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It's just a pencil...

Updated: Jul 8, 2021

A few years back I was transporting youth who had been classified as “severely delinquent”.  While driving an innocent looking minivan, with not so innocent looking youth nestled snugly in the back, I noticed one young man (who I will name Joe) staring intently at a second young man (we will call Jack).  I found this strange, as historically Joe portrayed a gentle, jovial, demeanor and was a very likable kid.  Jack on the other hand was expected to cause problems because he was a gang kid.  Enough said; right, which is the reason I found it strange Joe was stirring the pot of contention rather than Jack.  Not that contention among this type of youth was unheard of, quite the opposite; but, Joe causing contention was unexpected despite showing symptoms of mental illness. 

I say mental illness, because in the absences of chemical intoxication (and some medical issues) it’s hard to explain why Joe would stare into the distance while laughing at what appeared to be private conversations with himself.  In addition, when Joe was not laughing (at disembodied voices) I found he struggled to remain present with conversations as his eyes would travel a thousand miles from where we were. This type of reaction is far different than traditional concerns with attention, or hyperactivity, in that the distant look on Joe’s face suggested his mental position simply did not include the world outside his mind; I think this is the reason why Joe kept mostly to himself and the reason the other kids quickly concluded he was “fried”. 

The kids may have been right.  Joe did have a drug history and advances in addiction science have clearly shown youth to be more susceptible to the effects of chemical intoxication than adults. In the case of Joe, this truth could not be denied based on evidence from court documents as well as his admission; but Joe was in a static environment.  He had no access to drugs which means he should have been “normal”; or at least more cognizant.  Especially since evidence suggested Joe had not always acted this way. 

Jack, on the other hand, was more than just a typical “gang kid” in that he held a high enough rank in his “hood” that others served him.  He presented himself in a prideful, defiant manner, in which he hoped to position himself atop the hierarchy that always persists in correctional environments.  I was not aware that Joe had problems with Jack.  Had I known this, I never would have put them both in the same van and there would have been more staff on the transport.  Nevertheless, hindsight often provides a very clear picture of what should have happened. 

As we travelled, I noticed Joe “mad dogging” Jack.  Mad dogging is a term used by kids to express a look that is inviting a confrontation; because “Street Rules'' demand that any threat is returned with a threat of at least equal intensity.  If the threat is not matched, then the opposing party is classified as weak. According to street rules, allowing a label of weakness was evidence you were weak.  Therefore, simply ignoring taunts and jeers from opposing sects is not an option.  This simple concept explains why many conflicts erupt into violence.  In reality, these displays can be more pathetic, then intimidating, as interactions appear much like two small dogs vying for superiority.  The concept here speaks of an almost instinctive belief that barking ferociously (in this case, humans speaking with intimidation) is sufficient to maintain dominance.  What transpired between Joe and Jack is an expression of this belief.  Joe was mad dogging Jack who in return demanded to know what Joe was looking at.

As I monitored these interactions, I could see the intensity increase on Joe’s face while Jack postured and swore.  I addressed both and asked if there was a problem, an obvious question which was meant to interject my authority into the situation.  Jack sat back and Joe turned his body forward in his seat.  I watched from the rear-view mirror as I continued to drive down the four-lane street trying to determine if the problem required a return to the facility.  Within moments of Joe turning forward, and nearly without warning, Joe sprang from his seat and shot into Jack with a fury of fists.  Joe began beating Jack while Jack cowered deeper into his seat.  I did not see Jack land a single blow in defense.  Joe, on the other hand, struck Jack multiple times, all in the face. 

I instinctually placed the van in park (in the middle of the roadway), dialed 911 on my cell phone, instructed the other youth in the van to exit, opened the sliding door while speaking with the dispatcher (my phone balanced delicately in the crook of my neck), and systematically separated the fighting youth.  I was making simple, controlled, requests like sit down, back up, stop, and don’t move.  The other youth had exited the van and were standing to the rear.  My attention, at this time, was divided between an impatient dispatcher (asking a barrage of questions with very little understanding of what I was actually experiencing at the time), creating a physical barrier between each fighting youth by placing the palm of my hand firmly on his chest, and the safety of the other youth who were standing behind the van.  Oh, and the older lady who also stopped on the road way, behind our van, and was walking my direction with a concerned demeanor.  She innocently, but rather ignorantly, asked if I needed any help.  The answer to her question was yes, I needed help… but the help I needed required a cop and not a concerned citizen. 

I thanked the nice lady (who obviously had no clue what she was walking into) and politely told her she needed to keep her distance.  I quickly turned my attention back to the dispatcher at which time I gave her my location and a quick description of my problem.  Once I handled the nice older lady (and the impatient dispatcher) I reminded the youth (at the back of the van) to stay out of the issue in order to stay out of trouble.  At this time, thankfully, I noted Joe and Jack were content to simply sit.  Each with a very different expression.  In hindsight, I believe Jack was not interested in a second beating and Joe seemed to be content with the beating he delivered.  This is where this incident becomes rather ironic and what I believe to be proof of the “little dog syndrome” spoken of earlier.  Jack was the gang kid, and not just any gang kid, a leader of gang kids.  He spoke loud, was quick to anger, and had the art of verbal aggression honed to a fine edge.  Jack’s demeanor was of superiority and he used aggression to ensure respect.  Joe was completely different in that he was quiet, reserved, and mostly jovial.  He did not bark nor did he threaten.  In this, Joe simply acted, and in so doing caught Jack completely off guard. 

What is interesting is the fact that none of Jack’s peers assisted him in any way.  They simply moved themselves, as far as possible, from the fight and allowed Jack to handle the situation on his own.  Keep in mind the way in which Jack chose to handle this threat was to cower under the fists of Joe.  Isn’t it interesting that the one who was the loudest, when the time came, proved to be the weakest and the least able to defend himself.  The reason I share this story is not to exploit an underlying weakness of the gang mentality; it is imperative not to underestimate a gang kid because they become more aggressive when they have something to prove and embarrassment is all the excuse they need to overreact with violence; I share this story to set a stage for what happened after the dust settled. 

During the moment, I did not freeze, like Jack, nor did I add fuel to the frenzy by overreacting or barking incomprehensible orders to kids who were not listening.  What I did was simply remain calm during a moment of chaos.  This skill, intentionally learned through years of effort, allowed me to keep the kids separated until the police arrived.  Once the cops took charge, I gave an accurate representation of what happened, as well as recommendations as to what I felt needed to happen.  To this end, Joe was 18 and Jack was 17.  Keep in mind that many juvenile courts can maintain jurisdiction of a youth until age 21.  With this in mind it is not uncommon to have “youth” who are 18 or 19 cohabiting with younger kids in juvenile facilities.  Because Joe was 18 he was arrested for assaulting Jack and taken to an adult jail.  Problem solved, right?  In a sense, with Joe gone he did not have a chance to attack Jack and Jack did not have a chance to retaliate; but, Jack’s pride was bruised more badly than his face.  Enter the next several days which were filled with exaggerated stories of how Jack chose to remain in control because he did not want to pick up a charge.  This, of course, was not the truth.  The truth that Jack was trying to cover, so his pride could remain intact, is that he failed to act and his peers did nothing to help.  End of story.  As it turns out, Joe had nothing against Jack.  Joe was angry because Jack interrupted his thoughts.  As a punishment, the voices told Joe to beat Jack into his seat; simple, really.  Joe was mentally ill but Jack’s issue had nothing to do with mental illness.

After returning to the facility, I briefed my co-workers and discussed any follow-up items that needed immediate attention.  After addressing these needs, I retired to my office prepared to document the events in a facility incident report. As I sat in safety, with the door closed and in complete seclusion, I began to break down.  I knew there was work to be done but my mind was pacing inside a cage of dread, anxiety, and fear.  I could not concentrate.  I began to cry.  I wanted to leave. I wanted to seclude myself in a place where no one could see my weakness; but I could not leave until I completed this report… and I wasn't even typing!  Outside I am sure I appeared somewhat distressed but otherwise calm. Inside I felt a torrent was bursting with sufficient force to destroy the room where I sat. Inside, the energies shattered into desks, computers, and walls with a destructive hurricane force. Pieces scattered haphazardly into corners and under chairs.  A war zone of hanging lights flickering through sparks and smoke.  My body was frozen in place as every energy held back the flood. I was trying to grit my teeth and get to work. I did it so many times before; but the more I fought the stronger the feelings became.  My mind was screaming I was weak!  Weak because I was losing control. All I wanted to do was run, no hide, from the shame and the weakness. The worst part of all this... I actually had a pretty good understanding of what was happening. 

Several years before this van fight, I was driving a mid-90’s Crown Victoria equipped with lights, a siren, and a Remington model 860 shotgun.  My gun was secured in a horizontal rack; well within reach from my position in the driver’s seat but far enough out of the way to not impede operation of the vehicle.  I had previously learned to love this gun because it was simple, it was quick, and the mechanical sound of its action was unmistakable regardless of language or culture.  So, it was on this day, armed with these tools, I responded to a report of persons brandishing a gun while driving. 

We located the suspect vehicle and made a high-risk traffic stop.  I deployed my Remington 860, loaded with standard issue 00-buck, and took a tactical position to the rear of the suspect car.  It was not until much later in life, after I left law enforcement, I realized this scenario presented a tremendous irony in that I was pointing a gun, at people, because they were pointing a gun, at people.  So, there I was, shotgun aimed toward the rear passenger door of a white sedan.  Other officers were giving commands to the four occupants of the vehicle.  In response to these commands, a young man exited with his right hand completely concealed up his shirt.  My gaze was frozen on his chest while I literally heard the voice of my academy instructors yelling; “the hands will kill you”. 

Thinking back on this; I find it amazing how real this concept became, in less than a second; as I stood contemplating what was actually in that hand; my response became a textbook reaction; “Show me your hands”, I demanded.  Nothing; the kid did not move.  I could see his attention was on other officers.  “Show me your hands”, I shouted with increased intensity.  Again no response. “Show me your hands”, I demanded a third time as I leaned forward, tightening my stance, in preparation to take the recoil potential of nine .32 caliber pellets traveling in excess of 1400 feet per second. Safety off, I began squeezing the trigger as I yelled one last time. “SHOW ME YOUR HANDS”!!! 

I knew I caught his attention; as he turned (and I stood completely prepared to end his life) I saw his eyes widen with terror as he looked down the barrel of my shotgun; something that must have seemed as large as a train tunnel.  The youth shot both of his hands quickly into the air; he was holding nothing.  I immediately released all pressure I had placed on the trigger of my weapon and began scanning the scene for other signs of threat. 

This was the closest I ever came to taking human life; and I promise you this terrified kid had no clue just how close to “dead” he came.  Interestingly enough, the end result of this incident was a group of high school kids waving around an Airsoft pistol; a plastic equivalent of a BB-Gun.  The kids had just left their high school and were messing around as they drove home.  What they saw was harmless fun was taken all too seriously by a group of men who did not possess all the information necessary to call the event harmless. 

I tell this story in an effort to outline my mental state during a crisis.  For 10 years I responded, with fidelity, to situations and scenarios just like the van fight and the terrified kids armed with an Airsoft gun.  For 10 years, I remained composed during highly dynamic situations.  My ability to control myself, and my emotion, came from practice and training and is ultimately what kept me safe, and more importantly the public I swore to protect, safe.  I left law enforcement early in the summer of 2011 following a diagnosis of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).  The fight in the van triggered a response, and what followed was crushing emotions similar to events occurring years before.

Try to understand that this trigger, which was stopping me from completing my responsibilities, was not caused by the fight but was triggered because of a similar, but unrelated, event.  The van fight just reminded me of these events which opened a Pandora’s Box containing the intensity of 10 smothering years. The weight was immense; and if that was not bad enough, the fact that I was struggling to complete routine work responsibilities added to the combined intensity.

I share these stories in an effort to introduce myself; hi, my name is Darrell.  At the time of this writing I have reached 46 years of age. I hold a Masters of Public Service from Utah Valley University where I also teach part-time.  I have been a cop, a director of substance abuse and domestic violence programs, a Drug Recognition Expert, a juvenile delinquency counselor, a court bailiff, a legislative consultant, a research analyst, a husband, a father, and a grandfather.  I find this last title the most suitable as I promise I am far more excited about being a grandfather than I was about about becoming a father. I distinctly recall my children's mother and I sitting on our bed watching our perfectly innocent daughter. She looked tired and even confused; but her eyes beamed deep with experience and emotion.  I looked at her mother and wondered what in the hell we were supposed to do next?  We had no clue what we were doing.  How could we?  We were still technically kids ourselves; a fact which did not make our situation any easier. 

In this, I publicly admit my life has been a process of making one mistake after another.  Despite this, I have embraced this journey and as a result I have learned much about the why and how of human interactions.  As such, I have implemented behavior modification programs across the State of Utah.  I was even recognized by Utah Governor, Gary Herbert, for creating a statistical process which tracks delinquency risk.  I read empirical research during my spare time, for fun, and I love building things in my garage.  Yes, I am very aware of how this sounds; and yes I understand the sparse number of people who have intentionally read neurobiology textbooks in order to better understand the effects of drugs on the human brain.  Simply put, I need to know why. 

Please understand my need to know why is not a simple desire; it is a driving need to tear down complex problems.  A need which spews from the very core of my existence.  I think this is why I excelled with police investigation; why I was often thanked by suspects whose confession ultimately sent them to prison; why my Sergeants often said they were sick of reading my lengthy reports; why some defense attorneys simply stated their core strategy was me not showing up to court to testify.  I also think this is the reason why my amazing wife of seven years often states, “dumb it down babe” when she and I talk about the inner workings of human interaction. 

It seems my entire life has been spent breaking down complex events in an effort to discover what has occurred and why.  In this, I have a tremendous desire to understand; really a need; because at my very core I have to know why things work as they do.  In this, I am always thinking about some concept or another and at times I can’t find peace until I understand.  This is why I concede the universe has created the man known as Darrell for a very specific purpose; to search, to study, to investigate, to learn such that I can say I understand.

Jeff on the other hand is cut from a completely different cloth.  He and I met toward the end of summer in 2017.  I was tasked with creating a juvenile transition program similar in fashion to an adult halfway house.  Jeff was working with an adult population at the local county jail where he assisted with GED preparation.  He and a colleague had created a tremendously effective program which resulted in a drastic increase of inmates passing standardized GED tests. Jeff was brought into this new facility to manage the education component. 

I remember our first meeting very well.  We stood around a pool table talking about his ideas for school.  We quickly shifted discussions to core philosophies.  I found his conversations rich from experience.  We quickly concluded this program would not repeat the same ineffective processes which seems to affect so many government agencies. 

Our first meeting seemed almost serendipitous; as if it was inspired by fate.  Over the next few weeks, I noticed Jeff did things very different than most teachers I had met.  For example, I was completing my rounds one morning which consisted of conversations with youth in order to motivate them to take action toward employment, schooling, etc.  I noticed one youth laying on a couch instead of working on his school work.  I called the youth’s name and asked somewhat sarcastically what he was doing.  Before he could answer, Jeff walked to my side, placed his hand on my shoulder, and asked that I leave him alone.  Jeff explained the youth was taking an approved break from his schooling; a tactic which proved very successful with high-risk populations. 

By this point in our relationship, I had noticed that Jeff’s tactics, although unorthodox, worked.  I complied with Jeff’s request and simply watched the youth.  He laid on the couch for another 5 minutes, and then on his own, jumped up and went right back to work on his studies.  This was a significant outcome as this particular young man had remained in corrections custody far longer than necessary because he simply refused to work on any treatment or schooling plan.  As a result, this youth, whom everyone expected to fail, finished his highschool education, found and kept employment, paid in full all of his court fines, and saved several thousand dollars.  The interesting thing about this youth’s success was the source from which it came. 

You see, Jeff and I used to speak about life's philosophies in his office.  During one of these conversations, I noticed a large container (a small bucket really) of pencils always sat on the edge of his desk.  "What's up with all the pencils?", I asked.  “It’s just a pencil” was his reply.  Jeff’s answer was interesting. He described a common occurrence where students came to class without a pencil.  Instead of berating them, Jeff would give each student a pencil; a gift which removed a barrier to success. 

I have often heard; "the pen is mightier than the sword". If this is true, I wonder how powerful a pencil can be. To answer this question, let's imagine how it might feel to continually fail with simple tasks. Now, let's imagine how it might feel if attention is repeatedly drawn to these failures. With these feelings in mind, I wonder how many have concluded they can't because of something simple like a pencil.  "It's just a pencil"; "I give them a pencil and we get to work".  Jeff's pencil bucket causes me to wonder if solutions are not as complicated as they seem; Jeff's pencil bucket causes me to wonder if problems have simple origins. 

During the upcoming weeks, and years, Jeff and I intend to describe the outcome of a life-long investigation; something which has only recently made complete sense.  In this, we intend to outline the outcome of learning which has evolved from humble beginnings to conclusive evidence which suggests we've cracked the human code.  In this, we simply suggest the universe is speaking; all one has to do is listen.  Therefore, we conclude the time has come to describe what has been learned, line upon line, over a progression of years.  Like a police investigation, we add evidence to evidence in order to build a case. 

In this, all Glory is given to God as we accept a role which simply seeks to reveal truth present throughout human history.  Within this context, we present to you the following evidence and leave the final judgment of any conclusion solely to you.

- Darrell

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