Law in Contemporary Society

K12 Education and Juvenile Justice

-- By MarinaHernandez - 26 April 2018


A week in New Orleans at the Public Defender’s Office has pushed me to reflect on the purpose of criminal juvenile proceedings, and the function that criminal law plays in regulating the lives of young black and brown children. While it is easy to be frustrated with laws that stigmatize and marginalize children of color, I am coming to the belief that the criminal laws targeting juveniles are more a downstream product of the educational institutions and policies that act as a funnel for black and brown students into the juvenile justice system.

Juvenile Court’s Feeder System

I previously worked for a charter management organization in a predominantly low-income community comprised of Black and Latino students. Because of the systemic disadvantages faced by these children, this charter organization promotes a mantra of “high expectations” for all things in the academic environment. The unfortunate result of such a policy is a high number of suspensions and expulsions for seemingly trivial matters. Many well-intentioned adults could justify these punishments on the basis of helping children become functional adults. However the practice of “high expectations” coupled with harsh disciplinary consequences likely does little to promote desirable behaviors, but instead makes students of color comfortable with severe punishments and perpetuates injustice for marginalized communities.

Black students represents just 16% of the student population but represent 32-42% of students suspended or expelled. These troubling numbers make me wonder what principles or values are being served by school suspensions and police detainment arising from school-related incidents. Is it for rehabilitation of the student who committed the wrong? Is it to separate the child for safety reasons? Each of these may provide a compelling reason to remove a child from the school environment despite the adverse effects on their school performance and social skills. However I believe the true justifications used by (mostly white) adults in power are justice and deterrence. Some may hold the belief that if a child does something wrong in the school environment, it is only fair for them to be disciplined. Said discipline may reduce the incidence of such behavior among that child and discourage it among others.

Judge Day poses the idea that the law is a poor way to influence the behavior of others. The discretion that courts use to punitively impose the law lacks substantive power to promote the behaviors and decisions we wish to see. I believe schools are microcosms of Day’s opinion in that hard-lined rules with intense consequences is a poor way to achieve our goal of making children into productive, happy and successful adults. Additionally, suspensions do little to actually help a child or prevent him/her from committing the same offense again. To the contrary, students that encounter intense disciplinary measures in middle school are far more likely to end up in the juvenile justice system than those that are not. School policies that are enacted with the intent to positively influence student behavior may actually serve a contradictory purpose for our students of color.

Restorative Justice in Schools

In 2014, the Department of Justice and the Department of Education jointly issued a “Dear Colleague Letter” focusing on racial disparities in school discipline. The letter utilizes multiple data sources to support the claim that disparities in discipline are likely due to racial bias, not the more frequent or serious misbehavior by students of color. It also calls for schools to take measures to address these racial disparities. Unsurprisingly, Betsy DeVos? is being pressured to repeal the Dear Colleague Letter, despite the fact that it isn’t even binding law. Republican lawmakers claim the approach advocated for by the Letter reduces a school’s autonomy to remove dangerous students, leading to situations like the Parkland shooting. Though far-fetched, it is precisely these arguments that prevent politicians from fully appreciating the fact that harsh and racist disciplinary measures do not actually teach children how to behave, but rather criminalize them from an early age.

Regardless of political disposition, making schools safer for black and brown students by overhauling existing disciplinary structures is necessary to ensure students are receiving the support needed to thrive. All measures to keep a child in school with restorative justice practices should be exhausted before a child is removed from the school environment and subject to a suspension. Additionally, suspensions should never be utilized for non-violent behaviors, such as dress code violations or using a cell phone in school. Perhaps for even more violent behaviors such as cursing at teachers and fighting among peers, an alternative to suspensions can be found. Some districts such as Oakland and New York are making changes to utilize restorative justice practices by removing suspension as an option for insubordination and preventing suspensions in the third grade and below altogether.

As Judge Day might argue, harsh punishments and a deterrence theory are likely ineffective ways to bring about the changes we wish to see in children’s behavior. The focus should be keeping students in the school environment and explicitly teaching them productive behaviors or how to cope with negative emotions. While discipline should still be apart of the process, more productive disincentives can surely be established than removal from school. Instructing one how to be successful seems like much more effective approach to achieving the desired outcome than expecting her to learn solely from punishment.

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r4 - 26 Apr 2018 - 17:22:17 - MarinaHernandez
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