Most of what we hear about juvenile facilities is bad. Here’s a good program.

If we treat kids like this while they are in the care of the state, what do we expect from them when they get out . . .

This new report from the Campaign for Youth Justice makes a powerful case that too many 15, 16 and 17 year olds are held in DC Jail. What makes this especially terrible for the kids and our community (to which they will return one day) is that we have few education and counseling options available at the jail for teens. So they just sit there, locked in their cells for almost the whole day.

The report has a number of sensible policy recommendations, including 1) requiring that kids who are tried as adults be held in juvenile facilities while the await trial, and 2) mandating that a judge review all cases in which prosecutors seek to try kids as adults, and make a case-by-case determination that the transfer to adult court makes sense. More here.

Recognizing Bad Policing

July 10, 2007

The NY Times’ Bob Herbert is publicizing incidents of bad police practice in schools. In his latest, he describes:

a cop who grotesquely abused his power by invading a high school classroom in the Bronx because a girl had uttered a curse word in a hallway. Not only did the cop handcuff and arrest the girl in a room filled with stunned students and a helpless teacher, but he arrested the school’s principal, who had attempted to reason with the officer.

As a recent ACLU report makes clear, this is not an isolated incident.

That police practice in high-poverty schools often leaves much to be desired should not come as a surprise to education reformers. After all, the education reform community is appropriately quick to criticize bad teaching practice in high poverty schools. Yet few edu-bloggers have focused much on the issue, and some of those who have argued that Herbert has it wrong.

My friend Whitney Tilson argues,

“I’m not buying for an instant Herbert’s assertion that police officers in NYC’s public schools,” and “I suspect that incidents in which police officers are out of line are extremely rare — it’s just that in a system with 1,400+ schools and over 1 million students, even if there’s a 1/100th of 1% ‘error rate,’ that will yield dozens of juicy stories for reports (like the ACLU’s) and reporters (like Herbert) to go nuts over.”

This reaction has long surprised me–so many smart people have really high standards for teachers and really low ones for police officers. But both of these groups have a tremendous influence on poor communities, and we should have high standards for both.

Edu-types should get this, because many of the same things that lead to poor teaching lead to poor policing, and many of the same structural issues that protect bad teachers also protect bad officers. These include: low pay, low barriers to entry into the profession, poor training (if you think education schools are bad, talk to smart officers about the police academies in some cities), strong job protections, administrators who don’t document poor performance, and a culture of low-expectations. Indeed, the same low expectations that allow terrible teaching practice to continue also let terrible policing practices to go on. Too many people think poor kids don’t deserve better.

Teachers and educators and education reformers should all care about this issue, a lot. The bottom line is that our work in schools is trying to change students perceptions of who they are and who they can be. When they are treated like criminals instead of scholars by police officers, either in schools or in their neighborhoods, that has an impact.

Update: I e-mailed a version of this post to Whitney, whose response is here. I take Whitney’s point about the bias in the ACLU report, but I would still recommend people check out the reference to Julia Richman, on page 24. Regardless of how big a problem bad policing in schools is, I think it is pretty clear that the Julia Richman approach to school safety is the way to go.

On Monday, See Forever (which currently runs the Maya Angelou School) signed an agreement with the District government to run the school at Oak Hill, the detention facility for kids in the District. We will open this summer. Though our letter agreement still requires full approval by DC Council, our plans for the school at Oak Hill are in place, and we have begun work on it.

I am excited about this because, during the entire time I was a public defender, Oak Hill was widely acknowledged to be a failure.

When we started See Forever and Maya Angelou we did it because we felt that many who worked in the juvenile justice community did not have high enough expectations for kids in that system. At the same time, we saw that many educators–including many in the educational reform community–did not want to work with kids who can often be especially challenging. So we wanted to bridge those 2 systems–to take the best of the education world and make it available to kids that most people ignore.

As Nelson Smith of the National Alliance for Public Charters points out, the District’s interest in partnering with us is a good example of a charter school working as it should–by incubating good ideas and bringing them into the system to serve additional kids.

I am finally optimistic about how this city plans to treat its most vulnerable children. This city now has visionary leadership, people like Vinnie Schiraldi, the head of the Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services, who believe that every child can have a future, no matter his past.

We now have Mayor Adrian Fenty, who has argued for years that the best way to reduce youth crime is to invest in the children most likely to engage in such behavior.

We are looking for people who share our passion and our commitment. If you know of anybody who fits the bill, please have them check out our website, which has job descriptions and information on how to apply.

We are also soliciting volunteers–people who might to coach, mentor, or tutor. Volunteering is a great way to support young men who have made mistakes and done wrong, but who want a chance to show that they are more than their worst act.

To get a sense of where we stand, and to see if our approach resonates with your beliefs, here’s what we said in the beginning of our proposal to run the school:

Students attending schools in secure juvenile justice facilities historically have been terribly served. The list of failures is now well-documented: low academic expectations, curricula that are neither relevant nor rigorous, insufficient focus on literacy, inattention to social-emotional wellness, poor special education services, little or no emphasis on career preparation, and a deficit approach that views young people and their families and communities solely as problems to be fixed. All too often these schools lack necessary programs. When the programs do exist, they are typically of low quality, and staffed by underpaid, overworked, and inadequately trained staff.

What makes the state of affairs especially tragic is that these schools are serving young people who need the best we have to offer. They need the best teachers, best counselors, best curricula, best job training, and best literacy programs. But instead we give them the worst.

The young men at Oak Hill are, in many ways, typical of a committed population in an urban setting. They are overwhelmingly African-American, from low-income families. They face significant academic and socio-emotional wellness challenges. Many have disabilities that have been diagnosed but never properly addressed, while others have never even received the diagnosis that is a pre-condition to receiving the services they need.

Yet each of these young men also has tremendous assets. Even as they sit incarcerated, miles from their homes, they have hopes, dreams, and potential. They crave relationships with supportive, caring adults who believe in them and demand the best. And they each have someone in their lives who wants them back home, and who prays that when they return from Oak Hill, they will begin a journey toward responsible adulthood. It is our job to help make this happen.

At See Forever, we have the knowledge, capacity, and commitment to meet this challenge. We are able to provide an educational setting that will be truly transformative in the lives of these young men, and that will allow the Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services to serve as a national model for the education of committed youth.