On December 20th, Beyond Scared Straight returns to A&E for an episode that I think ranks up there with the most explosive shows we have ever done. It's so gripping and unexpected, with so many unexpected turns, that we were unable to contain it in a 60-minute format. So sit back, don't relax, and take in 90 minutes of three teen girls who turn the tables on the inmates and deputies, unleashing a torrent of rebellion unmatched in any previous episode. During this grueling overnight stay in the Richland County, SC jail, one deputy finally shakes his head and admits, "I don't think this is going to work out."
When we began our series, it took a good deal of effort to demonstrate to prisons and social workers that we were not out to exploit teens and their problems. We weren't a "reality show" but rather a documentary series that had two sincere motivations: to tell the truth and to change lives for the better. Ultimately, to save the lives of the kids on our series and those of the countless teens watching at home.
Airing the series on A&E has brought about some unexpected advantages, one of which is key to this week's episode. We have previously filmed in the Richland County Jail and it is a tough program. It's an overnight stay with hours of physical exercise and deputies who refuse to give up on the teens. A desperate mother in Texas saw one of these episodes, reached out to the Richland County Sheriff, and begged him to help put her three at-risk daughters on the right path. He agreed and the trio flew a thousand miles for a night that could change their lives.
On our series, we deal with some pretty ferocious and defiant kids but we have never experienced anything like this. The girls curse, scream, threaten deputies' families and insult their loved ones, laugh in inmates' faces and refuse to do anything that they are commanded to do. And they keep it up all night long. As one deputy confided to the camera crew, "these are the most defiant kids I've ever met, male or female."
At home, all three of these girls emotionally and physically abuse their mother. She has reached the end of her rope. Though she doesn't always want to use the potty, I can't imagine my own 2-year old ever getting to that level of defiance.
My daughter is the love and light of my life. She is a princess of laughter who appreciates Winnie the Pooh and Charlie Chaplin in equal measure. She is an expert in the dual culinary disciplines of string cheese and Cheerios. She can sing songs from Mary Poppins and by Earth, Wind & Fire. And every moment with her is a constant surprise to me, something I thought couldn't physically happen once you reached your 40's.
Recently, she noticed the manger I had put out as part of our Christmas decorations, taking note of the baby sleeping at the center of it all.
"Daddy, who's that?"
She's only two so I tried to put it in the simplest terms. "His name is Jesus and Christmas is his birthday. When he got bigger, he told everyone that they should just love each other."
She started laughing. I asked her what was so funny.
She said, "How come he's taking a nap with a sheep?"
She is no longer a baby or a toddler. She is almost 3 and has informed me that she is now a little girl. She recently asked me if she was going to become so tall that she wouldn't be able to reach her own head.
I love that little monkey and before last week, I couldn't imagine a world without her in it.
Last Friday I had no choice but to consider that terrifying scenario. As news of the tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut spread, every parent in this country grieved for those children and their families. On that day, even those of us without children became parents. The children of Newtown became our own.
I think I hugged my daughter longer and deeper that day than I ever have before. She finally told me to stop since she was actively trying to watch Frosty the Snowman.
I grew up in a small New England community, with the same number of residents as Newtown. I have probably driven through Newtown but I don't need to have stopped there to see that it is a sister city to my hometown. I can see the ballpark, Main Street, the post office and that local diner where the conversation is tastier than the food. Sandy Hook Elementary looks exactly like the school where I spent 3rd grade and pretended to be Superman during recess. The thought of someone bringing that kind of evil to my hometown, into my 3rd grade classroom, is just unthinkable.
It's entirely my opinion but I hope that, as I am now interviewing pre-schools for my daughter, something is done to limit the possibility of a Newtown tragedy from ever happening again. Who knows what the answer is? Everything from looking at gun restrictions and the current mental health crisis to being more responsible in the media. I know this kind of insane evil can't be stopped but I personally believe that an assault weapon at home is just an invitation to tragedy. That's just how I feel.
All of us who put this series together send our love and prayers to the people of Newtown, Connecticut. We meet so many teens on our series that have lost fathers, uncles, brothers, sisters and cousins to gun violence but as I'm sure it is for everyone else across the country, this one really hit home to me. The children and teachers of Newtown will live forever in all of our hearts.