Sunday, January 27, 2013

Urban Teaching and Juvenile Justice OR Why I have 8 probation officers’ numbers in my phone

 When I started teaching, I had no interest or background in the juvenile justice system. The fact that it might one day be incredibly relevant to my work in education was not even on my radar, but here I sit nearly 5 years later with no fewer than 8 probation officers in my cell phone. 

The reality of teaching in an urban environment (especially at an alternative school) is that nearly 75% of my students are in some way involved with the juvenile or adult justice system.  With the move toward a more “policed” school environment across the country, it’s a safe bet that this percentage will grow.  I think it’s crucial for educators to understand how this system functions and what we can do to support (and modify) it to better serve our students. 

I am the first to admit that I was blissfully na├»ve about juvenile justice when I first entered the classroom.  I didn’t know what “placement” was.  I thought probation and parole were synonyms. And when one of my students was out for a few days and a girl in the class said, “Oh he’s up State Road”.  I thought she meant that he’d moved [State Road is the location of one of the prisons that serves Philadelphia County]. 

Over the last couple of years, I’ve been working to better educate myself about the juvenile justice system both in Philadelphia and nation-wide.  I think it is as important to understand it from a structural standpoint, as it is to recognize the profound effects it has on my students socially, academically, and emotionally. 
 While there is no substitute for observing and talking to those intimately involved in the court system, two books have given me great insight into the structural side of the justice system. Steve Borgia’s Courtroom 302 explores the “justice machine” from a variety of view points within one of the busiest felony court houses in America.  His observations set a great framework for deeper exploration of the effects of these experiences.  Edward Humes’ No Matter How Loud I Shout delves even deeper, focusing specifically on the juvenile justice system.  From Humes, we hear about the daunting task that is juvenile justice - both some of the successes and the utter failures.  His text truly opened my eyes to the paradoxical struggle that is juvenile justice. 

Though my initial goal was just to have a context for the experiences facing many of my students, I came to realize that there is a whole social and emotional side to experiencing the justice system.  Mark Salzman explores much of this in True Notebooks: A writer’s year in juvenile hall.  Through student writing, Salzman finds that at the heart of all offenders, no matter how brutal their offense, is a story and a voice.  Further, he drives home the point that these are still kids, despite their very adult crimes and experiences. 

The final text that really shaped my views on juvenile justice is John Aarons, Lisa Smith, and Linda Wagner’s Dispatches from Juvenile Hall: Fixing a failing system.  Beginning with testimonials and interviews from offenders, advocates, police officers, lawyers, and parole officers, Aarons and friends address the question of whether we should be “soft on crime, using treatment-oriented responses” or “hard on crime using corrections responses”. In the second half of the text they offer their solution, “The answer is neither. It is more effective to be smart on crime” (163).  They suggest that successful treatment programs must “provide the right services to the right kids at the right time” (147). [certainly no easy task]. 
They explain that these programs must:
 - Pay attention to their thoughts and feelings
 - recognize how those thoughts and feelings lead to negative behavior
 - use new thinking to reduce risk
 - practice, practice, and practice those new thinking and behavior skills (180)

Now, to the question: What does this have to do with the classroom/ schools/ education?

Well, I think that it better equips me to recognize and serve the needs of my students.  By no means do I think that reading a couple of books makes me an expert [or even a novice] on crime, policing, law or juvenile justice, but I am certainly better informed to engage my students. I want to be able to have real conversations with my students and I feel better equipped to do so when I have a context for what they’re talking about or going through.  Of course, everyone’s experience is different, but having a handle on the language of the justice system helps me support my students.

Further, knowing a bit about the system helps me seek out allies and serve as a better ally for my students.  I have a better handle on the things that probation and parole officers are looking for and the scope of what they are able to do.  I recognize the power that a portfolio full of work [or not full of work] or a strong recommendation can have on a judge’s decision.

Finally, it helps me better structure my classes and objectives to serve the “whole” student.  Though my school is not a “placement” or disciplinary program, we serve many students who have just come out of placement. They’re often easy to recognize as they address staff as sir or ma’am, walk in hallway protocol, and have bizarre credits on their transcripts (How do you get 0.37 of an English credit? - in placement that's how).  Looking at Aarons’ qualities of successful juvenile offender treatment programs, there are so many opportunities to engage them in the academic classroom. 

After all, don’t we want all adolescents to Pay attention to their thoughts and feelings, Recognize how some feelings & thoughts effect others, Use new thinking to reduce risk, and practice these skills in real settings?  Isn’t that what maturing and growing up is all about?  It’s not a matter of “character education”, but rather developing and working with empathy and there is plenty of room for that in all schools and classrooms - whether urban, suburban, or rural - no matter who they serve. 

And yes, it’s always nice to be able to text a PO when one of their probationers is cutting my class. A little bit of leverage never hurt anyone.