Donny began raking in the cash almost immediately after the short yellow school bus dropped him off in front of his house in Troy N.Y.
He spotted his mother Kayla, 22, who had been waiting for him on their front porch and hurled his Spiderman backpack in the direction of her feet. As he walked up the steps, Donny made himself available to a random, yet steady, trickle of well wishers, the sort who preferred to peel off a few green backs instead of fumbling with gift paper and bows. Donny, whose name has been changed at the request of the photographer, turned eight that day and in his neighborhood, occasions such as birthdays, funerals and releases from prison, drew big crowds in which everyone was considered family and obliged to make an appearance.
That birthday, which took place this April, was particularly important for Donny. His previous birthday had fallen in the middle of a fourteen-day crisis intervention that the seven year old had spent in a pediatric psychiatric facility. Since kindergarten, Donny has struggled with several emotional and behavioral disorders including attention deficit disorder, oppositional defiant disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder and separation anxiety. His diagnoses have resulted in multiple suspensions that have caused him to miss valuable school time.
This year, family members were making up for lost time. Jose, an old sweetheart of Kayla’s who was recently released from prison, passed by the stoop with a twenty; Donny’s uncle Will, who was scheduled to begin a 60-day stint in county jail, left a fist full of ones; Kayla’s brother Robby, out on probation, put $10 towards a World Wrestling Federation action figure that Donny wanted. And Sabrina, an extended family member, dropped by to give Donny a huge hug and reveal her birthday plan to take him to a Yankees game. A cousin to Donny’s biological father, Sabrina has filled in for him, on and off, since Donny’s birth and later became Kayla’s first serious girlfriend.
I’ve known Donny since he was born, after a friend introduced to me Sabrina, who was the subject of a New York Times Magazine assignment that sent me close to my hometown in upstate New York. It was the first time that I returned as a professional since leaving there more than 30 years before. Kayla lived in Troy, just 10 minutes from where I grew up, and her story resonated with me. Reserved and street smart, Kayla was the girl I wished I was when I was 14. There was an uneasy identification between the two of us that grew into friendship over the next eight years while I continued to document Kayla, Sabrina and their friends who lived as a family on the same block. A family, I discovered, that was formed largely in response to increasingly punitive legal, moral and economic shifts within their working class community. I watched, as school either became the interface between the justice system and a disengaged teenager or a lifeline thrown from an involved teacher. At year six, I began to agonize about the utility of this monster story and when Donny began school, it became evident that he was the story. Donny is the proverbial child that this neighborhood raised.
Donny is one of a number of very young children that are part of an alarming increase in students being labeled with disabilities at much younger ages. He was suspended from school four times when he was in kindergarten, almost twice that in first grade and more than twenty days in second grade. In New York City, policy critics and social justice advocates note that minority children and children with disabilities are more likely to be suspended, and at much younger ages. Yet, organizations such as the Children’s Defense Fund note that there is no evidence to show that suspension corrects behavior, especially among children as young as Donny—and that this supports a “cradle to prison” pipeline. The Education Department’s Office of Civil Rights 2009-2010 survey released In March 2012, shows that once students are suspended from school, they are more likely to be suspended again—and ultimately may serve time in prison.
In February, Donny was taken out of the Rennselaer county school district regular classroom for special education and placed in day treatment that serves as a specialized school with one-on-one instruction in small classrooms, a longer school year and where suspension is not an option. That consistency, along with the support of a team of social workers, has been a tremendous factor in his improvement at home and school. Kayla says he wakes her while it is still dark and wants to get ready for school. In the past, school social workers had targeted one of Donny’s “triggers” as school avoidance, and it became a cycle, with him acting out because he knew he would be sent home and then not feeling a part of the class when he returned and then acting out so he could leave again. Donny has now been in school since February without being suspended. This is the longest time he has gone with out a suspension since kindergarten.