CommuniTeen read in Portage addresses complex criminal justice system, race and gender issues

“The 57 Bus: A True Story of Two Teenagers and the Crime that Changed Their Lives” by journalist and author Dashka Slater is a nonfiction for young adults that examines complex issues.

Slater is the author of Portage CommuniTeen 2022. The teens and their community read “The 57 Bus” in preparation for his March 12 visit to Portage Northern High School.

The book centers on a 2013 incident on a bus. A 16-year-old black youth, Richard Thomas, encouraged by his peers, used a lighter to set fire to the skirt of non-binary 18-year-old Sasha Fleischman. This resulted in third-degree burns and multiple operations for Fleischman, as well as hate crime charges for Thomas.

Gender identity, race, the legal system, the concept of hate crimes — the work explores complex issues, controversial issues depending on one’s social/political leanings. It’s not too surprising that during the recent series of book challenges, which seem to focus on books dealing with issues of race and gender, there have been calls to remove ’57 Bus’ from libraries. high schools.

(This year’s CommuniTeen book and last year’s “All American Boys” have been challenged in Tennessee schools recently. (Recent book removals from Tennessee schools escalatepaywall)

CommuniTeen Read
Tuesday, March 15, 6:30 p.m.: Dashka Slater, author of Portage CommuniTeen 2022, will be at Portage Northern High School. More information here.

“Obviously writers and journalists don’t like to see books banned. It goes against our core values,” Slater says from his home in Oakland, Calif.

“This movement is extremely dangerous to the fundamental tenets of our democracy,” Slater says, “that is, we can craft policies that benefit us as a society through open dissemination and discussion of the problems. If you can’t read about them, you can’t talk about them, and you can’t think about them, and you can’t come to a common understanding on how to approach them.”

She says: “I believe so much in the power of discussion and conversation about controversial topics, and I’ve seen on ‘The 57 Bus’ how good it is to have respectful discussions about things that it’s about. sometimes hard to talk about, like race, and gender, and justice.”

Right after the book was published, she received her favorite letter from a young reader, “a white boy from the suburbs, and he wrote four pages of extremely sincere thoughts in response to the book. He was trying to figure out where he was at. was with things.”

He wrote: “If I was on the bus with Sasha and if I was alone, I would have left them alone. But if I had been with one or two of my friends, we would probably have done something to disturb Sasha .”

Slater says: “It wasn’t until reading the book that the kid was able to put himself in the shoes of the person who, his first take was, ‘That’s weird. Why are you in a skirt?’ That’s the power of what we do, when we write about difficult topics, is that we allow children to enter into someone else’s perspective.”

A neighborhood incident

“It was all very local, and because of that, very personal,” Slater says of the story, which, as an intriguing event for a reporter, hooked her.

Bus 57 is Portage CommuniTeen’s 2022 book.She lived near Thomas’s high school. “Bus 57 was the bus my own kid used to get to his public high school.”

After the news broke, Slater followed the talk and sentiment from neighbors and online forums. “After Richard was arrested and charged as an adult, and given an extremely long prison term, my criminal justice reporter alert went off and I started thinking, why is this? How should we think about hate crimes committed by minors like this??”

She interviewed both families and dove deep into the story. The New York Times Magazine published it resulting work.

It’s a complicated account, not easy to distill into takes and tweets without context.

“Our world is very attached to easy answers, soundbites and hot takes. Unfortunately, this approach to life is missing… that people are complicated, situations are confusing, sometimes two values ​​you hold can give the They definitely did it for me in the beginning, which is one of the reasons I was interested in this story,” she says.

“It felt like if I was going to be a lawyer or a supporter of them (Fleischman), that meant I had to be an opponent of this kid who did this crime. Or, that if I was going to be a lawyer for young black people or minors involved in the system that meant I had to downplay what happened to Sasha and wrestle with how to do both and how to hold both of their stories at the same time, for me that’s a kind of an entry to having a worldview that allows for different people’s experiences, and maybe coming to a more humane approach to criminal justice.”

We assume that a crime becomes a hate crime when the victim is attacked because, for the perpetrator, they represent a minority of race, ethnicity, religion, gender — so a heavier sentence is needed because that the crime was also against the victim’s civil rights. It’s not just an attack on an individual, it’s an attack on a group. Isn’t that the case in situations like this?

Slater responds, “What we run into are the limitations of the criminal justice system. We have this impulse as a society to address any issues with the criminal justice system. If there’s anything we don’t don’t like it, criminalize it. Which goes back to the previous discussion about banning books,” Slater laughs.

“The criminal justice system is a very brutal instrument, and it’s not really designed to solve social problems. Criminalizing things makes us feel good because now we’ve taken a stand and said, ‘I’m against it. is wrong and it shouldn’t happen. Which is legit. Hate crimes are unacceptable and should not happen. But… the key question is what actually solves the problem? And unfortunately, there is very little evidence that the criminal justice system is solving a problem.”

Other news accounts showed that Thomas regretted what he had done – Fleischman’s father said the family had been “moved to tears” by letters from Thomas taking responsibility for his actions. Thomas faced a seven-year sentence, which meant he would eventually be moved from a juvenile facility to an adult prison, and would be in his mid-20s when released. He did not contest the assault charge, the hate crime enhancement was dismissed, and Thomas’ sentence was reduced to five years.

Journalistic non-fiction for teens

How do you turn long, complex journalism into a book that teenagers would read?

“In fact, I had no idea it was even allowed!” she says. “When I was writing the story for The Times Magazine, I thought it would be something young people would really like to discuss. Is that even a thing, non-fiction/long-form narrative journalism for young adults? “

She has also written a few picture books for children, on less weighty subjects such as a French snail named “Snail”. “Luckily my editor (for the picture book) knew exactly what I wanted to do.”

“I knew the kids could understand all the issues, and they could understand if I could explain it well, the legal details and so on. But they had to be emotionally engaged. And to be emotionally engaged, I had to say it from way more of a romance and being in the perspectives of the different characters, and really talking about what it was like to be each of these kids, who their friends were, what their schools were like, what they had in mind , what brought them to that moment on the 57 bus, and what happened to them afterwards.”

She made a second round of reports and interviews, collected more details. Readers told him the result “reads like a novel,” Slater says. “With enough reporting, you can make it feel like a novel by having all those details there.”

Facilitate conversation

Again, Slater says that while controversial to some parents, books like his are needed to help young readers think about and talk about difficult issues, to “make the conversation easier.”

Slater has received “so many amazing letters from young people. Lots of gender non-conforming, trans, non-binary kids. Or gay kids. In situations where they might not be safe, they can’t tell their family, or they can’t get out to school, they’re bullied at school, or they’re in school and feel very comfortable and accepted,” she says.

“A trans girl wrote to me very recently that she had been harassed on the bus, and that boys were stealing her diary and writing terrible things in it, and she reported them. She ended up getting an apology from at least one of the boys.” The letter highlighted “that moment of courage when she realized she wasn’t going to allow this to happen.”

Some readers ask for advice. “‘My friend is a lesbian, and my mum won’t let me see her because mum now thinks she’s not safe. How do I talk to my mum?’ Lots of letters from kids who may not identify with Sasha or Richard, but just felt interested and connected to one or both of the kids in a way that surprised and intrigued them. starts thinking about race and gender issues.”

“One of the things I really love is when kids or parents tell me my book is a way for them to have a conversation they needed.” Some readers give “57 Bus” to their parents because “they are non-binary and want their parents to understand”.

Other letters tell him: “’I have never read about children like me, I am a child like Richard or I have a friend like Richard.’ Kids in juvenile halls sometimes write to me and say, “I’ve never seen someone like me portrayed sympathetically before.” They are also really moving letters to receive, because these are children who are so ashamed to be involved in the criminal justice system, incarcerated.”

Slater hopes incarcerated youth can take to heart the message that “their whole being cannot be reduced to the fact that they have committed a crime.”

Convicted teens are at risk of dropping out of high school and never leaving the criminal justice system, she says. “There’s this feeling that now your fate is determined, and whatever you do, you’ll end up there.”

She hopes to help “people learn a bit more about these kids, to remember that they are really just kids – 16 is extremely young, 18 is extremely young”. At this age, she says, there is still a “capacity for change”.


2022 Portage CommuniTeen Reading Project
Tuesday, March 15, 6:30 p.m.: Dashka Slater, author of Portage CommuniTeen 2022, will be at Portage Northern High School. More information here.