck.

Some people steal to make it by. Some tattoo, some deal in drugs, etc. That is just the nature of prison. In prison they give you three pairs of blues (that’s your uniform), three shirts, three boxers, three socks, two towels, two wash clothes, and a pair of what everyone nicknames “Bo-Bo’s”. They are the flat bottom slip-ons with elastic on both sides. Besides that, they give you two rolls of toilet paper a week, one bar of soap, one toothbrush, and one toothpaste once a month. Everything else in on you. If you want shampoo, deoderant, shower slides, toenail clippers, food items, shoes, etc. – then it is on you to find a way to purchase them.

A lot of people out there would say, “He doesn’t need to buy food items because they give him three meals a day”. But anyone familiar with prison food would find that statement very untrue. Being an independent person and calling home and asking for help is never easy. I am always grateful for the help I do get because like I tell my family, “You help me survive.”

Ryan Holle

Schools taking the stand against bullying

Rochester High School, in the Rochester 3A district

Rochester High School, in the Rochester 3A district

The problem of bullying among children and teenagers is acknowledged by many. One need not look hard to find information on the topic – especially as it pertains to the lives devastated or ended as a direct result of it. Some people might think that accepting there is a problem is enough. Others recognize the need for further action, but  do not know what they can do individually to incite change.

I grappled with that question myself. I wanted to understand what can and must be done to proactively address this complex problem. I wondered what kind of action is necessary to ensure that children may attend school to learn – without feeling scared, uncomfortable, or even traumatized.

It took some time to even begin to uncover the answers to those questions. From an awareness raising perspective I could focus a lot of time discussing the countless students who have been negatively affected by bullying or other harassing behaviors. Many of these stories are heartbreaking. There is no question they would disturb you and move you, but only a few of them would provide any true insight into what is happening in some of America’s schools to overcome the problem. Somehow I feel that emphasis on solutions and best practices might empower people more.

For this reason, I am focusing a few of my upcoming articles about bullying on the prevention perspective. There is no question a great number of schools are handling this problem incorrectly, but I want to tell you about one that has made solving this problem a priority. I am also going to tell you how they have reduced the behavior substantially within the school’s district.

The Rochester 3A Schools

Rochester, Illinois is a small village located within the county of Sangamon. In 2006, the region’s school district, known as Rochester 3A, held a Saturday morning community engagement day. Approximately 45 members of the little community met to discuss school-related matters. The topic of bullying was raised and identified as a major area of concern among the community.

Instead of glossing over the problem, or merely vocalizing a commitment to resolving the issue, the district took steps to tackle it aggressively. The district identified the problem as a priority within the district’s strategic plan and set about implementing four primary steps. These included defining the problem and its scope, outlining a board policy in response to the problem, developing an action plan, and creating a metric for measuring progress through the use of a survey.

The Rochester 3A schools administer a comprehensive survey to staff and students every three years. The schools compare data from each survey against baseline information collected in the beginning of the program. This provides the district with measurements of the program’s efficacy and progress. The district provides a high degree of transparency with regard to its program and its surveys. Those interested in the questions and results may find the surveys here.

The Director of Educational Services, Laurie McWard, at the Rochester district is among those who have been integral to the efforts on behalf of the school. In a recent interview with me, Laurie explained that a successful bullying prevention program requires specific components. These include the following: the school and its district must make the problem of bullying a priority; training provided to staff must be frequent and consistent; the curriculum must be proactive; data gathered by the school must be analyzed regularly; the schools must administer and evaluate surveys; and the district must develop an action plan that addresses specific issues identified in the survey results.

Laurie added that her school district benefited from working with a consultant outside of the schools. She also touched on how these types of widespread prevention programs are effective because they change the culture inside of the school among staff and students. “Although we still have some issues, the majority of our students don’t tolerate bullying and this culture change starts early in their school experience.”

Laurie credits the staff, students, Board of Education, and the district’s administrative team for the program’s success to date. She also explained that a major contributor to the district’s ability to address the problem was the assistance of Dr. Michael R. Carpenter, a nationally certified bullying prevention program trainer and anti-bullying consultant through Olweus.

I inquired about how the bullying prevention program has influenced student behavior in other general areas. For example, I was curious to know if the program had caused a decline in disciplinary problems in general. Laurie gathered feedback from some of the schools administrators. “One Principal commented that his direct contact and instruction with his students about bullying – what is teasing, etc. – has had a real impact on his young students,” she said. “Another Principal also has periodic meetings with each of his grade levels to discuss any building issues and bullying is a topic he includes. He attributes his regular direct contact with students has also helped his discipline data.”

I would be interested in seeing more research in this particular area because I suspect that implementation of successful bullying prevention programs helps to reduce other types of discipline problems within the schools. It might also be interesting to see comparative data on successful bullying prevention programs and their impact on adult criminal behavior among those who attend schools with these programs versus people who attend schools that fail to address the problem.

Dr. Michael Carpenter

Dr. Michael Carpenter

Dr. Carpenter, credited by Laurie as helping the school to develop and facilitate its program, provides extensive training and resources to those seeking solutions. His website, www.wagepeacetoday.com provides insight into the best and worst practices regarding bullying when it comes to school administrators, counselors, and teachers.

He agreed to talk to me about the program and the work he has done to provide schools with the knowledge and training necessary to combat bullying. He pointed out that the decision not to make bullying prevention a priority among schools and communities is much more costly than implementing proven solutions.

When asked about the biggest obstacles faced by schools when it comes to addressing bullying in an effective way he responded, “Schools want a quick fix. Schools are also so dysfunctional that accountability is the biggest problem.” He also cited financial considerations as a major barrier preventing schools from effectively handling the problem. It is important to note here that the costs associated with implementing the program within the Rochester 3A district were only about $5,000. These costs are negligible when compared with the costs associated with ignoring the problem.

I asked Dr. Carpenter to provide insight into the main reasons schools fail at this effort. “Bullying takes a systemic and comprehensive effort,” he explained. “The focus should not be on the schools but on all parts of our society.” He added that schools have an opportunity “to be a part of a joint effort to create an inclusive environment.”

Dr. Carpenter outlined critical components to addressing the problem in any school environment. The first is adult role modeling. The second is getting everyone involved, including the students, parents, the community, the educators, and bystanders. He included the following elements as well: “Weekly class meetings on bullying, character education, and civility; on-going awareness with research-based practices; teaching prevention and intervention skills; and measuring the success using reliable, valid, and consistent methods.”

I discussed with Dr. Carpenter the short-term and long-term consequences of bullying when schools fail to address the problem. He relayed some of these as follows:”Students may drop out or be absent (huge cost to education and society), health problems for those targeted – stress, depression, anxiety, lack of sleep. Targets and aggressors use more alcohol and other drugs (huge cost for health care).”

He added, “If we don’t intervene early – by age 24 – 60% of aggressors will have at least one conviction. The cost for health problems because of bullying or victimization has been estimated to be two million per individual when they reach age 35. Long term effects can be suicide or homicide.”

Laurie McWard agreed that failure to address the problem of bullying has long-lasting consequences. “Students who are bullied may have long lasting issues,” she said.

I asked Dr. Carpenter what people need to know when it comes to implementing solutions. “The focus should not be on identifying bullying behavior but identifying those behaviors that interfere with learning. Schools and staff should be mandated reporters for any behavior that impacts learning. The information should be sent to a safety team to make a decision if it is bullying. There should be strict accountability measures. Schools should use certified bullying prevention trainers who know the research literature on best practices to train their staff on bullying prevention.” He said that programs other than his may be successful provided they include critical components discussed herein.

Dr. Carpenter maintains that while the problem of bullying will never be eliminated “our goal is to reduce it.” Reduction comes from empowering members of the community, teachers, students, and administrators. “Students should have a voice in their education,” Dr. Carpenter said. “They should be making decisions. Schools should get away from rules and punishments and move toward cooperation, collaboration, and agreements. If schools model coercive, intimidating environments, it’s no wonder why schools can’t reduce bullying.”

Laurie explained that the Rochester 3A schools plan to continue working toward improving the district’s program and approach. In the upcoming year, the district plans to continue training; analyze and monitor bullying data; implement an incident reporting form; increase training in the high school surrounding character education and awareness; and put more information and resources online for parents of the school’s students.

An important lesson to take away from what the Rochester 3A schools have achieved through the help of Dr. Carpenter is that there are effective solutions when it comes to significantly reducing this problem in school. This district is proof of that and they are not alone in their success. However, such a solution requires full commitment on the part of the educators, parents, students, communities, and administrators. While there are no simple solutions, long-term efforts help schools provide a safe learning environment for students.

And ultimately, these actions save lives.

Additional Resources

www.stopbullying.gov

www.cyberbullyhelp.com

Websites for Dr. Carpenter’s Programs and Services

www.wagepeacetoday.com

www.directionalityga.org

The abuse factor

Child-abuseAll too often when a young person commits a violent crime he or she has some history of being abused. Granted, many people who have experienced different kinds of abuse grow into nonviolent adults. However, the simple fact remains that more often than not abuse is a factor when children or teens commit crimes.

While I acknowledge the existence of people who do not continue the cycle of abuse, I want to discuss the undeniable influence abuse has on a person’s tendency to commit acts of violence on others either as a child or later on as an adult. The way I see it, we as a society may either continue to deny this increasingly apparent common denominator, or we may opt to accept that more often than not, abuse is among the root causes.

Most people have sympathy for a person who has suffered abuse, but far fewer have compassion for a person who has experienced abuse and goes on to commit a violent act in its wake. For this reason I feel it is important to focus on the causal relationship between child abuse and violence. If we are to solve the problem of crime among juveniles we must understand exactly what it is that causes it to happen.

To illustrate this point I have decided to break down abuse by type. Child abuse comes in many forms, ranging from ongoing neglect to serious physical injury. While one might think that physical violence has the greatest influence on a person’s propensity for violence, recent studies show that psychological abuse is as damaging as some types of physical abuse.

In her fictional debut novel, Sharp Objects, Gillian Flynn tackles an intriguing form of child abuse and its devastating consequences

In her fictional debut novel, Sharp Objects, Gillian Flynn tackles a unique form of child abuse and its devastating consequences. Copyrighted, all rights reserved and compliant with Fair Use for educational/research purposes

Psychological Abuse

The main forms of psychological abuse include verbal abuse, emotional abuse, and neglect. A study published in July of 2012 by the American Academy of Pediatrics stated, “Psychological or emotional maltreatment of children may be the most challenging and prevalent form of child abuse and neglect.” The authors of the study went on to note that this form of abuse has been linked with “disorders of attachment, developmental and educational problems, socialization problems, disruptive behavior, and later psychopathology.”

The problem with this type of abuse is that while it is the most prevalent, it is the hardest to recognize. Serious physical abuse involving obvious bodily harm or admittance to a hospital is hard to overlook, but how do people identify clear cases of psychological abuse in those they encounter?

When you stop and think about the people you know well, how many have described experiencing some form of psychological abuse at the hands of a parent, a caregiver, a family member, or even a peer? More importantly, how many people experience this kind of abuse and refrain from ever talking about it?

In my last write up I described the case of Robert Richardson. According to multiple news reports including interviews with neighbors and peers, Robert was at a minimum psychologically abused. More than one person described hearing fights that transpired in the Richardson household prior to the shooting death of Robert’s father.

A neighbor man and his wife told the media they called the police on two occasions to report verbal abuse. The neighbor stated that one of the times he called because the father threatened to kill his son. A completely different neighbor told the media she had observed the family dynamics for years. She said that his father “was always yelling and shouting at the boy.”

Lee Hirsch's The Bully Project fought the MPAA's R-rating to ensure delivery of its powerful message to a wider audience

The filmmakers behind The Bully Project’s fought the MPAA’s R-rating to ensure delivery of its powerful message to a wider audience. Copyrighted and all rights reserved. Compliant with Fair Use for educational/research purposes.

Some may dismiss these reports of negligence and psychological abuse, saying these stories are a dime a dozen or have been embellished, but you have to stop and really wonder what might have been happening in that home. Does abuse or neglect in a home warrant the death of the offending person? No. Should it encourage all of us to pay a little more attention to the children in our lives and what might be happening with them? Absolutely.

Criminology professor at the University of South Florida, Kathleen Heide, wrote a book about the role child abuse plays in cases where kids murder their parents. In addition to detailing the ways in which abuse perpetuates violence, Heide goes one step further and provides interventions for treating children who suffer abuse at the hands of parents or caregivers.

In addition to having written about the devastating effects of abuse on children, Heide has evaluated juveniles facing serious criminal charges, such as murder, at the request of attorneys. For example, she evaluated a 17-year-old girl who shot her father as he slept in his bed in 1987. She made the determination the teen had post-traumatic stress disorder stemming from a combination of psychological and physical abuse – a common finding among children and teenagers exposed to abuse.

It is interesting to consider that the prosecutor involved in the above case wanted to seek the death penalty against the teenager. This was before the Supreme Court banned capital punishment for those under the age of 18. Her evaluation findings helped the defense to obtain a second-degree murder conviction that required the girl to serve part of a 17- year sentence. Instead of the death penalty.

The bottom line here is this kind of juvenile violence is preventable. This is only one example of many. Abuse ends badly any way you choose to look at it. Some abusers kill those they abuse. Sometime the abused kill their abuser. Minimally, abuse leaves a person feeling broken, incomplete, insignificant, unimportant, and unworthy of anything positive or meaningful. The abuse hampers the person’s ability to bond with others and taints their perception of self-worth.

Physical and Sexual Abuse

Physical and sexual abuse are separate forms of maltreatment, but I am including them under a single category because researchers often include both in studies examining short-term and long-term consequences of abuse.

In November of 2012, David Finkelhor and Lisa Jones released a bulletin summarizing the results of three independent studies pertaining to these issues. For quite some time a number of researchers have claimed, based on the results of studies, that sexual and physical abuse have declined in prevalence. The above authors evaluated some of the existing literature and concluded that “the case there has been a true decline in sexual abuse is stronger than the case about physical abuse.”

On one hand these reported declines are intriguing because of the steadily decreasing rate of crimes committed by juveniles. The Department of Justice indicated that juvenile arrest rates peaked in 1996 and then declined 36% by 2009. This year, the state of California experienced its lowest juvenile crime rate since 1957. The state is not sure what factors have contributed to the decrease in juvenile crime, but believe youth-oriented diversion programs have been influential.

On the other hand, findings regarding the prevalence of physical abuse in particular are not always consistent. Researchers from the Yale School of Medicine examined trends in the reporting of serious injuries resulting from child abuse for over a decade (between 1997 and 2009). The researchers obtained information for the study from the Kids’ Inpatient Database (KID). The researchers defined serious injuries as those including “head injuries, fractures, burns, open wounds, and abdominal injuries”.

The researchers determined that these injuries have increased by about 5% from 1997 to 2009. This study contradicts information from child protective services that alleges child physical abuse has dropped 55% between 1992 and 2009. A journalist for Time Magazine suggested that a possibility for these differences is that “protective services accounts for all physical abuse in their calculations – regardless of severity or age.” The authors of the Yale study focused entirely on serious injuries caused by abuse that required hospitalization.

The Yale study reported that per every 100,000 children under the age of 18, the incidence of serious child abuse has increased 4.9%. However, perhaps even more alarming is the finding that the increase was 10.9% for babies under 1 year of age.

It remains to be seen how the rising number of serious physical injuries to infants will impact the children involved or others in society.

Finally, it is worth remembering that “parents kill their children by abuse or neglect ten times as often as children kill their parents.” How’s that for a sobering reality?

A month before 15-year-old Amanda Todd took her own life she published a video on YouTube

A month before 15-year-old Amanda Todd took her own life she published a video on YouTube

Abuse by Bullying

We all know the violent consequences of bullying. Some children kill themselves to escape the pain of this psychological and sometimes physical form of torment. Others lash out in other ways by inflicting extreme violence on others. Then there are the children who are killed by those who bully them.

While not every single person who has experienced some degree of bullying takes their abuse out on themselves or others, there is no mistaking the effect this kind of abuse has on those who experience it.

For a harrowing look at the dangers of bullying watch this video describing the events that led up to 13-year-old Jared High’s suicide. This video is a must-see for anyone who has children or cares about them in a general sense. Jared’s life story and experiences with bullying are relayed on the site jaredstory.com. The site provides information about bullying and links to resources on the topic.

Amanda's peers abused her publicly on Facebook

Amanda’s peers abused her publicly on Facebook

I could linger on the topic of bullied children and teens who commit violent acts against others because we all know those cases exist. However, I really want to emphasize the increasing incidence of suicide among bullied youth. When a person takes their life because they have experienced this kind of abuse there are always people who say, “how awful”, “if only people had realized the severity of the problem,” and “how can children be so cruel to one another?”

Other people are indifferent. Apathetic. Uninterested.

The people who seem to get involved most frequently in advocating for change appear to be the survivors of this particularly cruel traumatic loss. I see so many people blaming the parents of the children who commit suicide, but this issue runs so much deeper. In Lee Hirsch’s The Bully Project (also known simply as Bully) the grieving father of a child named Tyler Long, who committed suicide after having been bullied, stated to following:

We knew why Tyler did what he did. There was no doubt in our minds. When you’re in the shower and your clothes are taken, and you have no way of getting out of the gym other than walking out naked…when you’re standing in the bathroom and you’re urinating and kids come up and push you from behind up against the stall and against the wall and you urinate on your pants…when you’re sitting in the classroom and somebody comes by and grabs your books and throws them on the floor and tells you to pick them up bitch…those are things that happened to Tyler. Did he ever come home with blood running down his face? No. It was the mental abuse and the not-so-physical abuse that Tyler endured.

Then, after describing the abuse his son experienced at the hands of his peers – in the one place parents hope is a safe environment for their children – he said this:

We can control what goes on inside those walls – inside of school – and the atmosphere has to be set completely by the administration. They all are part of the school system that’s there to protect the kids. And if they don’t…then this is what happens.

The above statement raises important questions about who is to blame in these situations. Perhaps all of us must take responsibility when the youth in our communities feel their best, and perhaps only option for escaping abuse, is to end their life permanently.

This is unacceptable. You know it, I know it, and school administrators surely know it. However, this is going to continue and escalate until we refuse to accept the status quo. I cannot emphasize enough that this has to change. Standing by and hoping someone else will fix the problem only helps to perpetuate it.

Following her suicide, a spokeswoman for Amanda's school district told the media the school knew about the video and had "support in place".

Following her suicide, a spokeswoman for Amanda’s school district told the media the school knew about the video and had “support in place”.

Some might ask: what can we really do about it? The answer is simple. Our ability to help others in need is limited only by our willingness to imagine each and every possible way we can and should help. Try to envisionhow different this world might be if each person touched by these acts of violence took it upon themselves to do something – anything – to bring about change.

Some people get it though, including children and teenagers. In Hudson, New Hampshire a group of students decided to take the matter of bullying seriously and started an anti-bullying program at school. Some of the students involved have observed the abuse that takes place in their school and find this kind of program a way to take action on behalf of others.

The above program, named the Hudson Memorial School’s Ambassadors of Hope, was a winner of the 2012 Stand Up awards. The fact is, student-driven programs such as this have the potential to save more lives than people could ever fully realize.

We can stand by and watch abuse happen or we can take action to stop it. The choice is ours.

We can stand by and watch abuse happen or we can take action to stop it. The choice is ours.

These kids are inspiring. The message they are sending to other students and to the world is powerful. And these are children doing it. What if more people followed their lead? What if you did?

If you have not seen Hirsch’s film, I recommend it. It is heartbreaking and it is shocking, but perhaps that is what it will take to get everyone’s attention and put a stop to this.

Leading the way

Robert "Bob" Richardson

Robert “Bob” Richardson

I have a story to tell you, but before I begin I feel compelled to tell you that this one is disturbing. This is a story that once read, will long be remembered. It is a story of abuse, neglect, murder, compassion, redemption, and love. I only hope I can do this one justice because the people this tale revolves around deserve that.

Before

Before January of 2012, Robert Richardson was a freshman at C. Milton Wright High School in Bel Air, Maryland. The small town, located in Harford County, claims a population  of about 10,680. Many students of the high school knew Robert – known to many as “Bob” – because they had seen him come to school in the same worn and dirty clothes day after day.

The teen and his father resided on Moores Mill Road. He lived alone with his father following the death of his mother six years prior. Robert’s mother succumbed to a battle with cancer. Father and son struggled to survive on a very limited income that placed the family’s income level below the poverty threshold.

The family’s money problems were apparent to those who knew Robert. The quality and lack of clothing caught many people’s eye – students and neighbors alike. However, the family’s troubles went much deeper than those reflected in the teen’s tattered clothing. Robert’s friends saw bruises on the teen as well. Ashle Jones, a 16-year-old student who attended the same school, stated that she remembered Robert confiding in her that his father was physically abusive toward him.

Neighbors regularly heard verbal fights coming from within the Richardson home. One neighbor, Mark Cullum, Sr., would later say in reference to the teen’s treatment by his father, “I’m not condoning what this kid did, but that man was verbally abusing his son”.

The Richardson home

The Richardson home

A Violent End

On the evening of January 9th of 2012, years of neglect and abuse culminated into an act of murder. Or was it self-defense? Though many details of that night have not been made public, two things are clear: Robert shot his father and it could have been prevented.

After

Prior to the elder Richardson’s death, police had responded to the home over a dozen times due to myriad complaints and other reports. A news outlet obtained documents from the Harford County Sheriff’s department  and reported that none were for “domestic violence”.

The problem is this contradicts what at least one of the family’s neighbors said about he and his wife calling the police on two separate occasions to report the verbal abuse. Collum told the media he heard Robert’s father threaten to kill his son. The screaming and shouting was so loud at times the neighbors could hear it a block away.

Bob's 8th grade picture

Robert’s 8th grade picture

Did the police know there was a pattern of abuse? Did they ignore it? It is difficult to understand how the police could have been completely in the dark about what was transpiring inside of that home.

What would have happened if the police or social services had intervened at an earlier time? The answer seems obvious.

Some of the reports obtained from the sheriff’s department reveal that Robert tried to escape his situation on multiple occasions, running away from the abusive environment only to return once the police located him. Robert expressed his concern about returning home, according to the media, but it fell on deaf ears.

Social services responded to questions about their involvement, or lack of it, with the Richardson family by declining to give any information. The manager for in-home services at the state Department of Social Services, Stephen Berry, told the media that reports about loud arguments might not have been enough to elicit a response from Child Protective Services. What about discussions with neighbors and peers of the teen? Would that have been enough?

Neighbor Geraldine Martin told the media, “It’s seems like everyone is talking about how it is such a terrible thing that happened, but nobody’s talking about the fact that it could have been prevented.”

The prosecutor in Robert’s case is seeking a conviction for first degree murder. This means the teen will be tried and sentenced as an adult. He was 16-years-old when he was arrested and he is 17 now. His attorneys have motioned to have his case returned to juvenile court.

A Ray of Hope

Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, “To ignore evil is to become an accomplice to it.” This is a powerful statement when you stop and think about it. It suggests that accountability is a concept that extends far beyond the actions of a single person. It maintains that inaction is as great an error as doing something that a person knows is wrong.

There is no question that more should have been done to help Robert before he shot his father. The community knew that something was wrong, but those in a position of power such as the police and social services, did nothing. I spent several nights reading news articles and watching videos, trying to understand how this child slipped through the cracks so spectacularly. I found no answers.

The cases of abused children haunt me. I spent almost a decade of my childhood living with children from broken homes who were placed in foster care. I know all too well how much abuse children endure before someone finally puts a stop to it. I remember vividly judges ordering children back to parents who were abusive in more ways than one.  I remember the grief I felt at the knowledge the child would return to foster care in a short amount of time, once the abuse became apparent again or the parents grew tired of performing their duties. Sometimes the children returned to my mom’s home, but sometimes I would not even find out they had been returned to foster care until months or years after it happened. This meant the children were bounced from one home to the next, never experiencing the luxury of a stable home environment.

Though it likely shocks many people to hear about the long-term abuse many children suffer, it does not surprise me in the least. What does surprise me, however, is how people react when these situations end in violence.

Hannah Siple

Hannah Siple

There is hope in this appallingly dismal situation, however. Enter the Siples. Hannah is a junior at the school Robert attended before his arrest. She has known him since the eighth grade. On the surface Hannah looks very much like an ordinary teenager. She is pretty, loves animals, and enjoys playing different kinds of music. However, Hannah is different than most teens. She is unusually compassionate and has a streak of independence that distinguishes her from others.

When Hannah first learned Robert murdered his father she was upset with him. She recalled this, telling me, “I was really mad at him…But then I remembered that he’s a friend and he had to have done it for a reason.”

Hannah realizes now there were signs of trouble. She has reflected on all that has happened, realizing “he showed all the classic signs of abuse and I ignored them. I felt horrible after that, and guilty.” She knew she needed to do something and so she approached her mother, Eileen, with her idea of starting a Facebook page on behalf of the teen.

Since starting the Facebook page she, her mom, and others worked together to come up with ways to raise awareness about the case. “We’ve had online fundraisers, yard sales, fundraisers at restaurants…had bracelets, shirts, bumper stickers made, found his previous lawyers and defense team, etc. That wasn’t just me though, all the people on the page made that possible.”

She describes Robert as wise and funny, with an interest in how the world works. She relayed a story about how when he was fleeing his home on January 9th he “made sure to bring his cat with him, because she was pregnant, and he wanted to make sure she was safe.”

Hannah’s mom, Eileen, did not know Robert before all of this happened. However, she has become fully involved in helping the teen. She worked as a special education teacher for 29 years. She has two children: Hannah and Larry.

Eileen remembers when the news broke in her small town. “I first heard of this story via a text news alert from a local TV station.  I can’t really explain it, but it hit me really hard.  I did not know Bob.  I had never heard his name.  I did not know that my daughter knew Bob.  I just got this feeling that there was much more to this story.”

Hannah, who was very upset by what happened, talked to her mother about Robert. “Her reaction reinforced my own feelings of misgiving,” Eileen recollected.

Hannah and her mom speak to Robert about five times a week by phone. They have also gone to see him at the Harford County Detention Center in Bel Air. The facility is an adult county jail. He spent the first nine months in isolation. He was only allowed out of his cell a couple of times a week to take a shower.

On his 17th birthday, on September 22, Robert was moved into what is known as “limited population”. He spends his days alone in his cell. He is given one hour a day to interact with other inmates housed in neighboring cells.

For Hannah and Eileen, Robert’s situation has been a heartbreaking wake-up call. “I’m no longer hesitant in standing up for what I believe in,” Hannah explained to me. “I also now know how to look out for signs of abuse and not just pass them off.” She added that her efforts to help Robert have caused her to grow by becoming a better listener.

I was interested in how Hannah’s peers have reacted to the advocacy efforts she has helped to spearhead. “Everyone is split,” she said. “Most people at school thought it was a great thing I was doing, but a lot of people have been really mean about it. I guess you could call it bullying, but I hate that word.” She talked about how she and her mom have received death threats from people online. “Nothing has happened, but it’s still scary.”

The threats and criticism will not deter Hannah, however. She feels that the justice system is in need of reform. “We need to realize that kids are kids, no matter what they do. A 16-year-old could kill hundreds of people, but that doesn’t stop them from having been born in 1996, and being 16-years-old…People like Robert need treatment, not punishment. He needs therapy. This kid has been through way too much to just be given up on. It’s not fair to be given up on, when you’ve never even had a chance.”

Support bracelet

Support bracelet

Eileen shares her daughter’s goal of seeing Robert receive treatment. She would like to see him placed in a juvenile facility that focuses on rehabilitation. “Bob has never had good role models, and he is stunned to see so many people come to his defense now. I am happy that he is realizing that there are so many good people in the world, but he has a lot of work to do.” She elaborated by explaining that since his incarceration Robert has not received counseling, an education, or been involved in any kind of rehabilitation program.

“Most importantly,” Eileen said, “I would like for Bob to feel as if he is a part of a loving and supportive family. He will always have a place in my family.”

This experience has inspired Eileen to do even more to help Robert and other survivors of abuse. She would like to start a foundation at some point to make this dream a reality. Meanwhile, the actions taken by Hannah, her mother, and all those who have rallied in support the teen demonstrate that all hope is not lost. Though Robert’s existence prior to this horrific situation was dismal at best, he now has a support system in the people who have committed to both him and his cause.

This case is a reminder of the responsibility we as a society have to protect our children. Does it make sense to punish a teenager for the repeated failings of those who should have protected him? Richard’s story is not an isolated incident either. Children are abused across this country every single day. Much of this abuse is ignored.

Hannah, Eileen, and others who support Robert refuse to look away. I am left wondering how this story will effect others and what they will do to correct the problems that allow situations like this to escalate.

The Facebook page for Robert Richardson is here. The page provides updates on his case and advocacy efforts surrounding it.

Hannah also put together a video detailing Robert’s case here.