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Don Austin: The path to prison

When Don Austin was 15 he stole a car, sparking a police chase that killed a woman and disabled her two children. Because of some wrinkles in his case he waited to go to trial for a long time. While he was in jail, he learned to read.

The teacher who got his attention at the Hennepin County Juvenile Detention Center was the first black man Austin encountered in any of the dozen schools he bounced through before dropping out for good in 2008 in ninth grade.

Jon Berry grew up in the Jim Crow South. He was shocked how alienated his Twin Cities students were from their culture and history. He was patient and firm and accustomed to much tougher customers than Austin. 

Now 23, Austin remembers the day Mr. Berry got to him.

“He wanted us to write a paper on who we admired. I’m like, ‘Shit, I don’t admire anybody. Like it’s somebody you want to write about? Nobody.’ I remember yelling at him. Like I’m tired of just being this hard-headed dick.

“We were arguing, and to me I felt like if it was anybody else he would’ve sent them back to their room. I wasn’t getting out of it, so I’m like, ‘Fuck it, I might as well just give it a try.’ I said, ‘Martin Luther King.’

“The next day I’m thinking it was just going to be over with and he came with a ton of stuff. He had a ton of stuff. I’m just like, what the hell am I supposed to do with this? And I went back to my room. I started looking through it, and I think I wrote one of the best papers of my life. It wasn’t just one page, it was like four pages.

“We went over it together. He showed me what things I did wrong, what words I should’ve used differently, and the best way to use them. I typed it up on a computer and turned it in. A plus.”

Before long, the boy was devouring “Hoop Dreams” and just about anything else the teacher came up with. By the time Austin was sentenced and sent to prison, his reading ability had gone from third grade to seventh.

The story prompts an urgent, fundamental question: Would Austin have ended up in the school-to-prison pipeline if he had met Berry years earlier?

Writ larger: Would populating schoolhouses with African-American men create places where black and brown boys’ gifts would be recognized and celebrated?

Austin remembers his first day of school as lonely and scary. He cried when his parents dropped him off at Ramsey Elementary in Minneapolis — “a mama’s boy,” he notes. He liked school, though his family moved a lot and he transferred several times.

Austin was in fourth grade and in his third or fourth school, Minneapolis’ Hiawatha, when his mother and teachers told him they were moving him to a new class. He was moving slower than the other kids, his mother explained.

“I’m like, OK, what the hell is wrong with me that you’re putting me in a special class? I don’t need a special class.”

Austin’s special-education records are as thick as they are vague. His diagnosis was Specific Learning Disorder, a catchall category created by federal law that means he has trouble processing language. But the hundreds of pages of red tape necessitated by the label barely hint at a plan for dealing with the disability.

Austin’s understanding of his diagnosis: “Reading and math.” 

mugshot of Don Austin

A pattern got established. A teacher would call on Austin. Too embarrassed to admit he couldn’t read the answer, Austin would mouth off. By sixth grade — and after more transfers — he was a frequent fixture in detention.

“I think every teacher knew I struggled with reading. Them trying to push me to read was their way of trying to help me. And me being an asshole about it was my way of trying to get out of it.”

He remembers the day in science class when the teacher accidentally knocked into Austin with a chair.

“I know he didn’t try to. He had called on me to read. I’m like, ‘I’m not reading shit. You should apologize for hitting me with this chair.’ That was my way out of not reading.

“I’d rather for people to think I’m a class clown than a dummy, or I needed extra help or extra attention.”

He did all of his homework, but mostly to keep his mother off his back. He’d get off the school bus, hand it to her and “run the streets.” His crew feuded with another gang.

Eighth grade brought yet another move and another school. Austin tried to quit altogether.

“I did not show my face in any class. I went from skipping to not going at all.”

He was found truant and sent by court order to alternative schools. He got kicked out of the first program and quit the second. After a burglary there was a detention center school in northern Minnesota — but still no concrete academic plan.

As he grew older, Austin’s individual education plans — the document that spells out how a school will meet a disabled child’s needs — started to include “transition” plans. Even less attention was devoted to ensuring he was literate.

Austin told his teachers he wanted to become a barber, a trade one of his brothers had learned while incarcerated. “I know how to cut hair, but should know more about business.”

There is no record showing that the goal existed anywhere but on paper.

By ninth grade Austin was lasting mere weeks at different schools. His files document suspensions, but do not say whether he was expelled from the four high schools he enrolled in that year or quit. Catching a taste of his attitude on registration, he says one principal told him point blank that hers likely wasn’t the school for him.

His last day at Washburn High School in Minneapolis Austin got beaten up on his way home from a basketball game. He called his brother and some friends and by the end of the night two people had been shot and three stabbed. Austin was one of those stabbed. He was carrying a gun when it happened.

Not long after he stole a car and drove it to a party in St. Paul. Austin was on his way home in the middle of the night when the police tried to stop him. In the ensuing chase he broadsided a van, killing the woman driving and injuring her two kids.

The logs of Austin’s time in the detention center note he was depressed and likely suffering from post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). He needed Trazodone to sleep and Celexa to make it through the day. He told a psychologist who reviewed his case that the accident kept flashing through his head.

photo of paintings from jail school
Photo by Johnny Crawford
In the detention center school, Jon Berry’s students write poetry and make art about their experiences. Here, one considers the divergent paths awaiting him on the outside.

“Like my conscience keeps eating at me. I killed someone and hurt a child. I wish I can go back in time and change things.”

The detention center logs describe, in remarkable detail, the minutiae of his days there. The picture that emerges is of a 15-year-old boy wracked with guilt and shame, scrambling to shape-shift, depending on the demands of the moment, from quiet and compliant to street tough.

His interactions with other inmates are logged, as well as his movements from room to room. Entries describe him playing Monopoly and chess, remark on his ability to calm other kids and document his efforts to throw gang signs at newcomers.

“Good shift,” the vast majority of the entries conclude.

photo of three south high students - close up on their faces
Photo by Johnny Crawford
Don Austin dropped out of Minneapolis’ South High days after enrolling. Would he have stayed if he’d had a safe space, like the program these students are part of, where he could explore his own strengths in the company of black men?

The day Austin turned in his paper on the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. turned out to be his last at the juvenile facility. Prosecutors won their bid to have him tried as an adult, so he was moved to the county jail. He complained to his public defender that he couldn’t continue catching up on his reading because there was no school there.

She called in a lawyer who specialized in educational rights who filed suit on Austin’s behalf. As a result, the court appointed a psychologist to examine him and his school records. The evaluator’s report was scathing.

“It seems as if various schools and school districts have failed to identify very prominent behavioral and emotional disturbances and therefore have failed to program adequately,” the reviewer concluded. “These behavioral and emotional disturbances were documented as early on as in his third grade. …

“Don’s special educational programming has failed to adequately address his multiple disabling conditions,” the report continued. “For adolescents like Don who have adequate intelligence and recognize the increasing gap between their abilities and those of their peers, behavior problems are often the result. It is not uncommon for children and adolescents with learning and/or attention problems to act out behaviorally in order to escape and avoid failure in the learning environment.”

Austin won the case and worked on his reading and math with Mr. Berry, making remarkable progress. Minneapolis Public Schools set aside money for Austin to attend barber school as partial compensation for the services he never got.

“Once you get kicked out of school so many times it’s just like, kid, this is never going to happen. To me it was basically like, I was going to end up dead anyways. So much had happened around that time, I say it was a blessing I went to jail.”

Portrait of Jon Berry

Next: Jon Berry

Jon Berry grew up in the small town of Greenwood, South Carolina, where schools ignored Brown v. Board of Education in favor of what he calls “separate but equal.”