500 Square Feet of Respect

Queering a study of the criminal justice system

By Adam Grant Kelley

Illustrator: Alec Dunn

A backpack striking the ground signaled the intersection of identities in the hallway of our Brooklyn transfer school. Shouts echoed against the walls and down to the lounge: “Hit her like the boy she wants to be.” Teachers exchanged nervous glances – another fight. I jolted from my seat and sprinted down the hallway. Rounding the corner, I found Stormy, a butch lesbian student, unleashing frustration on Ty, a black male student who divided his time between our hallways and the juvenile detention center at Riker’s Island. Blow by blow, I could see the tears dripping on the tiles, mixed with blood.

“She tries to be like the rest of us. Puttin’ on a tough face when she has no idea what it means to be tough. The need to be tough. To survive.” Ty sat in the corner of the counseling suite, arms crossed, staring at the ground.

“Don’t tell me what I know, what I’ve been through,” Stormy retorted, arms sailing through the air as a demand that everyone acknowledge her presence.

“People don’t see you as a threat. Cops don’t stop you because of how you look. They didn’t drop you in Queens last night at 3 a.m. after an hour in the back of the squad car without a reason. They don’t do that to women. They do that to people like me.”

“People don’t harass you because you don’t look or act like they expect you to. Cops don’t stop you and curse at you until you stand up for yourself, which only gets you cuffed.”

This exchange continued a while longer, both students refusing to acknowledge the other’s words; holding fast to the idea that they had nothing in common. Almost as if their experience made them more worthy of the punches thrown at one another and the rage they felt for the world. It was impossible to mediate an end that would cultivate empathy within Ty and Stormy. We concluded with an armistice: Stormy and Ty agreed to avoid one another.

The altercation consumed me for days, raising questions about the community of respect I tried so hard to create within my room. After many contemplative subway rides, I decided to create a course that would allow kids like Ty and Stormy to hear one another and take action against their common experience: entrapment, disenfranchisement, and targeted criminalization.

When Trying Harder Isn’t the Answer

The impact of the criminal justice system on students became a glaring issue for me the moment I entered a New York City transfer school. The city created these schools as alternative pathways for overage, under-credited students who end up within the juvenile justice system. Our institution offered smaller class sizes, a trimester system for increased credit accumulation, and the extra support of advocate counselors to navigate conflict. Despite progressive accommodations, many students held little trust in adults on enrollment. New York’s militarization of schools exacerbated our students’ constant preparation for confrontation.

Our population reflected the statistics: mostly black and Latina/o youth, mostly male. However, the more I communicated with students, the more I realized the presence of queer kids in the school. In discussion, many shared stories of harassment in previous schools, citing lack of administrative support as one reason they turned away from education. My heart swelled for their educational abandonment. However, it did not bring me to activism; instead, I followed the culture of the school, focusing on graduation as the solution. In New York, graduation preparation became code for heavy exam prep.

After Stormy and Ty’s hallway episode, I faced the reality: students cannot focus on content mastery when faced daily with the threat of battle against police and one another. Furthermore, my students would never identify with academics if it was not immediately connected to their experience.

Shaken from my haze, I immersed myself the next few months in weekly teacher inquiry groups organized by the New York Collective of Radical Educators. The first group of seminars I attended dealt directly with the prison industrial complex (PIC) – the rise of incarceration rates in the United States, its connection to private corporations and, most startling, its infiltration of public education. In this group, I learned of targeted student arrests – largely African American and Latino boys and men – and the rise of police presence in schools. We explored activist efforts against the system and discussed ways to create awareness around the topic.

While the PIC inquiry group touched on the experience of queer kids, it was not enough for me to feel secure in presenting it to others, so I tried to find an activist group that was looking at the disproportionate number of queer kids in the American penal system. While I did not find a group dedicated to this specific topic, I did find a group of educators who wanted to engage in discussions of queering the curriculum. Our conversations challenged the narrow scope of what I believed “queering” to be: including examples of LGBTQ individuals and groups to increase awareness and potentially cultivate a more respectful community. Now my perspective on queering the curriculum expanded to include challenging heteronormativity: the assumption of heterosexuality in studying and discussing academic topics. I came to understand the importance of integrating LGBTQ people and issues consistently in everything we looked at.

As I continued to reach out for resources and perspectives, these education activists became a sounding board for curricular ideas and a support system for navigating the politics of school.

Making Theory Accessible

Working with students who missed entire grades meant the course had to serve multiple functions. In addition to exploring issues of oppression, we needed to build basic literacy skills. Early on, I decided I wanted to sell the class to the kids as an experience they might encounter in a college setting. Thus, I included texts in a reader, complete with a syllabus. I excerpted the specific parts of the texts I wanted them to concentrate on. Then I wrote focus questions at the beginning of the day’s reading for students to consider and respond to in their notebooks, helping them build active reading and comprehension competences. To promote independence in decoding, I underlined words I believed they might struggle with and wrote definitions in the margins. I knew these supports would assist most students, but not all. To ensure all kids felt prepared for class discussions, I offered a guided reading group at lunch, where the kids would read together. This provided me an opportunity to teach basic literacy skills explicitly, modeling “practices of good readers.”

Planning the course took the most time. Finding authentic text and differentiating for the levels of my students consumed evenings and weekends; however, it allowed students to interact with interesting, age-appropriate writing. Remaining true to the idea of queering the curriculum, I wanted to find a range of texts that addressed the PIC while also challenging the idea that only straight people found themselves within the confines of the penal institution. We read selections from The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander, The New Abolitionists by Joy James, Captive Genders by Eric Stanley, studies by the New York Civil Liberties Union addressing the incarceration of school-aged youth, and Wesley Ware’s study Locked Up & Out: Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, & Transgender Youth in Louisiana’s Juvenile Justice System. The hard work was worth it when students said how accomplished they felt reading texts that college kids study.

Some of my most successful learning experiences were cross-curricular. For example, to help students understand the term “disproportionality,” I reached out to math teachers and asked them to come in and work with the kids on the inclusion of mathematical models to support an idea. After a week of providing examples and making pie charts and bar graphs of the racial breakdown in our school district versus the national population, the class created visual representations of the population of women, men, Latina/o, African American, and queer individuals in the prison system. I decided to assign students a group that did not reflect their identity to help them take multiple perspectives. Kids analyzed disproportionality by comparing the population of a specific group and the statistics of the same group within the prison system.

Recognizing a System

King, a straight male student with a reputation for high-ranking gang affiliation, had a visible moment of reflection as he looked over his data. Presenting his pie chart on transgender youth, he explained that researchers estimate that less than 2 percent of young people in the United States identify as transgender, yet 15 of every 100 young people in the juvenile justice system identifies as transgender. When the classroom erupted into laughter, King stifled his classmates: “That’s crazy. I didn’t know this was a thing. An issue. All these people running into cops on the street. Like me. Like all y’all.”

This kind of moment of emotional clarity allowed the class to engage in discussion that brought common experiences to the surfaces. The statistics did more than challenge students’ thinking, they offered proof that their circumstances were more than a set of unfortunate choices. They were part of a system that unfairly targeted specific groups of people. The clearer this became, the more active the students became in class.

Another activity provided more examples. In my PIC inquiry group, we had participated in an activity that showed how quickly kids at school fall into suspension. Modifying this activity, I created a set of situation cards that I laid face down on the floor in a fashion similar to hopscotch. As students moved from square to square, they were forced to make choices. For example, one card stated:

You are a homeless lesbian teen, turned out of your home after coming out to your family. You’re currently on probation after multiple arrests for soliciting drugs, which you sold to fend for yourself. In addition, you’ve been suspended from school multiple times for fighting after classmates harass you for being a lesbian. In school, someone whispers a homophobic comment and takes your phone. This is your only way to find housing with friends each night.


1. Report the incident to school safety officers – MOVE RIGHT.

2. Confront the student directly – MOVE LEFT.

Both choices have consequences. In the first option, the school safety officer refuses to take action against the verbal harassment; instead, he confiscates the phone, making it even more difficult to find housing for the evening. Arguing with the school safety agent gets the student arrested for disorderly conduct, violating the terms of probation. The second choice may lead to a fight, which results in suspension and also violates the terms of the student’s probation.

The act of making the choices and seeing the consequences allowed students to see the workings of a system. Stormy testified to the added pressure of being harassed for being gay. “When people want to throw razors at your face, you have to stick up for yourself,” she shouted as she moved to the left. As we debriefed the activity, students confronted a chilling truth: No matter what you do, chances are you’ll end up in the same place. “That’s crazy,” Ty whispered.

Confronting Hopelessness

The feeling of hopelessness often pervaded our course. I saw faces fall and heads slump into crossed arms on the tops of desks. Rather than feeling uncomfortable and ignoring the emotions within the class, I’d begin a discussion, re-emphasizing why it was important to study these topics. Allowing the kids to verbalize that education is better than ignorance often brought them back from the brink of giving up. However, directing the course toward the study and creation of alternatives became imperative the longer we studied difficult issues. After a few weeks of analyzing the system, we read excerpts from Angela Davis’ Are Prisons Obsolete? Davis argues for the eradication of prisons in favor of alternative approaches to justice. She challenged the students to think about restitution and forgiveness. We watched The Interrupters, a documentary that follows a group of grassroots activists in Chicago as they work to stop acts of violence before they happen. Addressing feelings of hopelessness and providing opportunities for students to consider alternatives to the system kept us from feeling defeated.

Taking It to the Community

After months studying prison abuse, discussing unfair targeting of oppressed populations, and working with teaching artists to create and distribute hip-hop beats to the community about the PIC, my kids needed another outlet to voice their experiences and new knowledge, and to offer the alternatives we had discussed. I wanted to bring together a range of people with different roles and experiences related to the criminal justice system. I reached out to civil rights lawyers, local city council members, school safety officers, prison abolitionists, parole officers, and formerly incarcerated activists. I invited them to meet with my students, knowing this would challenge my students to synthesize everything we had learned and discuss it in organized, clear ways.

By this point in the year, the kids took risks in their learning without fidgeting as they did in the first few weeks. However, as I enthusiastically shared the good news about our community meeting, I could feel the kids recoil into their jackets and hoods. We would need to build confidence before the big day to ensure they could share their understandings. Over a few weeks, the students compiled talking points. Together, we created a list of the main issues we wanted to discuss at the meeting. One example was alternatives to incarceration. From our readings, videos, and discussions, the students outlined what they thought were feasible alternatives, including a schoolwide commitment to restorative justice. At the meeting, they would present their ideas, then ask the attendees what they thought were feasible alternatives. The point was to open up communication.

Together, we wrote and revised speaking notes. They practiced their public speaking, offering suggestions to help each other improve ideas. As a class, we brainstormed potential questions that guests might ask and developed possible responses. This explicit preparation for the community panel allowed the students to bring their focus slowly away from their audience and onto the ideas they had formed through our study.

The day of our panel, I looked around the classroom. Kids no longer self-segregated; instead, they distributed themselves around the room. As the discussion commenced, students used terminology and statistics from our course discussions. Issues faced by queer students were no longer left to stew in the air; they were integrated into the presentations and conversations. Students referenced one another’s presentations, encouraged classmates to share their hip-hop beats, showed solidarity when speaking. Paramount was the respectful silence in the room, signaling that they recognized the importance of their common experience.

Although I was proud, I noticed Ty remained quiet, looking detached from the discussion. Then, toward the end of the panel, his hand raised. He spoke in short sentences, his eyes pointed directly at the ground. Everyone listened intently. “Look around. We are trapped. Some of us are black. Others Latino. Some are gay. We are being thrown together. People call us criminals or dropouts. And we turn on one another in anger. But now we know what is going on. Others will find out. We will tell them.”

“Word,” Stormy echoed, throwing her arms in the air, knocking her backpack to the ground. This time, the adults didn’t exchange nervous glances. No one sprinted down the hall. No blood spilled on the ground. And the only tears in the room were those in my eyes.

As an openly gay teacher, I consistently try to build classroom community and engage homophobic comments with dialogue. But creating 500 square feet of respect proved insufficient. It did not protect Stormy in the hallway. It did not provide Ty with a context to connect with people different from himself. I had to challenge my comfort level and my students’ perspectives to validate the queer experience within the authority of the curriculum. This showed itself to be as essential to queer kids as straight kids. Stormy puts it best in her track:

You can’t make me live in shadows for no one to see.
Gotta stop trying to chain me, contain me.
Gotta set your eyes free.  


  • Alexander, Michelle. 2010. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. The New Press, pp. 52Ð84, 105Ð130.
  • Davis, Angela. 2011. Are Prisons Obsolete? Seven Stories Press, pp. 106Ð115.
  • James, Joy. 2005. The New Abolitionists: (Neo)slave Narratives and Contemporary Prison Writings. SUNY Press, pp. 161Ð169.
  • Smith, Nat and Eric Stanley. 2011. Captive Genders: Trans Embodiment and the Prison Industrial Complex. AK Press, pp. 77Ð85, 323Ð355.
  • The Interrupters. Dir. Steve James. 2011. Kartemquin Films, Available for purchase at interrupters.kartemquin.com.
  • Ware, Wesley. 2011. Locked Up & Out: Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, & Transgender Youth in Louisiana’s Juvenile Justice System. jjpl.org/site/wp-content/uploads/2011/07/locked-up-and-out.pdf.

Adam Grant Kelley is a public school educator in New York City. Student names have been changed.

Illustrator Alec Dunn’s illustrations can be found at justseeds.org.