Jackson, Mississippi, Native Working to Change Culture of Suspension in Its Public Schools

Jackson Free Press

JACKSON, MISSISSIPPI — Juan Cloy remembers being suspended when he was at Provine High School in the 1980s. He and several friends got in a fight with some kids from the neighborhood at school. Everyone involved got suspended.

Of course, the idea of suspension is for kids to stay home, but none of the boys did. He and his friends went outside and walked around the corner to find the boys they got into a fight with in a car.

“One of the kids pulled a gun out on us,” he said. “… [T]here was no resolution. We never resolved that — ever. To this day it hasn’t been resolved, and this was in high school.”

Cloy, who worked as a law enforcement officer for more than 20 years at the Jackson and Canton police departments and the FBI, now is the Mississippi director of Fight Crime: Invest in Kids, a subsidiary of the Council for a Strong America. The organization signed a memorandum of understanding with Jackson Public Schools to work on discipline and the relationship between school resource officers and JPD.

Specifically, Cloy is working to help implement PBIS — positive behavioral intervention and supports — and restorative justice programs — like justice circles, which invite everyone to share their experiences and discuss situations openly instead of being suspended — throughout JPS.

Drawing on his suspension experience in high school, Cloy says the school’s discipline procedures and culture should help resolve conflicts — not just remove kids from school.

“People say they bring that stuff from the neighborhood to the school, and that’s true,” Cloy says. “But while they’re in our care in the schools, we should have some sort of system set up to help kind of diffuse that and figure out what’s going on.”

A culture problem

As a part of his work with Fight Crime, Cloy is focused on working with JPD to help the school district suspend and expel students less.

“Statistics show that a kid who is out of school for suspension or expulsion is more likely to end up in the back of a police car,” Cloy told the Jackson Free Press in an interview.

A new report from Fight Crime published this month shows that Mississippi has higher in-school and out-of-school suspension rates than the national average. Cloy focuses on Jackson Public Schools and the Biloxi School District in his work for Fight Crime.

JPS has a higher rate of out-of-school suspension than in-school suspension, indicating that administrators are using the latter less overall, opting to just send kids home instead.

Jackson, the second-largest district in the state, did not have the worst rate of suspension by a long shot, however. Philadelphia, Mississippi, schools have the highest out-of-school suspension rate in the state, the Fight Crime report shows.

JPS administrators have worked to use suspension data to change the district’s discipline policies and implement behavioral management systems like PBIS, which rewards students for positive behavior. The district also uses Tools for Life, which teaches younger students their “tools” for negotiating and interacting with others.

JPS Interim Superintendent Freddrick Murray says PBIS and Tools for Life are what helped drop the district’s number of discipline cases so far this year. At the end of October in the 2016-17 school year, 177 students were referred to the alternative school for discipline issues. This year, that number was 145.

Murray explained the discipline data to the new Better Together Commission, tasked with conducting a districtwide study and soliciting community input as a part of the third “takeover” option for JPS.

“Good leaders run good buildings, and so we have to make sure our principals are quality leaders and that they understand that they are responsible for the cultural climate of their building, and again, that doesn’t mean suspending every child, that means being able to adopt a culture,” Murray told the commission on Nov. 8.

Cloy agrees. He says he has seen a culture of suspension in his work with JPS so far. Last school year, students in JPS were suspended in some high schools for being out of class or dress code violations, while other students in different high schools receive in-school detention for similar infractions. More than 8,000 out-of-school suspensions were recorded in the 2016-17 school year in JPS. The district implemented a new code of conduct, with new discipline procedures this school year, in part due to that data.

“I just think suspension is a culture: You go home,” he told the Jackson Free Press. “And it’s a culture districtwide, so culture, as they say, is one of the hardest things to change.”

Freddrick Murray, interim superintendent of Jackson Public Schools

All about leadership

That doesn’t mean progress has not occurred in the district, however. Murray mentioned a JPS school he used to go into four years ago where discipline was an issue, but told the commission that it is very different today — and discipline is not an issue anymore. He said responsibility for the discipline goes to the school leader, the assistant superintendents and ultimately to him as the superintendent.

In the midst of a potential state takeover, Murray reorganized the district into four feeder patterns based on data, including on discipline. The district now has four area superintendents, and as a part of the reorganization, Murray removed and then hired 14 new principals for the current school year.

In Fight Crime’s work inside JPS schools, Cloy says Wingfield High School in Jackson is an example of a school that has implemented alternative and creative programming, from an arts program to jiu-jitsu to chess for students that help combat disciplinary issues. Other schools,  he said, are going day-to-day.

Cloy said he can tell when a behavioral system in a school is working.

“You can tell when a program is run, whatever the program is,” he said. “When the bell rings, and the students walk out of the classroom, you can tell who runs the building. You can tell what program is working and if there’s a program that’s being used.”

With autonomy, Cloy says, principals can work to adapt different behavioral interventions from PBIS to restorative justice practices (both proven to reduce suspension rates) effectively.

“Each school has to be treated differently, and certain principals have to be put in place and given full autonomy to run their schools and use their programs,” he said. “And if it doesn’t work, then you get a new principal.”

State reporter Arielle Dreher is a reporter for the Jackson Free Press, where this story also appears. Read more about Jackson Public Schools at and juvenile justice and alternative solutions at

Los Angeles Board Of Supervisors Votes To Launch ‘Historic’ Juvenile Diversion Plan

LOS ANGELES — The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously Tuesday to adopt an ambitious plan to divert thousands of the county’s youth away from the juvenile and criminal justice systems, connecting them instead to a comprehensive array of supportive services.

Speakers stepped to the microphones to declare their ardent support for the 78-page report, “A Roadmap for Advancing Youth Diversion in LA County,” which provided the framework for the sweeping strategy proposed.

Dr. Robert Ross, CEO of The California Endowment, speaks to the Los Angeles Board of Supervisors.

“This is an historic day in the history of justice reform,” Dr. Robert Ross told the board. Ross is president and CEO of The California Endowment, one of the largest foundations in the U.S.

“We know that 80 percent of the youth now being arrested in the county could be diverted to community-based services if the plan is realized,” he said. The county could “lead the nation.”

The report said that 13,665 arrests and citations were issued to the county’s young in 2015, according to the Department of Justice Statistics. And approximately 11,000 of those 2015 arrests — “including status offenses, misdemeanors, and low-level felonies” — would have been legally eligible for diversion in lieu of arrest or citation under the California Welfare and Institutions Code, had the proposed program been up and running.

Ross also told the board that the Endowment had been supporting restorative justice and diversion programs in California communities such as Long Beach, San Diego and Oakland. And they had promising preliminary data, he said, particularly from Oakland.

In the course of these programs, “young people come face-to-face with the people they have harmed,” and then make a plan for “making it right with the folks they’ve harmed,” he said, plus get health services that address many of the their needs. The programs are “proven to work better than incarceration and cost considerably less,” he said.

Michael Nash, director of the Office of Child Protection, said the program will help ensure that foster youth “have equal access” to the advantages and services of diversion

Another enthusiastic speaker was Michael Nash, the former presiding judge of the Juvenile Court, now the director of the county’s Office of Child Protection.

As a judge, he’d long been supportive of youth diversion, Nash said. And now he was “very concerned” by the numbers of youth crossing over from the child welfare system to the juvenile justice system. “But this program,” he said, will help ensure that foster youth “have equal access” to the advantages and services of diversion.

Several of the speakers described the 18-month process of designing the proposed new strategy as an unusually inclusive one, involving law enforcement leaders, local judges, county officials, health experts, community advocates and young people who had themselves been incarcerated.

The point was emphasized by Kim McGill of the Youth Justice Coalition (YJC) who, with her young colleagues, had come before the board many times, often to protest a vote, such as previous motions having to do with plans to expand the county’s jail system.

But on Tuesday, McGill talked of the honor she and other YJC members felt to be “a part of the youth diversion work group,” and how they “fully support” the plan moving forward.

She also highlighted some additional areas of focus her group thought “should be robustly included in the implementation.” They believe it is essential to protect youth from the “databases that track arrests.” This was mentioned in the report, she said, but it would require oversight.

Another of McGill’s concerns had to do with California’s Senate Bill 395, which was signed by Gov. Jerry Brown in October. The new law guarantees that every young person of age 15 or under will speak to a lawyer before being interrogated by law enforcement. She stressed the necessity of including LA’s Public Defender’s Office and the Alternate Public Defender’s Office as “key partners moving forward,” so that “even young people who are being diverted have an opportunity to speak to counsel.”

Jessica Ellis, the director of Centinela Youth Services, was also on the subcommittee that created the diversion program-to-be. She told the board how “critical” it was to have “system-involved youth” continue to be part of the “implementation phases” of the project. Centinela Youth Service has partnered since 2013 with the Los Angeles Police Department on a successful restorative justice diversion program, which has frequently been cited as evidence that the newly presented countywide strategy is on the right track.

Peter Espinoza, the director of the county’s Office of Diversion and Reentry, had some suggestions along with his praise: the wish that “our menu of services is robust and diverse” and would include “a very serious focus on education and job readiness.” Most of the work he previously did as Superior Court judge, he added, “was aimed at the intersection of educational failure and justice system involvement.” The new diversion

When  it was time for the five board members to vote,  Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, the board’s chairman, asked the board’s executive officer to record a unanimous vote.

“Giving youth access to supportive services as an alternative to arrest and incarceration is both morally imperative and fiscally responsible,” he said later, after the vote was finished.

Motion co-author Janice Hahn agreed: “The best juvenile system is one that keeps kids out of it in the first place.”

This story was written for WitnessLA.

The California Endowment funds coverage in California for Youth Today and the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange.

Los Angeles Supervisors to Vote on Comprehensive, Countywide Youth Diversion Program


LOS ANGELES — Los Angeles County Supervisors are scheduled to vote today on a motion determining whether or not they will give the go-ahead to a comprehensive plan for a countywide youth diversion program designed to redirect the trajectories of thousands of LA youth who would otherwise be headed for the juvenile justice system.

A committee established this year wrote a detailed, highly researched report on youth diversion strategy, with the goal of “minimizing youth contact with the juvenile or criminal justice system.”

The report, “A Roadmap for Advancing Youth Diversion in LA County,” outlines a three-phase strategy that, according to one of its authors, could have the first stage of the proposed new diversion program up and running within 18 months — or even less.

If fully implemented, the roadmap has the potential to make Los Angeles County, which has the largest juvenile justice system in the U.S., one of the nation’s “most forward thinking counties” in improving the wellbeing of kids who might otherwise struggle with “the lifelong consequences of justice system involvement,” the report said.

Although there is a great deal of variation in diversion programming nationwide, a wide array of research has established that involvement with the justice system produces long-lasting collateral damage for young people.

Justice contacts such as arrest, probation supervision and stays in juvenile lockups are not only stigmatizing but interrupt the young person’s positive development and, lead to an increased risk for dropping out of high school, along with additional childhood trauma. Even one justice system contact reportedly greatly hikes the risk of further justice system contact.

This kite string of consequences too often follows kids into adulthood, affecting one’s ability to earn, leading to increased family disruption and a markedly increased risk of adult incarceration.

About 11,000 youth arrests were reported throughout Los Angeles County in 2015, the report said, “including status offenses, misdemeanors, and low-level felonies,” which would have been legally eligible for diversion in lieu of arrest or citation, under the California Welfare and Institutions Code.

Los Angeles County has made progress in reducing the number of arrests and citations for kids in the last 12 years. According to Department of Justice statistics, the total number of youth arrests and citations plummeted from 56,286 arrests and citations in 2005 to 13,665 in 2015.

This is in part due to a general long-term drop in youth crime, which was helped when, through the passage of Senate Bill 81, the “Juvenile Justice Realignment Bill” signed into law in 2007 by then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, the state drastically reduced and reformed its scandal-plagued California Youth Authority (basically a prison system for youth), and directed that all but a very small percentage of law-breaking juveniles be kept in California’s counties instead of far away from home in the mostly cleaned-up state facilities.

But, as the report points out, the statistical change was also a product of a concerted effort by child advocates and others to reduce “youth involvement in the justice system” altogether, “through collaborative, data-driven efforts” to persuade county officials to treat low-level misbehaviors as a flag that a youth needs help, not a reason to call police.

LA County Probation is now working to close as many of its juvenile camps as is possible, and to turn those remaining camps and juvenile halls into therapeutic, research-guided, “trauma-informed” environments that help and heal, not punish. Campus Kilpatrick, which opened this past summer, is the flagship and pilot for the department’s new ethic.

Juvenile facilities are expensive and have notoriously poor statistical outcomes. For instance, the cost per youth per year in an LA County juvenile probation camp is estimated at more than $247,000, with a recidivism rate (as defined by rearrest within one year) of approximately 33 percent.

In contrast, there are successful community-based organizations such as Centinela Youth Services, which has partnered since 2013 with the Los Angeles Police Department on a restorative justice diversion program that keeps youth who qualify out of the juvenile system if they break the law. This Juvenile Arrest Diversion Program, or JADP, costs an average of $4,000 or less per youth, with a recidivism rate of 8 to 11 percent.

Another urgent reason for the new program to be voted on today, according to juvenile advocates, is the matter of racial disparities.

Even as juvenile arrests declined throughout LA County, racial disparities have grown. Youth of color continue to be disproportionately impacted at all stages of the juvenile justice system, when controlling for offense, and represent 95 percent of youth in the county’s probation camps and juvenile halls.

Early in the process, the  ad-hoc Youth Diversion Subcommittee, supported by consultants from the nonprofit research center Impact Justice, set out five basic goals for the new plan:

  1. Increasing and improving collaboration between law enforcement, community-based organizations and other youth-serving agencies;
  2. Reducing the overall number of youth arrests, referrals to probation and petitions filed;
  3. Reducing racial and ethnic disparities in youth arrests, referrals to probation and petitions filed;
  4. Increasing the number of youth who are connected to services that address their underlying needs without acquiring an arrest or criminal record;
  5. Improving health, academic, economic and other outcomes for youth.

This story was written for WitnessLA.

Revival of Indigenous Justice in Canada, U.S., Should Be Compass for Restorative Justice

Most people would agree that the criminal justice system needs to change in some way. The restorative justice (RJ) movement offers an approach to justice reform for both youth and adults that values repair and relationship over punishment and isolation when dealing with the aftermath of crime. Research is showing its positive effects, and support for this approach is growing.

Of course, the modern expression of restorative justice owes more than a debt of gratitude to indigenous justice worldview and practices. However, understanding and support for indigenous justice in North America is literally all over the map. Indigenous justice is all too often overlooked as an ongoing and sustaining influence for restorative justice and justice reform in general.

I’ll explore a few of my observations of the relationship between RJ and indigenous justice, and share a few examples of how indigenous justice is being revived and practiced in the United States and Canada. I’ll also have us consider the importance of ensuring indigenous voices are at the table for discussions on justice reform for youth and adults. For context, I will state that I am a settler of European descent living and working on the ancestral and unceded territories of the Coast Salish Peoples (modern-day Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada), and the reflections below are most certainly incomplete and imperfect.

Indigenous justice approaches are the primary sources of inspiration for Westernized restorative justice philosophy and programs. Books such as “Returning to the Teachings” and “Peacemaking Circles: From Crime to Community” outline indigenous teachings and approaches to justice that are aligned with modern-day restorative justice principles and practices. These books remind us that in many indigenous traditions, connection and community life lie at the center of justice, and this connection cannot be cast aside when those in community transgress. The harm must be viewed within a context of relationship, and the repair as well.

This shift in worldview affects how we understand harm or crime and how we mete out “punishment.” State-sanctioned punishments transform into obligations held by the one(s) who have caused the harm. What emerges is a responsibility to address the root matters of the destructive behaviors within community. This shift and the fundamental change in how we approach harm and crime was first described in Western terms by Howard Zehr in “Changing Lenses.” But let’s not forget that incredible expertise in thinking about justice issues with a lens of interconnectedness and relationship lies squarely within our indigenous communities and traditions.

We can quickly see how this shift in worldview specifically benefits our youth and young people. Neuroscience supports the conclusion that youth and young adults are developmentally oriented to engage in risky behavior, which — particularly in vulnerable youth — can result in criminal activity.

Indigenous and restorative approaches make more sense than the current punitive system in light of this knowledge. This is also consistent with a trauma-informed approach to justice; and savvy practitioners will therefore build in supports and seek to repair the harm rather than just punish the wrongdoer. In turn, those who have committed crime or harm have an opportunity to make reparation in a way that strengthens relationships, rather than in a way that segregates and isolates.

For the most part, both the United States and Canada have begun to explore and implement Westernized restorative justice approaches to youth and adult crime. Indigenous-specific justice programs, however, are often less visible, less understood and less supported. As a result, indigenous youth and adults are overrepresented but underserved within the justice system of both countries.

In spite of these barriers, both Canada and the United States have vibrant indigenous communities claiming and reclaiming their justice practices with and without institutional support. I will provide a quick snapshot of how this compares in both countries.

Within the United States, vibrant indigenous communities are reclaiming and reviving their justice culture from schools to courts and prisons. The Navajo Nation has made leaps and bounds in their community, and we also see examples of this among the Cheyenne, the Mohawk and many other tribal justice initiatives. Seven Tepees on the U.S. West Coast, focused specifically on young people, was inspired by indigenous healing approaches.

Within the United States, the Department of Justice supports tribal justice initiatives and indicates in its principles that it is committed to furthering the “government-to-government relationship with each tribe, which forms the heart of our federal Indian policy.” In this way, the U.S. government describes its intention toward its relationship with “federally recognized tribes” but the public engagement with and public commitment to integrating indigenous principles into the existing mainstream justice system does not seem as apparent as in Canada.

In the Canadian context, awareness around Canada’s colonial past and ongoing structural oppression against its indigenous peoples is slowly growing. This is due in part to the recent Truth and Reconciliation Commission. While there is repair needed in nearly all society’s institutions (education, health, economic), building up indigenous self-determination in justice is certainly a key way to begin to strengthen indigenous communities. Accordingly, the Indigenous Justice Program (formerly the Aboriginal Justice Strategy) acts as systemic institutional support for this process. Established in 1996, the objectives of the IJP include reflecting “indigenous values within the justice system.”

Also in the Canadian context, we see indigenous cultural revival embedded into crime prevention and justice programing, including the Gwich’in Outdoor Classroom Project, First Nations Courts and the Aboriginal Pathways Program — all visible efforts within the criminal justice system to support the revival of indigenous justice and promote healing and restoration of indigenous peoples. In addition, individual indigenous communities have demonstrated their reclamation of justice, a primary example in Canada being Hollow Water.

Many of the individual programs above are practicing indigenous justice in ways specific to their community and context (e.g. Wet’suwet’en Unlocking Aboriginal Justice Program). Without a doubt, Canada still has a long road of decolonization and reconciliation ahead, but there is evidence that the journey has perhaps begun in earnest within the justice system over recent years.

Ultimately, the United States and Canada are currently being confronted with the legacy of historic inequities and injustices. Despite the shortcomings of both countries, indigenous peoples in both continue to vibrantly preserve and revive their traditions and justice practices.

Active support and involvement of indigenous communities in the justice reform conversation in both countries is an important and invigorating opportunity, but an opportunity that is too often missed with mainstream criminal justice professionals and the public.

The engagement of our indigenous populations can continue to provide a compass for the current restorative justice movement and the overall reform of youth and adult criminal justice systems across North America. Those of us who care about justice reform and its implementation would be wise to continually ensure that indigenous voices have a full seat at the table of this important conversation.

Catherine Bargen is a principal with Just Outcomes Consulting. She is experienced across Canada and internationally as a consultant, trainer and practitioner in restorative justice and conflict transformation strategies.

Getting Restorative Justice Approved By Your State Political Body Is Worth the Trouble

It is becoming increasingly clear that diverting individuals from the juvenile justice system, which is consistent with public safety and still holds offenders accountable, is generally a best-practice concept. This can have a significant impact on public safety by increasing successful life outcomes for young people. A crime prevented is far better than a crime successfully adjudicated.

Having spent my career in the juvenile justice field and now serving as a Virginia state senator, I have gone through a complete metamorphosis in my thinking on how best to deal with juvenile delinquency. Throughout most of my career, my efforts involved laying out ground rules for youngsters on probation and holding them accountable to those expectations while trying to help them through counseling (individual, group and family), changes in their education platform or opportunities for placement in residential treatment environments.

Mostly, I was in the lesson-teaching business, which I now believe to be a simplistic and largely unhelpful approach to changing behavior and providing public safety. I should have been focused on providing them with skills and better capacity to deal with their circumstances.

The best information regarding what works in changing the behavior of delinquent youth is to keep them out of court and out of placements. To this end, restorative justice programing can be a very effective tool that can be used by courts, police and communities to offer an alternative to the court appearance, investigation and probation that has been traditionally offered. Restorative justice is defined by the Center for Justice and Reconciliation as:

“A theory of justice that emphasizes repairing the harm created by criminal behavior. It is best accomplished through cooperative processes that include all stakeholders which can lead to the transformation of people, relationships, and communities.”

In the 1980s and 1990s, the Norfolk, Virginia, Court Service Unit began to use restorative justice as a means to deal with their probation clientele. While this certainly had benefits, the impact and effectiveness of restorative justice could have had greater impact by using it as a diversion from traditional court/probation services. It brings all parts of the criminal justice system and the community together in an effort to focus on the child instead of the fulfillment of traditional justice system roles and responsibilities, which can take a protracted amount of time and be very frightening and confusing for low- to moderate-risk offenders.

Fairfax County, the county I represent in the state General Assembly, has introduced restorative justice into the diversion process. Virginia General Assembly authority was required to allow sharing information among the Fairfax County Juvenile and Domestic Relations District Court, Fairfax County Police Department, Fairfax City Police Department, Fairfax County Schools, Northern Virginia Mediation Service, Fairfax County Neighborhood and Community Services and other county agencies and nonprofits.

But it was not easy! The first time I introduced this legislation I was not aware that restorative justice was viewed negatively in the Virginia House of Delegates Courts Committee. While the measure moved easily through the Senate, this committee killed the bill based on a previous restorative justice effort that failed in the adult sector.

The following year we got the bill through with a different bill patron and no mention that it was a restorative justice program. Never underestimate the difficulty in obtaining legal authority just because something looks like a no-brainer. Titles and words matter. These efforts were a necessary step in authorizing Fairfax County to determine who was appropriate and eligible for the program.

These agencies are using restorative justice conferencing techniques as a:

  • Proven approach to reduce the number of youth who are court involved and have criminal records;
  • Hold youth accountable for their actions without exposing them to risk factors with having a criminal record;
  • Create appropriate, incident-specific responses for each case;
  • Reduce reocurrences of criminal acts by youth; and
  • Provide support for victims to participate in identifying how their harm is addressed.

The program focuses on critical issues including:

  • Reoffense and recidivism of harmful criminal and discipline acts;
  • Minority over-representation of youth in criminal justice and disciplinary proceedings;
  • Community stakeholder harm from youth crimes; and
  • Victim impact.

Restorative justice used in this way brings county agencies, nonprofits and families together in responding to unacceptable criminal behavior in ways that improve a child’s opportunity for a better life outcome. Diversion gets services to kids quickly and sends a positive message to the child that he is not inherently bad but has made a mistake that can be rectified in ways that meet the goals of public safety, education and rehabilitation.

What I find most interesting in this diversionary restorative process is that it provides better mechanisms for police to have a role in ensuring future public safety, provides schools with an opportunity to avoid zero tolerance policies and maintain youngsters in their education process, and allows courts to focus on more serious offenders while allowing the community to deal with lower-risk youth.

For years police officers were taught they should just write up the charge but not judge it. What we are now asking officers to do in Fairfax is to have a role in screening and diverting offenders and reinforcing with them the notion that this is evidence-based crime prevention that improves the odds of a youth not reoffending.

I often joked with people during the legislative process that led to authorizing this in Fairfax County that the hardest thing for decision-makers in this process was to resist the urge to teach a sulking, smirking or indifferent child a lesson through detention or a court appearance and exercise what we now know is a best practice by minimizing that child’s penetration into the justice system. A court appearance and further disciplinary action is always available if restorative justice is unsuccessful.

Having our communities respond to the needs of our young people with timely, informal and best-practice alternatives to juvenile court is the growing wave of the future. This, combined with the use of structured decision-making instruments that help determine service needs and level of risk at the time of arrest and detention, can only lead to better decision-making and better outcomes.

Preserving the dignity and self-worth of youngsters in ways that are consistent with public safety can only lead to fewer young people leading criminal lifestyles. This is a less costly and more efficient means of responding to delinquent behavior than expensive court processes that lead to counterproductive residential care. Let’s keep moving in this direction.

Dave Marsden served as a probation officer, group home director and secure juvenile detention superintendent in Fairfax County, Virginia from 1970 to 1999. He was chief deputy and acting director of the Virginia Department of Juvenile Justice from 2000-02 and also worked at the Development Services Group Inc. He has served in the Virginia General Assembly in the House of Delegates from 2006-10 and the state Senate from 2010 to the present.

Public Health, Juvenile Justice System Reformers Are on Common Ground

It’s not every day that people working on health collaborate closely with people who think about how to reform the juvenile justice system. I was recently part of a research project that did just that.

I’m a public health researcher. Recently, my organization, Human Impact Partners, researched and wrote a report looking at how youth arrest can have a lifelong harmful impact for a person. Our report, Reducing Youth Arrests Keeps Kids Healthy and Successful, found that having a youth arrest would:

  • Increase anxiety, stress and other mental health issues
  • Increase the risk of injury and premature mortality
  • Increase labeling as “delinquent,” stigmatization and risk of further rearrest due to labeling
  • Lower opportunity due to higher rates of dropout and unemployment — all of which have well-established ties to long-term health.

We worked with public health departments (Washtenaw County Public Health and the Detroit Health Department), the Michigan Public Health Institute, the Michigan Council on Crime and Delinquency and faith-based community organizers MOSES.

At the same time, one of our collaborating partners, the Michigan Council, had done primary research into youth diversion practices across the entire state of Michigan. Their study, Restoring Kids, Restoring Communities, found that diversion practices varied widely due to varying resources, capacity and philosophies in counties — and less than 1 in 5 actually evaluate their programs. They found that 90 percent of youth diversion program services begin only after a youth has already been arrested due in part to a financial incentive for post-arrest diversion — counties are reimbursed by the state for youth services only after a petition has been filed with the court.

For both our organizations, some of the main recommendations were to stop criminalizing adolescent behavior, train professionals to de-escalate problem behavior before an arrest is necessary and to divert youth away from the juvenile system pre-arrest. This would lead to better health and opportunity outcomes for youth, as well as less involvement in the juvenile system.

As a researcher new to the juvenile justice world, I was surprised about how many policies, programs and interventions exist that would decrease the harmful effects of arrest. Several promising practices we highlighted were:

  • Civil citations programs for youth: Instead of arresting youth for misbehaviors, law enforcement officials can issue a citation to divert them from the juvenile justice system, holding them accountable for their actions while offering supports such as early intervention, counseling, education and other programming. A study of a statewide civil citations program in Florida show that youth in pre-arrest diversion programs are 2.5 times less likely to reoffend. And the program is so cost-effective that they are exploring making civil citations mandatory for several juvenile offenses. In one year, a civil citations program in Florida saved the state at least $13 million.
  • Training police who come into contact with youth about youth development, such as StopWatch, which trained subway police officers and decreased youth arrests from 680 in 2001 to 84 in 2009.
  • Expunging prior arrests from people’s records. A Stanford University study found that average change in yearly income after expungement was almost $6,200, and a Michigan State University paper about expungement for youth found higher rates of college attendance and future earnings.
  • And other restorative justice and trauma-informed approaches.

Several diversion programs that the Michigan Council on Crime and Delinquency highlighted in their report include:

  • The Ingham Teen Court. Youth charged with first-time misdemeanors as well as local students facing suspension/expulsion can have their cases heard before a jury of their peers, rather than face formal court involvement.
  • Wayne County Right TRAC program and prevention services. Wayne County has attracted nationwide attention for their Juvenile Assessment Center, which uses an evidence-based assessment tool to create treatment plans for youth both post-arrest (Right TRAC) but also simply when they are referred for behavioral issues.
  • Washtenaw County Sky Squad. A student-led restorative justice practice where student volunteers lead restorative circles with students in conflict who are at risk of suspension or expulsion and work collaboratively to come to an agreement on how to move forward.

Several of our partners are now moving forward in Detroit and Washtenaw County to try to implement some of the recommendations from the reports.

The funny thing is that while our worlds — juvenile justice system and public health — are worlds away, our philosophies were very similar. Let’s decrease the reach of law enforcement in the lives of children and support them with opportunities to live a fulfilling, successful and healthy life.

Kim Gilhuly leads Human Impact Partners’ Health Instead of Punishment program, which uses public health research, advocacy and capacity building to reform the criminal justice system. She is also responsible for convening alliances of public health and criminal justice stakeholders to advocate for a public health approach to our criminal justice problems.

Personalized Restorative Justice Best Way to Teach Traumatized Students, Conferees Told

WASHINGTON — A white board with a giant illustration of the human brain sat in the middle of the room, a constant reminder, participants said, that any real attempts to treat juvenile offenders begins not with detention or tough love, but with science.

Many of the teens who find themselves in the juvenile system or alternative school programs have grown up with trauma that directly impacts their cognitive functions, said Pender Makin, assistant superintendent of schools in Brunswick, Maine. Physical abuse, hunger, the pain of living through domestic violence or watching a parent sucked into a life of addiction has a physical impact on a growing brain that creates chemical reactions and PTSD symptoms.

Those problems get worse under stress. How professionals in the education and juvenile justice systems react to the outbursts and misbehavior caused by that stress often is the key to determining whether troubled kids have successful outcomes, according to Makin and a host of experts at a recent Coalition for Juvenile Justice conference.

A recurring theme in many of the presentations was a focus on restorative justice. When kids get out of control, the best educators come up with solutions that make the offender understand the consequences of their actions while tailoring a punishment that helps the teen improve, instead of escalating an already traumatic and difficult time in the youth’s life.

“When students come to school and don’t know how to read, we teach them how to read. When they don’t know how to do math, we’ll teach them algebra,” said Page Nichols, a restorative justice specialist at the REAL School, a Portland, Maine school geared toward at-risk students.

“But when a kid comes into school and acts out because they don’t know how to behave, we punish them,” she said. “We give them detention or send them into the court system. Restorative justice is really about understand what is causing the bad behavior, and helping work with them.”

Programs need to be integrated

The conference drew hundreds of juvenile justice and education experts from around the country, including judges, probation officers, teachers and correction officials. The event’s title, “Access, Accountability & Advocacy: Addressing Educational, Physical and Mental Health Needs in the Juvenile Justice System,” summed up the complexity of issues facing those in attendance.

Many of the strongest presentations June 15 and 16 at the Washington Hilton Hotel focused on the need for educators to tailor their approaches to fit individual traumas that affect the youth they see.

Karli Keator

“I think as much as anything we are trying to show how to integrate different programs and pool resources,” said Karli Keator, director of the National Center on Mental Health and Juvenile Justice. “Right now we aren’t doing enough to integrate programs, to break down some of the barriers. There isn’t enough of a collaborative approach, and that hurts treatment.”

Asked about the difficulties of trying to present new ideas to professionals, Kantor said the goal is to give people a few good ideas to take home to their districts.

“Nobody is really doing that great a job, when you think about it, so I think we can all learn from each other,” Keator said.

Relying on two decades of studies and evolving brain science, educators and juvenile justice officials said they now have a better understanding that all trauma isn’t equal, and therefore treatments and punishments must be tailored to have the best outcomes.

Equally important, educators said, is making sure that students aren’t punished or jailed for actions stemming directly from their own years as victims of crimes and poor upbringing.

[Related: Juvenile Justice Educators Debate New State Requirements Under Every Student Succeeds Act]

“Girls are criminalized for their natural responses to the trauma in their lives,” said Shakira Washington, associate director for policy at the Girls Initiative in Takoma Park, Maryland. Girls are more likely to be victims of sexual abuse, more likely to run away and more likely to be punished criminally for incidents such as truancy or minor actions that are directly attributed to their years of abuse, she told about 350 people.

Washington read an account from a woman helped by their program who told of running away from foster homes and being arrested at 14 for prostitution even though she was being trafficked by a pimp who lugged her around the country to avoid prosecution. The girl, now 22 and working a full-time job, was first trafficked at the age of 11.

Trauma-informed approach crucial

Justin Rush

Justin Rush, director of public policy for the True Colors Fund, talked about growing up black and gay in rural Mississippi in the late 1980s and early 1990s. He emphasized how important it is for educators and juvenile justice officials to understand why youth are acting out and getting in trouble instead of just reacting to their behavior.

He routinely got into fights as a response to taunting, and had a constant anger that he didn’t know existed until years later, he said.

“Nobody there knew what to do with me, and I was in and out of the system,” Rush said. “I grew up being taught if someone hits you, you hit them back harder. Well, let me tell you, that just gets you in trouble. I didn’t know any better.

“And nobody addressed the issues I had as a queer youth growing up in that environment. It’s important for us, in our work now, to understand where my responses and responses of other kids are coming from. A trauma-informed approach to my actions would have made helped so much.”

That’s the approach Makin, who brought the giant brain diagram to her panel, emphasized to those in attendance. She outlined a multipoint system she said has been proven, through trial and error in her long experience in the field, to help the most at-risk children. Some were obvious, such as making kids take personal accountability, while others focused on role-playing exercises to give such students a knowledge of “structural empathy.”

The goal is to create role-playing scenarios in which students who abuse others, steal, vandalize or take other actions that hurt others in the community understand the pain they are causing.

For example, if a kid screams at a teacher and punches a hole in the wall, they aren’t automatically expelled or sent to the justice system. Instead they must fix the hole and meet with the teacher to craft a personal apology that makes the teen know just how much their words hurt.

“Many of the things we are prosecuting kids for are normal adolescent behavior,” Makin said. “The damage that trauma causes on the developing brain is great, and the science has proven there is a chemical reaction.

“When kids get upset and scared, the cognitive learning process is affected, similar to PTSD. Nobody can learn that way, so you have to calm them down and not escalate the situation,” she said. “Restorative justice is about understanding the role trauma plays on the brain and developing teaching methods that actually are based on the needs of the students.”

Hello. We have a small favor to ask. Advertising revenues across the media are falling fast. You can see why we need to ask for your help. Our independent journalism on the juvenile justice system takes a lot of time, money and hard work to produce. But we believe it’s crucial — and we think you agree.

If everyone who reads our reporting helps to pay for it, our future would be much more secure. Every bit helps.

Thanks for listening.

Contribute Now

New Zealand Sees Success With Culture-specific Youth Courts, Family Group Conferences

Te Wharenui (the carved meeting house) of Manurewa marae.

AUCKLAND, New Zealand — It’s midmorning on a Friday in Manukau’s Youth Court, and Judge Philip Recordon is sitting behind the bench, speaking to Thomas, a young teenage boy (his name has been changed to protect his privacy). The others in the room, including police prosecutor Sgt. Richard Spendelow, a lawyer, and representatives from Child, Youth and Family (CYF), are discussing Thomas’ case while he stands quietly.

Recordon tells Thomas he can sit down, then sets his curfew: He isn’t allowed out between the hours of 7 p.m. and 7 a.m. unless he’s with his mother or aunt, and he’s not allowed any contact with the friends he was with when he got into trouble. Thomas’ mother sits behind him, her forehead furrowed. They’ve recently lost their house, and though they have short-term, emergency housing, the stress of that situation is clearly compounded by her son’s court case.

Spendelow looks at her and asks that if her son breaches curfew, she call the police. She nods.

Spendelow turns back toward Thomas.

“You can tell the judge whether your mom’s going to have to make the call that will break her heart,” he says.

For more information, visit the JJIE Resource Hub | Community-Based Alternatives

Thomas’ charges are for trespassing, burglary and using threatening language. That they landed him in court mean they’re considered serious — experts estimate that only 15 to 20 percent of youth offenders end up in court. For the remainder of the cases, which are often petty, opportunistic crime, police have the flexibility to make decisions based on the context and details of the case, with a focus both on diverting young people from entering the court system and involving their families and communities in the rehabilitative process.

“You often get a young person where things go wrong; there might be divorce at home or someone dies or there’s some kind of crisis and they might commit a lot of minor persistent offending over a couple of weeks or a couple of months,” said Nessa Lynch, senior lecturer at Victoria University School of Law. “The New Zealand system allows police officers to really use their discretion and their common sense to deal with that situation.”

Nearly two months later, Thomas has transitioned to Te Kooti Rangatahi (youth court, in Māori). Though in many ways the court setup is similar — the same laws apply, and lawyers, lay advocates, a police prosecutor and social workers operate under a presiding judge — Te Kooti Rangatahi is specifically for Māori, a group that makes up 62 percent of young offenders who appear in court, and approximately 16 percent of the overall population.

Held on the marae, which is a Māori community space, the Rangatahi court incorporates tikanga Māori (roughly, Māori culture) into the court process. Since 2008, when the first Rangatahi court opened in Gisborne, New Zealand, 13 more have opened around the country. There are also two Pasifika courts in Auckland, focused on incorporating cultural practices from various Pacific Islands.

In addition to the cultural aspects (including a pōwhiri, or welcoming ceremony, to begin the day), the main difference is the involvement of Māori elders, who sit on a couch along the wall and take turns speaking after the judge.

In court, Thomas introduces his mother to Judge Gregory Hikaka, the presiding judge, as he did in Judge Recordon’s court. This time though, he introduces himself with his pepeha, a recitation of his ancestry. The introduction serves to tell the court who he is and where he comes from, with the goal of rooting him further into his culture.

“Hopefully it’s a way to make them proud of who they are,” said Judge Frances Eivers, who also presides over Rangatahi courts.

In 1985, then-Minister of Social Welfare Ann Hercus commissioned a report on her ministry, asking a committee to examine how well it worked with Māori. The result was a damning report called Pauo-te-Ata-tu (Daybreak) that focused on institutionalized racism targeting Māori.

Judge Philip Recordon behind the bench in Youth Court.

Partially in response, in 1989, the Children Young People and Their Families Act overhauled the processes in place, which largely still looked at the justice system as a way to care for children in need. The new act emphasized the importance of family and culture in the youth justice system, and shifted the focus toward diverting offenders from formally entering the system.

While CYF (which is currently transitioning to the title “Ministry for Vulnerable Children”) and the Ministry of Justice partner in administering youth justice, the police department is perhaps the biggest player in the system, as the first and often last line of defense. They are required to handle as many cases as possible outside of the courts.

Ross Lienert, youth manager for the New Zealand Police, says the majority of young offenders are “adolescent limited,” meaning that their offending is limited to their teen years, and they won’t continue to commit crimes past adolescence.

“They would stop offending if we did nothing at all, so the response is generally pretty light — reparation, an apology, some form of closure,” he said.

In addition to punitive measures, part of the police’s work is to remove the need to commit these offenses again. A teen who has committed a minor assault may be required to attend anger management classes; one who is driving without a license may be supported to get his or her license. Depending on whether or not victims are involved, this may be enough. Otherwise, the case is escalated.

“Legally we’re required to deal with the underlying causes, but we also need to hold the child or young person accountable for their offending and deal with the victims,” Lienert said.

One of the tactics that goes hand-in-hand with court is the Family Group Conference (FGC). When a case is too serious to be dealt with by the police alone, it will be sent to an FGC. FGCs are the core of the youth justice system, and nearly all offenders who commit a serious offense will be required to attend one. If a child is arrested, they will first go to court, then an FGC.

In the conference, a facilitator, offenders, their families and other professionals meet to discuss a plan. The first step is to discuss the offense and for the young person to admit their wrongdoing. Next, everyone except for the family leaves the room, and the family and offender develop a plan to hold him or her accountable. This could include community service, drug and alcohol counseling or even parenting programs for the offender’s family. In the final step, everyone meets again to discuss the plan and assign roles and responsibilities to everyone in the room.

In FGCs, the victim is entitled to be there. Although not all conferences involve the victim, the ones that do fall under the restorative justice category. While definitions of restorative justice vary, the main theme is the idea that providing a healing process for the victim and the offender allows the offender a better chance of rehabilitation, and the victim a greater sense of justice.

“The theoretical idea is that you’re supposed to be be returning the power of the offense to the people who are most affected by it,” Lynch said.

Paul Hapeta, a Family Group Conference facilitator who works in Wellington, has seen lots of success come from the FGCs. One that stands out for him is a conference where a young boy had done a “smash and grab” from a local shop, stealing valuable merchandise. As part of FGC plans, many young offenders are required to do community work. Instead, he was sentenced to work in the victim’s shop after school for three months, learning valuable skills in addition to working toward reparations. After he completed the service, the shop owner offered him a job.

Police Prosecutor Sgt. David Mundy, Māori elders Toimai Katipa, Mere Komene (back), Judge Gregory Hikaka, elders Te Miharo Munro and Taipari Keepa inside Te Wharenui (the carved meeting house).

“The victim feels satisfied that he’s part of the solution and the young person gets to experience something they otherwise would not have experienced, and they don’t see the victim as being a faceless person any more,” Hapeta said.

For cases more serious, like Thomas’, offenders will end up back in court after the FGC, but that doesn’t mean the charge will always stay on their record. Depending on the charge’s severity, and whether the teen meets the requirements, the judge can decide to give a “282 discharge,” which in effect clears their record, meaning that they go into adult life without a criminal history. For Thomas, this can mean the ability to travel out of the country in a few years to pursue his dreams.

As she does every time an offender receives a 282 discharge, Te Miharo Munro, one of the four elders, stands up to sing a song of appreciation and respect to Thomas.

Te aroha (Love)

Te whakapono (Faith)

Me te rangimarie (Peace)

Tatou tatou e (For us all)

“You’ve grown in stature. Do you know what that means?” Judge Hikaka asks, and for the first time, Thomas smiles.

“It means you’ve grown to be a more responsible young man.”

A Restorative Justice Process for the Family When Juveniles Are Freed From Incarceration

PhotoVickiWithNameTagYouth who feel connected to their families have a better chance of developing and achieving their goals. And this is certainly true for teens returning home after incarceration, when family reunification is a crucial element for successful reentry.

But just being back together under the same roof isn’t enough to guarantee a favorable outcome, even when everyone yearns for positive change. In fact, too many teens return home from residential placement to well-meaning families who haven’t received adequate guidance about reintegrating and truly making it work. This greatly increases the risk of recidivism, which further harms the teen, the family and the community.

For more information, visit the JJIE Resource Hub

Arriving home after incarceration is a delicate time, with a high risk of reoffending. Just as a bird suddenly let out of a cage will begin flying into the walls, so, too, a teen released from placement can quickly spin out of control with the excitement of newly found freedom. Liberty can quickly degenerate into the revolving door of repeated incarceration if the adjustment back home isn’t well-structured right from the start.

The family’s enormous needs at the time of reentry include finding ways to effectively communicate, change old patterns, begin the healing process, tap into resources and design new, detailed plans for every aspect of the teen’s life. But many families don’t know how to begin identifying or addressing these needs. They are just trying to hold on, reeling from the trauma of what they’ve gone through with their teen and the stress of being separated.

Teens and families who are apart due to incarceration experience tremendous upheaval as they lose control of a part of their lives. As soon as the teen is arrested, the role of the family is usurped by the juvenile justice system. The authority that the family once had to make their own decisions is suddenly turned over to outside authorities.

This leaves the family feeling disconnected, disempowered and unable to advocate for their child. And to make matters even more challenging, parents may fear they are viewed as part of the problem, rather than part of the solution. Indeed, they may personally feel that they have failed and that their teen has failed them.

These feelings of inadequacy, insignificance and ineffectuality must not continue within the family once the teen returns home, otherwise the chances of repeated problems will be high. Instead, as the system releases the teen back to the family, they all need support to feel confident and capable as they reclaim their power through their reunification.

During this tender transition, it is crucial that a shift occurs for the teen and family, away from old, dysfunctional patterns, and into new ways to be together, ways that foster collaboration, closeness and a clearly defined direction for positive change. Something very tangible has to be put in place, and this can begin to happen within the structure of a Family Reentry Meeting.

A Family Reentry Meeting is a facilitated restorative justice dialogue that brings together family members with their teen who is returning home from placement. The meeting may also include a probation officer, staff from the placement facility, teacher, mentor, clergy, close friends, social worker and others who support the reintegration process. All participants are there on a voluntary basis, contributing to the conversation, with the goal of working toward family reconciliation with the teen, and the development of a specific plan for every aspect of the teen’s life.

[Related: The Revolution That Restorative Detention Can Be]

The three-hour Family Reentry Meeting is facilitated to focus on the positive, on concrete solutions, on healing in order to move forward with a clear direction, renewed hope and motivation. The first half of the meeting addresses family reconciliation, which lays the crucial foundation for the second half, which focuses on creating a detailed, written reentry plan. This plan covers every aspect of the teen’s life, and how the family will specifically offer support regarding education, substance treatment, counseling, friends, free time, pro-social activities, employment, support networks, transportation, family time and goals.

With the detailed plan, everyone knows exactly what to do to make things happen upon reentry, so that nothing is left to chance. There is a strong probability that the family and teen will follow the plan because they developed it, they own it and they all agreed to it. The plan makes sense to them, on their terms, so they feel respected, empowered and dedicated to follow through. The plan also includes a date for a follow-up Family Reentry Meeting, to celebrate successes and to continue working on areas where support is needed.

The Family Reentry Meeting concludes by having each participant fill in a written evaluation. The vast majority of comments shared at this time indicate successful transformation toward profound optimism, as is evidenced in these testimonials from one family who participated:

From the person re-entering: “It gave me the chance to reconnect with my family and understand different aspects of my addiction. My family offered me support and they see that I’m for real about doing better. Hearing how you’ve affected the ones you love has a profound effect. You can learn that people are still there for you. The written reentry plan will hold people accountable for their agreements and gives something to look back on. I thought it was awesome and I’m glad I did it. My heart feels full of love and it’s motivating.”

From the mother: “I’m appreciative of the opportunity to gather my family. It gave each person a voice and a way to talk in a calm way about difficult things. It’s always good to feel like you’ve been seen, heard and appreciated. My son seems centered and aware. I believe that he is making good choices, is dedicated to doing well and reclaiming his place in the family. The process is a chance for healing, getting things off your chest, limit-setting and planning. It has a structure that is based on positive energy so it’s safe and productive. It set us up to work together.”

From the stepfather: “This was very positive. It gave me a chance to express myself in a safe environment, to face him and tell them him how he affected me and my relationships. It takes a village to raise a child, but families can help the ones that have fallen. Hopefully this will encourage him to have a positive outlook on the future.”

From the brother-in-law: “I feel hopeful and relieved. I haven’t seen my brother-in-law in some time and would not have given him the chance that I will now if it weren’t for this process. Reconciliation took place today.”

From the sister: “This meeting was very important. I really can’t say how much it meant to me to be able to do this. You may NEVER have this kind of opportunity — to sit and talk safely about everything you need to — again. It was a calm, honest environment where we all got to share and hear each other. The written reentry plan is a motivational tool, a symbol of a loving time shared to create a better future for us. It was a lot like a reunion of family members who had made their lives so separated from past drama and issues. The people who were invited showed up, and changed our outlook from wanting nothing to do with him to feeling excited and ready to support him in any way possible. It’s a very positive experience, life-changing really.”

Vicki Assegued, M.A., has a Master’s degree in Restorative Justice and Conflict Resolution. She is a Restorative Justice Program developer, director and trainer, for the juvenile and criminal justice systems, various organizations and for secondary and higher education. She can be reached at

More related articles:

Early, Individualized Interventions Key to Reentry Success, Report Says

Racial, Ethnic Disparities Stubbornly Endure in Juvenile Justice System, Expert Says

Interrogations Encourage False Confessions from Students

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.

More related articles:

Restorative Justice Can Help Stop the School-to-Prison Pipeline, NY Panel Says

Philadelphia No. 2 Cop to Expand School Diversion Program Via Major Fellowship

Changing Juvenile Justice Trajectories: Redirecting the School-to-Prison Pipeline