ABA Task Force Wants to Help Disrupt School-to-Prison Pipeline

nance-redfieldThis school-to-prison pipeline is one of our nation’s most pressing challenges, that all of us must help reverse.

A student’s involvement in the justice system often results from a combination of factors such as low academic achievement; low academic expectations; poor relationships with other members of the school community; poor school climates; low engagement; incorrect referral or categorization in special education; and overly harsh and exclusionary discipline such as suspension, expulsion, referral to law enforcement, arrest, or treatment in the juvenile justice system.

hub_arrow_2-01The consequences of involving youth in the justice system are severe. Several empirical studies demonstrate that involvement leads to reinforcement of violent attitudes and behaviors; more limited employment, military, housing and higher educational opportunities; poorer academic performance; an increased likelihood of not graduating from high school, and increased future involvement in the justice system.

Not only do these outcomes ruin the lives of youth and their families, but they are also bad for our nation. States and localities spend millions of dollars each year to arrest, prosecute, convict and detain youth — money that could be used to improve educational systems and provide support for struggling families.

The long-term costs of confining youth run into the billions of dollars per year when one takes into account increased costs associated with recidivism, lost future earnings, lost tax revenue, and increased Medicaid and Medicare spending. Some have called increasing the high school graduation rate the nation’s most promising economic stimulus.

The most alarming aspect of these problems is that not all student groups are equally affected by these trends. The disproportionality between a group’s representation in the population and its representation in the negative consequences associated with the school-to-prison pipeline has long been known and is becoming more pronounced.

National, state and local data all show the same disparate outcomes: Students of color, students with disabilities and LGBTQ students most often are affected by these policies and practices such that they disproportionately drop out or are pushed out of school and become involved in the criminal justice system.

For example, data repeatedly confirm that students of color disproportionately achieve at lower levels academically; suffer from lower academic expectations; are retained in grade; are subject to more frequent and harsher school discipline; are placed in restrictive educational environments; are suspended, expelled or referred to law enforcement; feel threatened at school, and fail to graduate. Students with disabilities and LGTBQ students also suffer from disproportionate negative treatment and are more likely to be victimized. Further, where a student’s identity intersects with more than one of these groups, that student is exceptionally likely to be poorly treated.

We know that there must be a better, more responsible way to treat our youth that will secure a better future for them and our nation. In 2014, the American Bar Association’s (ABA) Coalition on Racial Ethnic Justice (COREJ) turned its attention to how the ABA might play a role in reversing these negative trends.

Joined by the ABA Pipeline Council and the ABA’s Criminal Justice Section, COREJ sponsored a series of town hall meetings across the country to investigate the issues surrounding the pipeline. The focus of these meetings was to explore these issues as they affected local communities and to gather testimony on solutions, with a particular focus on interventions where the legal community could be most effective in interrupting and reversing the pipeline.

Another critical focus of the meetings was to draw attention to the role that implicit bias plays in producing disparities with respect to students of color, LGBTQ students and students with disabilities. While there are several factors that may contribute to these disparities, if we accept as true that most educators and juvenile justice decision-makers act in good faith when exercising their discretion, then a possible cause of these disparities is decision-makers’ implicit biases.

[Related: ABA Task Force Wants to Help Disrupt School-to-Prison Pipeline]

Implicit social cognition science, on which implicit bias theory rests, posits that mental processes outside of conscious awareness and volitional control affect our feelings, perceptions, actions, decision-making and behavior. Everyone is affected by implicit biases, and often implicit biases are dissociated from values that a person consciously believes or endorses. Sophisticated measuring tools such as the Implicit Association Test demonstrate that most people have high implicit biases against persons of color, the disabled and members of the LGBTQ community.

The school-to-prison pipeline is a complex problem with no easy solutions. At their core, solutions should focus on ways to:

  1. Improve academic achievement and increase the likelihood that students will remain in school, graduate and prepare to become positive, contributing members of our society
  2. Decrease the number of suspensions, expulsions and referrals to law enforcement
  3. Decrease disparities among students of color, disabled students and LGBTQ students relating to discipline and academic achievement.

There are affirmative steps that the American Bar Association is well positioned to take to help reverse these negative trends. All the ABA Joint Task Force on Reversing the School to Prison Pipeline’s recommendations can be found in its Preliminary Report, but we list some of those recommendations here:

  • Support legal representation for students at point of exclusion from school
  • Support ongoing convenings where educators, school resource officers, law enforcement and juvenile justice decision-makers join to develop strategies to reverse these trends
  • Develop training modules for training of school resource officers and police dealing with youth to avoid involving youth in the justice system
  • Develop training modules on implicit bias and debiasing for decisionmakers
  • Encourage youth mentoring initiatives
  • Remove zero-tolerance policies from schools
  • Support legislation eliminating criminalizing student misbehavior that does not endanger others
  • Support legislation eliminating the use of suspensions, expulsions and referrals to law enforcement for lower-level offenses
  • Support demonstrated alternative strategies to address student misbehavior, including restorative justice
  • Provide model policy and support school policy and agreements that clarify the distinction between educator discipline and law enforcement discipline
  • Identify funding and provide safe harbor for participants in evaluative research on implicit bias and debiasing training
  • Provide support for continued and more detailed data-reporting mechanisms relating to school discipline and juvenile detention and disproportionality.

These recommendations are still in their preliminary stages. We welcome feedback on the specific recommendations and further information on ongoing work to develop strong initiatives for dismantling the pipeline and creating better learning environments for all children everywhere.

Jason P. Nance, J.D., Ph.D., is the reporter for the ABA’s Joint Task Force on Reversing the School-to-Prison Pipeline, and he and Professor Redfield are co-authors of the ABA’s report on this subject. He is an associate professor of law at the University of Florida Levin College of Law. A former public school teacher, he is the author of numerous articles on education law and policy, including a forthcoming article in the Washington University Law Review titled “Students, Police, and the School-to-Prison Pipeline.He can be reached at or 352-273-0992.

Sarah E. Redfield is the co-chair of the ABA’s Joint Task Force on Reversing the School-to-Prison Pipeline and Professor of Law Emerita at the University of New Hampshire. She can be reached at or 207-752-1721. She is the author of several articles and books on education law and related topics. She and Professor Nance are experienced trainers for schools, juvenile justice participants, lawyers and judges on the topics of reversing the school-to-prison pipeline, implicit bias and debiasing.

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OP-ED: Fear, Race and Bias Inside and Outside the System

John LashI learned to fear black men at a relatively late age. Although I was brought up in south Georgia in a time when open racism was still common, my parents carefully taught me not to judge others based on race. The strongest influence was my father. He had grown up in a small town during the height of southern segregation, and probably had the attitudes that accompanied his upbringing.

That all changed for him when he joined the military though, and he encouraged me to evaluate people based on their behavior, saying that would be a more effective way to decide who I wanted to interact with. I took his advice, and although I was an angry and dangerous young man I wasn’t a racist.

When I went to prison I still had that attitude, but it didn’t take long to meet people who would target me solely based on my race. Racial tensions were strong, and blacks were by far the majority. Of course there were many black men who didn’t adopt these attitudes and behaviors, but there were enough that it made trust (never easy to begin with) even more difficult than usual. It doesn’t take too many times of being attacked based on race to create a pattern.

I knew all along of course that it wasn’t the color of their skin (or mine) that made these men dangerous to me, and I never succumbed to racial hatred. Instead I battled what I considered to be an irrational fear that was easily triggered when I found myself in certain situations. From a peak around 1989 or so my fear has decreased, and since my release from prison it seldom troubles me.

The truth of our society is that a lot of people have similar fears, most with less reason than me. I have found that the greatest fear exists in whites who know few blacks, or only know a few blacks in work or school situations. This is unfortunate on many levels, but most importantly it affects the way blacks are treated by the larger society. This prejudice plays out in jobs, housing, schooling and policing.

The Essence of Innocence: Consequences of Dehumanizing Black Children, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, examined two groups. The first, 176 urban police officers, were tested for “two distinct types of bias -- prejudice and unconscious dehumanization of black people.” Examining the officers’ records, researchers found a correlation between dehumanization (though not prejudice, unconscious or not) and use of force against black children in custody. Researchers theorized that the unconscious dehumanization could have resulted from, “negative interactions with black children,” and “found evidence that overestimating age and culpability based on racial differences” was linked to dehumanization.

The second group was comprised of “254 mostly white, female undergraduates.” The students rated the innocence of individuals varying in race and from infants to age 25. After age 9 they found black children to be “significantly less innocent than other children.” In another test involving descriptions of crimes coupled with photos of perpetrators the students overestimated the age of blacks “by an average of 4.5 years and found them to be more culpable than whites or Latinos, particularly when the boys were matched with serious crimes.”

These differences, as with the police, were found to be largely unconscious and based on dehumanization rather than open prejudice. What underlies these tendencies, and how can we work as a society to uproot them? Of course we must approach our own tendencies individually, but that isn’t enough. The impact, though arising in individuals, is systemic, and requires systemic efforts in the form of rules, policies and procedures to correct for our personal perceptual errors.

As co-author Matthew Jackson, PhD stated, “The evidence shows that perceptions of the essential nature of children can be affected by race, and for black children, this can mean they lose the protection afforded by assumed childhood innocence.”

When asked what practical implications this kind of research suggests, Mikhail Lyubansky, a member of the psychology faculty at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, and co-editor of Toward a Socially Responsible Psychology for a Global Age, said, “[T]here is a body of literature…that suggests that the more we become aware of our implicit bias, the greater our ability to override it.”

Lyubansky’s own work describes “two pathways through which I think we can move toward less bias. The first is ‘inner work’...this is where we need to learn to slow down, think about what's going on, and make sure our behavior is in line with our values.

This is especially crucial whenever the situation is highly stressful and the appropriate course of action is unclear, because we know that these are the conditions in which implicit bias is most likely to impact our behavior, as for example with police officers and emergency room doctors. Finally, he offers, “It’s a cliche, but...knowledge is power. We cannot change that which we are not aware of.”

The second way, according to Lyubansky, is through systems change, the changing of societal institutions. “When communities set up restorative systems," Lyubansky reflects, "they create a new ‘normal’ for how we relate to each other.”




Growing Up to Be Stickup Kids

Randol Contreras new book "The Stickup Kids: Race, Drugs, Violence, and the American Dream." NEW YORK --By the early 1990s, the crack era that devoured New York City in the 1980s was on the decline and crime rates were similarly falling. But Randol Contreras saw something different on the streets in the South Bronx neighborhood where he grew up. His drug dealer friends, no longer making the same money selling crack, were turning to robbing drug dealers for an increasingly dwindling share of the market. One vice traded for another, more violent one.

His book "Stickup Kids: Race, Drugs, Violence and the American Dream," published by the University of California Press last month, chronicles the downfall of the drug trade and the young Dominican men from his childhood neighborhood that tried to make an often dangerous living in it.

It’s a personal story for Contreras. As teenagers, Contreras, now 41, writes that he and his friends grew up seeing the flashy Dominican drug dealers making money hand over fist and desperately wanted to be like them.

“I saw a lot of drug dealers living the high life,” he says. "It was time to make it, to achieve this grand American dream."

new york logo 01But by the time they were old enough to take part, the market had dwindled. Contreras didn’t make it as a drug dealer, so he turned to academia. His work brought him back to the South Bronx to research what happened to his friends that stayed and made a go for it.

Much of the time covered in the book was when Contreras lived in the area, off the 4 train’s 167th street stop, a few blocks from the new Yankee stadium. The area is full of public housing, industrial businesses and empty parking lots that fill up on game days. New attempts to bring the area to its former glory have included putting in playgrounds and park areas, but windows are still barred, graffiti and trash are at every corner and police are an omnipresent force. The book focuses on two friends and a few others — under the aliases Pablo, Gus, Neno, Topi and David — in their circle from this neighborhood and traces their drug careers from the start to the present day.

The crack trade peaked in New York between 1987 and 1989, so Contreras and his peers, who he calls "tail enders," teenagers in the late 1980s, were a little too young and too late to the game to be successful drug dealers. Soon robbing major drug dealers, despite the increased risk, became the lucrative move.

Contreras disagrees with other sociologists, specifically mentioning Jack Katz, a UCLA professor who contended in his book “Seductions of Crime: Moral and Sensual Attractions of Doing Evil” that people get into crime for the emotional allure, the thrill that comes with it. Contreras says while the thrill was part of it, it didn’t necessarily have to be crack. If teenagers thought they could grow up to be lawyers, the thrill could have come from arguing a court case. But crack dealing was what seemed possible for the neighborhood kids, and more importantly, it was a way to earn good money.

“If crack hadn't risen, there is a good chance they wouldn't have participated in the drug market,” he says. “Crack gave more opportunity for the youth to participate."

The South Bronx was built up for middle class families in the 1920s but by the time Contreras came of age it was becoming increasingly run-down with high-crime, low-employment and problem schools, and grinding down the population.

“The South Bronx was still on fire," he says.

The neighborhood still had plenty of people working legally, but the jobs were low-waged and dead end.

"They understood, intuitively, that they had little opportunity," Contreras says.

The Dominican drug dealers were a major exception to the trend, highly visible men that inspired envy. They had the nicest clothes, expensive cars and plenty of women. The dealers were the embodiment of the American Dream for the local children, Contreras said.

So even as the crack market started to shrink, the appeal of material wealth didn't fade. The city's officials might have celebrated the decline in crack, but it wasn't over for everyone.

"Once you get use to the high life," Contreras says. "It's hard to let it go."

The decline of crack use had the unintended consequence of driving up crime, even if it didn't show up in police reports. The stickup kids would hold up major drug dealers, the wholesalers, to keep up their lifestyles. Drug dealers, for obvious reasons, do not always report being robbed of their wares to the police.

So these stickup kids -- the ones who aren’t in jail or dead as they enter adulthood -- instead of aging out of crime like most men do as they enter their late-20s, found new opportunities to make money through violence. Still, Contreras says the violence was not nearly as bad or frequent as when they were selling drugs themselves.

Even when his subjects tried to start aboveboard businesses with the money earned from robbing dealers, there were problems. A criminal record and no experience in business frustrated most attempts at making a go at an honest living. One of his subjects he calls "Pablo" wanted to start a company, but asked Contreras to take a major role and become the face of the business. He wasn't comfortable with public speaking. The business fell apart and Pablo went back to drug dealing.

"They become self-destructive," Contreras says of his subjects as they grew up and got stuck in the violent rut they found themselves in.

Contreras compared their growing up to be stickup kids to high school sports stars, who peak early with no later in life success. Instead, it’s a cycle of violence and lock-up and no major material wealth as they start families of their own.

“It’s almost disorienting,” he says. “They can't make sense of their new lower status.”

His subjects’ outlooks are not bright, highlighted by the fact that he is unwilling to discuss them in detail with a federal investigation ongoing.

In his book, he summed up his observations of the rise and fall of the drug cycle New York went through in the late 1980s and 1990s as a Greek tragedy, unfolding in three acts.

“When a drug market rises, a struggling college student becomes a drug dealer; a tough kid, an enforcer; a poor building superintendent,  a lookout; and a dishwasher, a drug kingpin. When a drug market expands, a mother mourns her dead dealer son; a dad laments his drug-using daughter; a child visits a parent imprisoned by the state. When a drug market peaks, an ill-affected sibling becomes a social worker; a storefront preacher, a community organizer; a stay-at-home mom, an after-school volunteer.”

And when that market starts to decline, the lingering aftermath in the community proves to be an improvement for few.

The book continues, “When a drug market fades, an ex-con is perpetually unemployed; a recovering female addict, forever humiliated; a New York City mayor, despite doing nothing special, applauded and praised.”


NAACP Blasts Mace in Birmingham Schools

The NAACP launched an online petition this week, inviting people to lend their names to a campaign to end the use of pepper spray on students in Birmingham, Al. public schools.

“As long as we continue to treat students like criminals, they will grow up to become criminals,” said NAACP President and CEO Benjamin Todd Jealous, in a written statement.

The NAACP argues that Mace and pepper spray may be legitimate parts of an adult or crowd policing strategy, but are not acceptable for use on school children. Birmingham’s public school population is overwhelmingly African-American.

The petition comes as wrangling in U.S. District Court over the practice reaches nearly the two-year mark. In December, 2010, the Southern Poverty Law Center filed suit for damages on behalf of six defendants, and also asked for pepper sprays to be banned. They alleged that Birmingham police officers in the school used the chemical as a first resort and as punishment, among other charges.

“Mace is used so frequently and so indiscriminately in Birmingham’s public high schools that each Class Representative [defendant] — and all BCS students — faces a real and substantial risk of future and repeated injury,” the original complaint read.

Birmingham’s Board of Education and schools superintendent have been dismissed from the case, though six city police officers, the police chief and a high school assistant principal are still on the docket.

A spokeswoman for Birmingham City Schools declined comment.

Police carry the mace because it its part of their “daily equipment,” a police spokesman is quoted in Birmingham media.

The Birmingham police spokesman could not immediately be reached for any further comment.

In a written statement, Hezekiah Jackson IV, Metro Birmingham Branch NAACP president said, “we as a community must end this form of archaic police disciplinary response, implement alternative strategies and create an atmosphere in which all children of Birmingham can feel protected and comfortable.”

Photo source:

Los Angeles School Police Citations Draw Federal Scrutiny

los angeles policeThis story originally appeared on by the Center for Public Integrity.

Alexander Johnson arrived at Barack Obama Global Preparatory Academy to pick up his 12-year-old after school on May 19, 2011. When his son didn’t appear, Johnson went inside the Los Angeles middle school. What he found was devastating.

His son and a friend had gotten into a physical altercation over a basketball game, and school staff had summoned not parents, but police officers. Neither boy was injured, and the school ended up suspending his son for only one day, Johnson said. But officers wrote up a court citation and decided, on the spot, to also handcuff and arrest Johnson’s son as the alleged aggressor — after what Johnson believes was only a cursory look into what had happened.

Despite Johnson’s pleas for another solution to what the citation said was a “mutual fight,” officers drove his son to a station, booked him, fingerprinted him and took a mug shot before releasing him. The family hired a lawyer, and school staff later apologized. But Johnson and his wife still can’t comprehend why school officials got police involved. And while school police say they have a duty to fight crime, the Johnsons can’t help but think that officers arrested their son because of snap judgments about African-American kids in South Central Los Angeles.

“He’s got good grades and he’s never been in trouble,” Johnson said he kept telling police. “Tell it to the judge,” he said police replied.

Broader concerns

What happened to the Johnsons’ son is the type of incident — in Los Angeles and elsewhere — that has the Obama Administration’s Department of Education and a growing number of juvenile-court judges deeply concerned.

In fact, the issue of police citations has been included in a federal review of discipline-reform plans that the Los Angeles Unified School District – under pressure to reduce high rates of suspensions of black students — was required to submit earlier this year to the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights.

“Generally speaking, in all but the most serious cases we would hope that district officials review a range of options … before referring students to the court system,” the department’s assistant secretary for civil rights, Russlynn Ali, told the Center for Public Integrity in an interview that touched on both Los Angeles and national trends.

Months ago, the Los Angeles district failed to submit any records of police citations or arrests of students to Ali’s office so they could be included in the office’s most recent mandatory Civil Rights Data Collection. The collection of those 2009-2010 statistics from most U.S. schools was an unprecedented attempt by the Education Department to assess an apparent national upsurge in referrals of students to law enforcement.

Los Angeles’ data and New York City’s, too, were conspicuously missing.

But in April, the Center for Public Integrity and a Los Angeles civil rights group, the Labor-Community Strategy Center, obtained and analyzed a large portion of the L.A. data that Ali’s office had expected to get.

The data — obtained through a public records act request — contained tens of thousands of citations to lower-level juvenile court issued by Los Angeles Unified’s own police force from 2009 through 2011.

The data don’t include arrests, which are recorded separately, or separate citations that officers referred directly to a higher-level delinquency court, where Johnson’s son ended up. The data don’t include tickets written by city police either.

But the citations do likely represent the bulk of police-student interactions, and reveal how pervasive the ticketing of students has become in this large metropolitan district, which is struggling with high dropout rates and budget cuts.

The Center found that Los Angeles’ school officers, part of the largest school police force in the country, issued more than 33,500 tickets to students between 10 and 18 years old over three years. That worked out to about 30 citations a day, every day.

More than 40 percent of these court citations were to kids 14 and younger, mostly for disturbing the peace, followed by daytime curfew violations, including tardiness, and scattered tickets for cigarettes, lighters, marijuana, vandalism or having graffiti “tools,” such as a Sharpie. Black students, about 10 percent of the district’s student body, received 15 to 20 percent of all tickets, depending on the year, and Latino students, 74 percent of enrollment, also received a disproportionate number.

Additional Center analysis also shows that these lower-level court citations were highly concentrated in low-income areas where children of immigrants and African-American families attend school. Last year, there were more than 25 middle schools in such areas where at least 50 citations to lower-level court were given to students, many of them 11 and 12 years old.  At least a dozen of those schools showed 70 or more tickets issued to students, who were overwhelmingly black and Latino.

After initial findings from the data were disclosed in media reports in late April, students and parents held protests in early May. The Labor-Community Strategy Center urged that the district  cut tickets by 75 percent and adopt a moratorium on citations until more studies were done. District police officials declined to stop ticketing, but have engaged in community discussions about reforms.

Ali said she couldn’t comment directly on “independently gathered” Los Angeles statistics. But, she said, “the data you cite reveal, and the recent Civil Rights Data Collection data show nationally, that students of color are disproportionately disciplined.”

National trends

In March, Ali’s office revealed the results of what it had gleaned from districts nationwide that had complied and submitted their arrest and citation numbers for 2009-2010. The findings were stark: Black students, 18 percent of enrollment, represented 42 percent of school-based referrals to police. Latinos, 24 percent of enrollment, were 37 percent of school-related arrests.

“While the magnitude of the problem is something those of us involved with civil rights enforcement have been keenly aware of, I would not be telling the truth if I did not say that I found the data surprising and disturbing on a personal level,” Ali said.

“Mind you,” she said, “racial disparities revealed by data alone don’t constitute a civil rights violation . . . But at minimum, they should certainly be cause for concern and lead to conversations about why the disparities exist and what can be done to ensure fair learning opportunities for all students.”

Ali’s office has offered aid to help districts comply with another upcoming request that’s part of a new national collection of data. The L.A. district told the Center it was too difficult to compile 2009-2010 data from various city police agencies as well as from school police.

Because of concerns about school police in New York City – some students have sued there over alleged excessive force – that city now requires quarterly reports of how many students have been arrested and cited. The first report in February showed that officers issued an average of six tickets daily to New York City students every day during a 90-day period.

That’s fewer than the 30 daily low-level citations that the Center found were issued on average in Los Angeles. The L.A. district, with about 670,000 students, is the second largest public school district in the United States. New York City’s is the largest, with more than 1 million pupils.

Finding a balance

David Goldberg, an officer of the United Teachers Los Angeles Union, told the Center that teachers, hard hit by California’s budget cuts, are frustrated because so many students come to school today troubled by family problems and “with more needs than ever.” Some teachers feel strongly about getting tough on kids who fight or disrupt teaching, Goldberg said. But, he said, “there is probably a growing number of teachers who feel we need a different strategy, that this (citing of students) is not working.”

Among the middle schools in the district, Gompers Middle School in working-class South Los Angeles topped the list at 145 citations last year.

More than 100 tickets at Gompers were for disturbing the peace by fighting or threatening to fight. Two citations were for using offensive language aimed to provoke an altercation.  The school’s student body is one-third black and two-thirds Latino. It is one of Los Angeles’ “turnaround” public schools operated by a nonprofit tasked with improving students’ relatively low rates of proficiency in English and math.

Los Angeles Deputy School Police Chief Tim Anderson told the Center that the district policy is for school police to respond to crimes, not discipline matters.

“We’re not counselors,” he said. “We’re not social workers.”

He said officers decline to get involved if they decide a school problem does not rise to a crime.

Anderson said the department of 340 officers and staff use a “matrix” to decide where to deploy officers. The district minimum for high schools is one officer. But if a high school or middle-school is in an area surrounded by a neighborhood with a high crime rate, Anderson said, more officers are sent to those schools to enhance students’ safety.

This year, for example, more police were sent to Gompers after two 7th graders pulled out a knife and gun while arguing.

Civil rights groups fear that because of this concern for safety, ironically, black, Latino and low-income students are being subjected to unequal police scrutiny over minor matters and more searches than kids in affluent areas.

Zoe Rawson, an attorney with the Labor-Community Strategy Center, who has defended students in court, said: “We are both policing students of color differently because they live in these areas and rely on the public education system, and we are using the police and the courts as a punitive tactic for school discipline despite evidence that it is ineffective, harmful and wasteful.”

A word from the judges

Prominent Los Angeles juvenile-court judges are also arguing that courts are clogged with students whose futures could be harmed more than helped by summonses. A recent report by the Los Angeles County School Attendance Task Force, which included judicial, police and school representatives, concluded: “Involving youth in the criminal justice system has the detrimental and unintended consequences of reducing their chances of graduating high school.”

The task force report cited an Arizona State University criminologist who found that a first-time court appearance in high school increases a student’s odds of dropping out by at least a factor of three. The impact was greater for a student who was only marginally delinquent.

Some of Los Angeles’ inner-city schools have struggled with dropout rates as high as 50 percent. The citations examined by the Center were concentrated at those schools, as well as at middle schools that feed students into those secondary schools.

In a written response to the Center’s findings in April, the district said: “School-yard fights have been a part of school life for a long time. Many intervention programs are in place but young students do not always follow the program . . . A visit to a juvenile-court referee should help make the student aware that fighting is not tolerated in society.”

Christopher Ortiz, the district’s school operations chief, said in a more recent interview that school administrators are told that that the role of school police is clear: “School police do not do classroom management.” Ortiz said the district is continuing to institute what’s known as “positive behavior support” to deal with fights and disruptive behavior.

The court citations examined by the Center do not identify which resulted from behavior on school grounds or nearby.

Courts in a squeeze

Up to now, most kids in Los Angeles with lower-level citations have been summoned to an “informal” juvenile court. They must appear with a parent during court hours, which means students miss school and the parent misses work. Students can face hundreds of dollars in fines, and if they don’t show up to court – many are afraid to tell parents about a ticket – their infraction has a misdemeanor offense added on.

Michael Nash, the presiding judge of Los Angeles’ juvenile courts, said judges in the region plan to consult with peers in other states —  in Atlanta, Ga., for example – who have reduced school-based ticketing for minor offenses with counseling practices.

A looming concern in Los Angeles is the planned closure this summer of all the county’s informal juvenile courts due to budget cuts. Nash and Judge Donna Quigley Groman, who is on the bench in full delinquency court, say the plan is to send students who get tickets to probation officers who will manage, the judges hope, mostly out-of-court diversion programs.

Civil-rights groups, however, fear that many more kids will now end up in delinquency court.

Groman doesn’t want that either. “When I see 11-year-olds in my courtroom it really causes my blood to boil,” she told the Center. “I notice there are a lot more young kids showing up here.”

She described an 11-year-old girl who was in her court this month because school police cited her for battery – a more serious charge than disturbing the peace – after she got into a school fight. There is no research, Groman said, showing that sending 11-year-olds to court and putting them on probation is effective.

“It makes them worse,” she said. Schools, she said, are the best place to handle behavior problems. “There are inner-city schools with kids with problems, and they need our help to deal with them” she said.

Jerod Gunsberg, the Johnson boy’s attorney, said that it took six months to get that 12-year-old’s assault charges dismissed in delinquency court. Gunsberg said a probation officer told him she didn’t understand why the boy’s case was in that court, but that he wasn’t the first student to be referred from his school. The court put the Johnson boy into an informal diversion program of four sessions of anger-management counseling, asked him to write a book report and urged him to continue to get good grades.

The district said no one at Barack Obama or the district could discuss the case because of confidentiality laws. Statistics show that at least 50 citations for lower-level juvenile court were issued at Barack Obama last year.

The Johnsons pulled their son out of Barack Obama for a while, but had to drive him a long distance to a more affluent school in Santa Monica. They noticed there were not a lot of police cars patrolling there. At Barack Obama, when his son got into his first fight, “it all went south when police got involved,” Alexander Johnson said. “They didn’t have anyone to handle discipline, and they told me everything goes straight to police.”

The Johnsons put their son back in Barack Obama this year, and the school welcomed him back, his parents said, and assured them that a new staffer had been appointed to handle discipline.

Gunsberg said that, unfortunately, even though charges were dismissed and the Johnson’s son was not required to formally admit to any wrongdoing, his mug shot and fingerprints remain on file with police until he can try to have them sealed in five years or when he turns 18.

Center for Public Integrity data editor David Donald contributed to this report.

Photo via Flickr user LifeSupercharger.

VIDEO: Equal Justice Initiative Founder: ‘We Need to Talk About an Injustice’ TED Talk

Bryan Stevenson speaking at TED

TED2012 helped Bryan Stevenson raise more than $1 million following his impassioned plea for justice at the California conference last week. Stevenson, a human rights attorney and founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, spoke about the role of race in today's justice system, including juvenile justice. You can watch his talk below.

Is the System Racially Biased?

Judge LaDoris Cordell
Until recently she served on the Superior Court of Santa Clara County, where she heard both juvenile and adult cases. A state court trial judge since 1982, she presided over Manny's fitness case.

A number of recent surveys have shown that there are profound racial disparities in the juvenile justice system, that African-American and Hispanic youth are more likely to be tried as adults. They are more likely to receive longer sentences, they're more likely to be in locked facilities, and on and on and on, even when charged with the same offense as whites. Do you think that that's true?

. . . . I believe, absolutely, that what you have described exists in the system. The statistics prove it--they're there. What is hard is that if you go up to your average juvenile court judge, and that judge is the one who sends these kids off--we're the ones ultimately responsible for these statistics--that judge will look you dead in the eye and say, "I'm not unfair, I'm not racist, I'm not prejudiced. I do the best I can." And that judge is telling you the truth. . . .

But what is at play here in most cases? I'm not saying there aren't those judges who are so prejudiced and so racist; there are those. But I think, in the main, most are not. But I think what happens is that stereotypes are so embedded in the psyche of human beings, that those stereotypes come to play. So that when a young black kid comes into court before a white male judge, who perhaps doesn't have any experience dealing with young black males, and this black male has on baggy pants, has an attitude, may have a tattoo, immediately a picture, a mindset comes up in that judge's head. We make assumptions; that's what stereotypes are. Assumptions get made. . . . I think, in the main, that's what happens, and I think that's what accounts for those statistics. . . .

Now, how do we solve it? How do we remedy it? One way is to increase the number of judges on the bench who are judges who look like the people who come before them. So, if I have judges who are African-American, who are Latino or Latina, who are from the Asian-American communities, they are less likely to engage in that kind of stereotyping when some young kid who is of the same background or same ethnic background comes before that judge. . . . The other is, there are judges who are white, black, whatever, who have those biases. The idea is to address those biases, to get them to address it, which means judicial training. . . . where we say, "We've got to talk about this, we've got to put it on the table and talk about stereotypes and your biases, so that when you go back to work, we change the system that we have." The numbers are astounding, shocking, and they are indeed a reflection of what's going on in the system. . . .