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Counterpoint: These children matter and so does their education

To begin the work of understanding juvenile detention systems, education, teaching, and learning, several points are worthy of noting. The childhoods that children experience are strongly shaped by social structure, race, and class (Putnam, 2015). Economic forces, government policies, and institutional decisions create the conditions that determine the varieties of childhood. Public policies, state and Federal housing policies, public housing projects, bank loan policies, deindustrialisation, and digital technologies have disproportionately affected Indigenous, American Indian, Latinx, and African American children, undermining family structures and exacerbated poverty for children growing up in single-parent households (Feld, 2017). Regardless of how we feel about adults, children are innocent bystanders and victims of their parents’ circumstances who cannot escape the environment to which the larger society consigns them. The childhoods of these children are very different from those of their more affluent peers. These children matter.

The idea of mattering is important (Love, 2019, pp. 42–68). Mattering enough as a teacher, to students and their community, can be difficult to conceptualise particularly in countries such as Australia and the USA where Indigenous, American Indian, Latinx, and African American children continue to find they are disposable. How do children matter in countries that would rather incarcerate than educate? How do children matter in countries that have stolen land and broken treaties and then are called troublemakers or disruptive? How do children matter in countries that see them as property or a commodity? How do children matter in countries that measure knowledge against a “gap” that they created? How do juvenile detention centres give children and young people purpose and allow them to grow? How do teachers in juvenile detention centres allow children and young people to see why they matter to themselves?

Children and young people in juvenile justice systems have lived and are living complex lives. These complexities are made clear by Flores and Barahona-Lopez. More often than not, these children are described by three broad markers of identity: culture, race, and gender. But intersecting these markers of identity are language, sexuality, ability, religion, and spirituality. These markers cannot be examined in isolation from one another because they all matter; they intersect (Drinan, 2018; Love, 2019). Intersectionality is not about listing and naming identities; it is about analysing the complexities and realities of discrimination and of the power or lack of it and how they intersect with identities. Intersectionality cannot be conflated with diversity (Drinan, 2018; Love, 2019). As a term, diversity is used to describe different types of people by terms such as race, gender, sexuality, or religion. Intersectionality is more than counting representation in a group. One example of the need for intersectionality can be seen in the number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children incarcerated in juvenile detention centres in Australia or the number of coloured children incarcerated in the USA. In Morris’ (2016) book Pushout: The criminalization of Black Girls in School, she describes how black girls are branded or labelled as disruptive by their teachers, then expelled or suspended. Morris’ book and the work of other scholars sparked a national conversation in the USA focusing black girls who felt ignored and disrespected by their teachers and school administrators—they didn’t matter yet all the whilst were experiencing poverty, sexual abuse, emotional numbing, disabilities, low self-esteem, mental health issues, gender transitions, or the trials of being Black and a young girl trying to navigate adolescence. Love (2019, p. 5) cites Morris’ work arguing,

Black girls never get to be girls, a phenomenon she describes as “age compression,” in which Black girls are seen as Black women, with all the stereotypes that go along with Black womanhood (e.g., hypersexual, loud, rude, and aggressive).

Using intersectionality to examine age compression of Black girls in school, important questions can be asked: What does this mean for black girls who are incarcerated, who are disabled, or who are part of the LGTBQ community? How do black girls with a combination of these identities deal with the realities of discrimination, harassment, and violence? Intersectionality provides a way for how we might think and discuss juvenile detention centres in ways that are inclusive of how oppression intersects everyday lives in and outside of school, in and outside of juvenile detention centres. Intersectionality does not ignore black or brown boys who endure similar issues. It adds complexity to understandings of how institutions such as schools and juvenile detention centres oppress different people in different ways. This oppression is further emphasised in Sarra’s (2012, p. 76) book Strong and Smart: Towards a Pedagogy for Emancipation, where he states that “the perceptions Mainstream Australia has of Aboriginal people is a long, long way from the realities of who we really are”. Yet, these perceptions continue today with no accountability and remain unquestioned or critiqued. Intersectionality then, Love (2019, p. 7) argues:

allows educators to dialogue around a set of questions that will lead them to a better sense of their students’ full selves, their students’ challenges, the grace and beauty that is needed to juggle multiple identities seamlessly, and how schools perpetuate injustice. When teachers shy away from intersectionality, they shy away from ever fully knowing their students’ humanity and the richness of their identities. Mattering cannot happen if identities are isolated and students cannot be their full selves.

Children and young people in juvenile detention have mattered to their communities, to their families, and to themselves. But mattering in juvenile detention is quashed by an emphasis on discipline, uninspired teaching, and a curriculum often driven by photocopied booklets that students are required to work through each day (Morris, 2016). Limited opportunities are provided to collaborate with each other, learn from each other, represent thinking using multi-modalities such as drawing, or interrogate the content of the material through inquiry and discussion. Quane’s article draws our attention to children’s attitudes towards mathematics learning and how they influence achievement, engagement, and long-term success in mathematics. She argues further stating that providing children with the opportunities to use their voices whilst collaborating with enabling peers will influence children’s success in mathematics.

Managing children and young people in juvenile detention centres with significant histories of school disengagement and failure which are compounded by their histories of trauma and abuse is confronting for teachers and educators. The emotional labour that they expend whilst teaching in a juvenile detention centre is documented in Flores and Barahona-Lopez’s article. Many teachers care but many report feeling overwhelmed and emotionally unprepared or insufficiently trained to deal with the issues that prevent them from forming meaningful relationships, even if temporary, with the children and young people they educate. It is timely, then, to locate education, teaching, and learning in juvenile justice schools, especially that from other countries across the world, and to see it in relation to how these countries manage the issues raised in this Point and Counterpoint.


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Correspondence to Bronwyn Ewing.

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Ewing, B. Counterpoint: These children matter and so does their education. Curric Perspect 41, 257–258 (2021).

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  • Social structure
  • Mattering
  • Juvenile detention systems
  • Intersectionality
  • Age compression
  • Emotional labour
  • Mathematics education