Dylan Sellers was angry.
His mother, a school resource officer with the Cleveland Metropolitan School District, came home with bruises. She had stepped in to break up a fight at the all-girls school where she worked and absorbed blow after blow during the fray.
"She did what she had to separate them," recalls Sellers. "But she refused to use as much might as she could, and she got injured."
A student at Collinwood High School at the time, he contemplated taking matters into his own hands.
"They clean-cocked my mother," he says. "It's nothing to get a couple of my buddies together and go down there. But she was like, No, absolutely not, because they're children."
His mother's care for her students, even at a cost to herself, inspired Sellers.
"She refused to throw the child away," he says. "I'm trying to continue that."
Now 27, Sellers is a member of the Cleveland Community Police Commission, tasked with suggesting new policy to the Cleveland Police Department under the umbrella of the consent decree — the agreement between the city and the Justice Department to overhaul the police department.
A youth outreach organizer at St. Luke's Episcopal Church, Sellers wants to provide a voice for youth — a constituency that is largely overlooked by the language of the consent decree — in Cleveland's police reform process.
Yet the Justice Department report in December 2014 unveiled graphic examples of how youth are treated by the Cleveland Police Department.
One involved "Harold," a 13-year-old, picked up for shoplifting. After being handcuffed and left in a zone car, he began to kick the door and connected with one officer's leg.
"In response, the 300 pound, 6-foot, 4-inch tall officer entered the car and sat on the legs of the 150 pound, 5-foot, 8-inch tall handcuffed boy," reads the report. Harold squirmed beneath the officer, flailing his legs. "Nevertheless, the officer continued to sit on Harold and punched him in the face three to four times until he was 'stunned/dazed' and had a bloody nose."
Despite that example, and in a city where 12-year-old Tamir Rice was killed just a few hundred yards from his elementary school, specific police policy toward minors is absent from the governing document of reform.
Many ideas for change were laid out by the Schubert Center for Child Studies at Case Western Reserve University to U.S. attorney Steve Dettelbach prior to the consent decree. But when it was approved in June, youth-specific reforms were missing.
Later that month, a group of civil rights attorneys and the Collaborative for a Safe, Fair and Just Cleveland filed an amicus brief in federal court proposing six modifications to the consent decree — including a section calling for a comprehensive policy for dealing with young people.
Both the city and the Justice Department opposed the modifications. And in early October, the court denied the group's requests.
Gabriella Celeste wrote the Schubert Center's letter. As its child policy director and a member of the Community Police Commission's original selection committee, she says there's a difference between the adult and adolescent brain. Young people have not yet fully developed their impulse control. Addressing such behavior requires training in a more patient form of policing — for instance, reading Miranda rights one at a time and having the juvenile repeat them back.
"The most critical aspect of executive functioning is still under construction into early, even mid-20s," she says. "It literally feels better to engage in certain behaviors when you're a teenager."
School discipline, too, could be restructured to guide young people away from the justice system. Video of a South Carolina officer throwing a female African-American student violently across a classroom has sparked a debate about the role of police in schools.
In Ohio, out-of-school suspensions in 2012-2013 for truancy and disruptive behavior outpaced all more serious reasons such as fighting, weapons, drugs or alcohol combined, according to a 2013 Pediatrics study cited in Celeste's letter.
Students removed from school are more likely to drop out or become involved in the juvenile justice system, she argues. "They end up pushed out of the one place that, aside from family, is supposed to be a protective environment for kids," she says.
Amanda King, the youngest member of the Community Police Commission at 26, spent a year and a half building a place where kids would feel safe.
While she worked as a youth development specialist for the Boys and Girls Club in Youngstown, she made a photojournalism program for middle school students and coached one of their basketball teams.
She'd like to create a sports league specifically for Cleveland kids to interact with officers. Modeled on Youngstown's Badges for Baseball program, it would include classroom work with police officers on teamwork and leadership, as well as playing basketball. "So when youth are confronted by an officer, they feel safer," she says.
Although he disagrees with many of the stipulations of the consent decree, Cleveland Police Patrolmen's Association president Steve Loomis says that positive interactions between police and young people are essential. In fact, an officer stationed at his middle school in Rochester, New York, spurred him to become a policeman later in life.
With the school on a busy intersection, the city stationed an officer in the parking lot to prevent motorists from cutting through. Loomis still remembers his name: Sean.
"We loved it when someone came through the parking lot because he'd pull them over and write tickets," Loomis recalls. Sean would also give the kids rides around the lot in the patrol car and lift up the hood to show off its engine. "That was cool to a bunch of seventh-grade boys," Loomis says.
Making police officers aware of children's developmental needs can also lead to greater trust in the justice system, says Celeste.
"You're more likely to see the legitimacy of a system if you perceive it as being fair and are treated fairly in that process," she says.
If included in the consent decree, youth-oriented reforms would have contributed to building exactly that form of procedural justice. Instead, they were an afterthought.
This summer, the Cleveland Police Department brought in a training organization to begin teaching officers about developmentally aware policing.
Yet, the lack of clear, binding police-youth language in the consent decree is troubling. It offered the most viable means of creating sustainable change for the next generation, an opportunity that was squandered.
As the process of reform moves ahead, young people can't be relegated to the corner.