Tag Archives: juvenile justice

What could have happened to Richard Solitro Jr.?

Photo courtesy of Kat Wilcox for Pexels

At Bellwether Education Partners, my work focuses primarily on the places in which schools come into contact with other child-serving systems. In doing so, I spend a lot of time thinking about how schools can better support students who have come into contact with these systems, including the courts and law enforcement.

Four weeks ago, I watched the police shoot and kill a man. 

I am a civil rights attorney by training and education advocate by trade. I have spent much of my professional life examining systemic inequity for young people who are farthest from opportunity: those who experience disruptions to their education pathways because of experiences like a placement in foster care, an experience with homelessness, or an incarceration. Many of the students I talk to have experienced the negative consequences of policing in their own lives.

I can rattle off statistics about the effects of aggressive policing and police violence shootings in America. And I can point you to the research that demonstrates that this approach — an approach that does not keep anyone any safer — comes at a huge cost. It is just one slice of the violent pie in America’s punitive systems.

I have also experienced the consequences of gun violence in my own family. Both my father and my godson were shot and killed in separate incidents, decades apart.

But none of this prepared me for what I saw on the afternoon of April 24. 

I was driving home from an errand and found myself suddenly stopped behind a police car as two officers confronted another driver less than a block ahead of me. Within seconds, I watched as the police fired three shots at an unarmed man in distress and killed him. To be clear, I am not the important part of this story, I am just the one who is here to tell it. 

And race is also part of this story, even though it is rendered invisible: While white people have been able to remain largely insulated from the direct effects of police violence, Richard Solitro Jr., the man the police killed, was white, as am I. If he had been Black, as many victims of police violence are, this would not be any less awful. And it is not less significant because he was white.

It was a destabilizing, traumatic event to witness but, of course, not an uncommon one. On average, police in America kill three men a day. Each one of those people has a family and most of those events have witnesses. The twin horrors of what I saw are both the tragic and unnecessary loss of Richard Solitro Jr. and the unavoidable acceptance of the fact that my experience of having seen it happen is nothing special. The police kill an average of a thousand people a year and so I probably did not even witness the only fatal police shooting in the U.S. that day.

For white people, for professionals with degrees and laptop jobs, nice cars, or comfortable homes in “good” neighborhoods, it is always tempting to take a detached view of horrible things, that they are tragedies happening somewhere else. The reality is quite different and much less reassuring: We are all at risk of experiencing police violence and unless we actively work against it, we are all implicated in its perpetuation. People of color (especially Black men) and trans people have been saying this for years. A “community affected by police violence” is no outlier when the risk of it happening to you — or in front of you — is inescapable no matter where you are. When police have lethal power that is effectively unchecked, some of us can be safer than others, but no one can be completely safe. If the police decide to kill someone in front of you, they will. If the police decide to kill you, they will. And with rare exception, they will get away with it.

Two days after this happened, we published “Investing in Healthy Transitions to Adulthood: The Role of Schools.” This piece was long in the works but it took on renewed urgency for me. Richard Solitro Jr. was in desperate need of mental health services. His family had been asking for help for years but none ever came, and all he got was the barrel of a gun. 

This story is not new. What we can ask now is what could have happened if Richard Solitro Jr. had lived in a country where we put needs first, rather than consequences, and focused our investments on the evidence-based programs that we know work? 

Student Absences Get Worse When Juvenile Justice Systems Step In: A Q&A With Josh Weber

The Council of State Governments Justice Center recently published a new report sharing their findings from a study of South Carolina’s probation system and probation’s negative effect on student attendance. I asked the report’s author, Josh Weber, a few questions about the goals of the study and what he thinks it means for schools. I also asked his thoughts about the impact of distance learning in light of the recent news about young people being referred to law enforcement for not attending online classes. 

What motivated the research behind this report? What were you hoping to better understand?

Nationwide, juvenile arrests and court referrals have declined substantially over the last decade, but referrals for truancy have remained largely stable and actually increased to over 60,000 in 2018. In addition, over 288,000 young people are placed on some form of probation every year, at least some of whom are placed under system supervision primarily due to concerns about their school attendance. Likewise, for almost all youth placed on probation, daily school attendance is a mandatory condition of their supervision, and youth can be incarcerated for their failure to comply. 

We conducted this study because we felt that most jurisdictions were not questioning whether the use of the juvenile justice system to intervene in youth’s education in these ways is an effective approach. We wanted to understand whether being placed on probation actually led to improvements in youth’s school attendance.   

What is the key takeaway for schools and educators? Is there something they should be doing differently? Continue reading

Education in Juvenile Detention Centers: A Q&A with School Leader Randy Farmer

Earlier this week, we released a publication looking at the education opportunities provided to the thousands of young people detained in juvenile detention each year. We found that as a general rule, the poor quality of education provided in most of these institutions makes it even harder for young people to get back on track.

That said, we acknowledge the serious research limitations surrounding juvenile facilities, including little survey data and outdated information. We could not even determine conclusively how many young people are sent to juvenile detention centers each year. So it is extremely difficult to understand any one young person’s education experience in these centers, and nearly impossible to confidently identify those detention centers that are providing high-quality services to young people and achieving positive outcomes.

We spoke with Randy Farmer, a long-time educator working in a juvenile detention facility, to paint a more complete picture of what happens in these centers and identify the good work going on that cannot be captured in a national aggregate analysis. (We also spoke with Randy in January of 2018.) There are many educators and school leaders deeply devoted to serving this population of students, and they too are frustrated by the limitations and challenges to providing high-quality education in detention centers.

Randy Farmer quote: "that for most youth in detention, the traditional classroom setting simply wasn’t working. We need to provide them with a different kind of support that then opens up the possibility of meaningful educational experiences and future success in a typical classroom."

The conversation below has been edited for length and clarity.

Hailly: What is your high-level reaction to our newest report?

Randy: Generally speaking, the points you raise are spot on, but it’s really hard to talk about this very complicated issue, especially with an audience that might not be familiar with some of the challenges we face. There are important details that can be hard to see without working in a detention center and with these young people day in and day out. For example, it is not as though these young people just show up ready to learn and jump right back into a traditional school. They come with complex, often traumatic, personal histories, and many of them haven’t been going to school for years. Continue reading

Powerful Conference on Reforming Juvenile Justice Systems Overlooked Education

It’s no surprise that conferences and convenings are often packed to the gills with sessions and speakers, making it difficult to go deep on any one issue.

But when I attended the 3rd annual Janet Reno Forum on Juvenile Justice last week, I expected the topic of education in juvenile justice facilities to get some airtime. I was disappointed that the event, held at at the Georgetown University Center for Juvenile Justice Reform (CJJR), largely overlooked the issue.

As Bellwether demonstrated in a report last year, academic programming at juvenile justice schools is wholly insufficient. For example, students in juvenile justice facilities have far less access to critical math and science courses necessary for high school graduation. Moreover, they have less access to credit recovery programs, which help them catch up if they’re behind. Next month we will release a follow-up analysis delving more deeply into the inadequacies and disparities in juvenile justice education.

As part of the event, the Center released a new report, “A Roadmap to the Ideal Juvenile Justice System,” which stresses eight key operating principles:

  • Developmentally appropriate;
  • Research-based, data-driven, and outcome-focused;
  • Fair and equitable;
  • Strengths-based;
  • Trauma-informed and responsive;
  • Supportive of positive relationships and stability;
  • Youth-and family-centered; and,
  • Coordinated.

But as my colleague Hailly Korman has written, education has to be part of any juvenile justice system. Education is the best and most consistent through line for young people navigating a complex path through juvenile justice and other systems. While CJJR’s report offers an important approach, the success of reforms will be hampered if they do not address education in these facilities.

Nevertheless, several important themes emerged across the panels and discussions: Continue reading

New Juvenile Justice Law Heads to The President’s Desk: What Does It Do?

Last week, Congress finally passed the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA). I wrote about this legislation two years ago as part of our ongoing work to improve education access and quality in juvenile justice facilities. Nearly 50,000 kids are attending school behind bars today, and most of them aren’t getting the kind of education experiences that will prepare them to return to their schools and communities ready to thrive.

My blog post talked about how JJDPA closes loopholes in ESSA and gaps in state statutes to improve the consistency and continuity of education opportunities for young people who are attending school in secure facilities:

The statute requires that juvenile justice agencies coordinate with education agencies so that education agencies can comply with their federal mandates . . . .This might sound straightforward — and it is — the important point is that it’s new.

I fully expect this statute to be signed by the President — but access isn’t enough. I hope that we then quickly move to the next step: ensuring that these education opportunities are actually good ones.