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Analysis: Schools must play a key role in Los Angeles’ push for juvenile justice reform

Hailly T.N. Korman | May 13, 2021



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We often want to see schools as a warm and welcoming place. And they are for some families. For others, however, schools are a major contributor to the over-punishment of children because of decades of zero-tolerance policies, harsh punishments, and policing in schools, and evidence tells us that these practices have actually made the problem worse.

Nationally, 160,000 children were subject to corporal punishment in 2016-17. Paddling, spanking, and other forms of physical discipline remain legal in 19 states. These issues extend to preschool students.Nearly 1.3 million children in preschool through 5th grade were suspended or expelled in 2016-17. Black girls are suspended at a higher rate than girls of any other race, and more than white and Asian boys. Due to out-of-school suspensions unrelated to more serious or more frequent misbehavior, Black students lost 82 more days of learning for every 100 students, compared with their white peers in 2015-16.

One in 10 students with disabilities were referred to law enforcement at school in 2013-14. Although LGBTQIA+ youth make up just 7 percent of all students, they are overrepresented in juvenile detention and incarceration settings by 15 percent.

Schools don’t have to be a source of problems. Effective schools can be leaders in reversing punitive policies by investing time and resources in community-based, restorative investments, including hiring more mentors and counselors and creating restorative justice programs.

To do so requires a shared vision for the future of young people. In Los Angeles, efforts underway could be a significant step forward.

The Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), for example, eliminated one-third of its school-based police, removed officers from secondary schools, and banned using pepper spray on students. LAUSD redirected $36.5 million to schools with low academic performance and high concentrations of Black students to hire “school climate coaches,” social workers, counselors, and restorative justice advisors — all positions that support students toward a healthy transition to adulthood.

Los Angeles County, meanwhile, partnered with students to reform the county’s juvenile justice system, resulting in a 50-page transformative plan. The County Board of Supervisors is taking on these reforms, while newly-elected county District Attorney George Gascon is pursuing a separate set of reforms.

At the same time, the state required counties to transition incarcerated youth back into communities in July 2020 and counties are planning for the transition, including how to spend related funding.

The mistake in Los Angeles is in the missed opportunity to work collaboratively across systems and offices so that young people can lead healthy lives that avoid incarceration. Most critically, schools hardly play a role in these plans. This might be because they are not showing up at the table in the first place or it might be because systems struggle to recognize the role schools should play in supporting better transitions for young people.

Without schools centered in the work, expect business as usual.

Various agencies, schools, and advocates must work together to create better policies that support students to adulthood. That won’t happen without schools taking a more active role.

First, schools must prepare for students returning back to school for the first time in more than a year. Schools have the opportunity to welcome students to a different kind of school experience, one rooted in positive relationships and supports. There are compelling examples, but too many schools are not addressing these issues at all.

Second, schools can continue to withdraw police from schools, revamp discipline policies, and use data to ensure that students, especially Black and brown students, students with disabilities, Native students, and LGBTQIA+ students, are not bearing the brunt of disciplinary action.

Third, schools must hire more counselors, pair students with mentors, and create school-wide restorative justice programs. Schools do not exist solely to prepare students for college and careers, but also the teaching, practicing, and reinforcing positive behavior expectations. Strong relationships and restorative justice approaches work better than just punishing transgressions, but schools need to invest in them properly.

Finally, schools must engage more deeply in community conversations on juvenile justice reform. Advocates rightly worry that without schools at the table, youth will remain stuck within punitive systems. Advocate Meredith Desautels at the Youth Law Center notes, “Schools are missing from the […] planning process. It’s an appalling gap.”

It is time for schools to fill that gap, be an active diversion from incarceration, and support students to make a healthy transition to adulthood.

Hailly T.N. Korman is a senior associate partner at Bellwether Education Partners on the Policy and Evaluation team. She focuses on education for special populations, justice-involved youth, and school discipline.

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