One was a former police officer, another a retired narcotics detective.
One was a lawyer, another a judge. One had been a prison guard.
Each represented a stop along the pipeline in the criminal justice system, and one by one on Tuesday they spoke to Buffalo high school students in no uncertain terms about what’s in store for them if they run afoul of the law.
“I am the end of the road,” Myron Hodges, a retired corrections officer, told the students. “When I see you, you’re going to have tears in your eyes, and you’re going to be scared.”
The speakers were part of an assembly at Math, Science & Technology School to address the problem that Rev. Gene Coplin Jr. called the “Pipeline from Schools to Prison.” Coplin hosted the more than hour-long assembly at the school on East Delavan Avenue in hopes of scaring students straight.
“The purpose is to expose the young people to the negative ramification of getting caught up in that pipeline before they actually get caught up in it,” Coplin said.
National data indicate that students who drop out of high school are 63 times more likely to be incarcerated than college graduates. That threat is especially real in the Buffalo Public Schools, where roughly one out of five students drops out of high school.
And the American Civil Liberties Union reports a strong correlation with school behavior. It reports that students who are suspended or expelled are three times more likely to wind up in the juvenile justice system the following year.
The students heard from retired Buffalo Police Officer Annette Parker about how authorities will throw the book at them if arrested.
“You want to be the best? Police officers also want to be the best,” Parker told them, “So when we come to lock you up, we want to make sure we can open that book and find every single charge that we can find. This is just the reality of it.”
Once you’re dragged in by police, investigators will interrogate you to get the information they want, said Lonnie Williams, a retired detective with the Erie County Sheriff’s Office.
And if you don’t snitch, Williams said, he’ll spread word around the neighborhood that you did.
Attorney Arthur “Tone” Duncan reminded the students they will need to hire a lawyer or be assigned an overworked public defender.
“You know what’s the first thing I’m going to say to you?” Duncan said. “ ‘Where’s my money at? How much you got? I need a retainer fee. I need $5,000, $10,000 – whatever – to represent you in court.”
Next stop in the pipeline is City Court Judge James A. W. McLeod. In a video recording, McLeod told students that he has more than two dozen of their peers at MST before him.
“You don’t want to be here, because if you do get here, you’re going to find yourself facing jail,” the judge said.
The students got noisy at times during the assembly. A couple were escorted out. There was some heckling.
“It’s not a laughing matter,” Hodges, the prison guard, told the students. “It’s real.”
Coplin, who has a history of ministering to prison inmates, now works with at-risk youth to change their attitude and mind-set through his nonprofit ministry, Project L.E.E.– Learning & Earning Experiences. He started mentoring about 100 students at MST last year through an after-school program.
This year, Coplin wanted to reach the entire high school with Tuesday’s assembly, which also included a brief presentation from Fred Gelsey, who runs a homicide prevention workshop.
“I want to warn these kids: You don’t want to get caught up in this pipeline,” Coplin said. “They don’t have a clue about what’s going on.”
Coplin is planning several other spin-off events throughout the year at MST.
“You can’t do just one event and think it’s going to change anything,” he said. “The assembly is just the beginning,”
School Board member Sharon Belton-Cottman was among those in attendance at the assembly.
“It is what we need in our schools,” she said of the forum. “We need to be planting these seeds at a very early age.”
Senior Alan Hall said he liked the assembly and felt it was beneficial for the students.
Unfortunately, he said, some students will end up falling into that pipeline.
“A lot of people don’t have steady parents at home to even talk to them about this,” said Rachel Cofield, another senior, “so it’s good to have people that care and let them know about the pipeline.”
Did the students get the message?
“I think it got to some of them,” Cofield said, “not all of them.”