Seated before hundreds of Crossroads School students on Wednesday morning were a formerly homeless ex-convict who served 23 years in prison for second-degree murder and a teenager who lost two close family members as a result of her ex-boyfriend’s violent actions.
Their gripping accounts magnified the Upper School assembly’s focus on juvenile justice and equity, which Crossroads students are exploring in depth in a series of events throughout the school year.
The recent gathering was held two days after students watched “They Call Us Monsters,” a documentary
by Crossroads graduate Ben Lear ’06 about incarcerated youth.
The film—which shows fellow alumnus Gabe Cowan ’92 teaching a writing workshop to imprisoned minors—aims to inform citizens about everything from false confessions and sentencing reform to rehabilitation programs and life after prison.
“I wanted to make a film that told human stories ... because it’s the best way to get at issues,” Ben said. “The goal is to plant some seeds and, slowly, turn the ship around.”
Upper School English teacher Nika Cavat said the event was designed to foster dialogue and promote understanding of youths who have faced challenging life circumstances. In 2015, Nika organized a Juvenile Justice Forum Day
; through workshops, speakers and art installations, students learned about the lives of their incarcerated peers.
Wednesday’s panel featured Ben and Gabe as well as Itzel Bonilla, the aforementioned teenager, who is now a juvenile justice reform activist; Jason Clark, the aforementioned ex-convict, who has become an advocate for young offenders; and Javier Stauring of the Healing Justice Coalition, through which faith leaders visit juvenile halls to meet with detained youth.
Stauring and other panelists noted the impact of recent legislative changes, including Senate Bill 261, which extends parole eligibility to young inmates with long sentences.
“It’s bringing hope to people inside,” he said.