On November 14, the Edward V. Sparer Public Interest Fellowship Program hosted a panel of legal and policy advocates working to address the School to Prison Pipeline. The panel, which was moderated by BLS Professor Cynthia Godsoe, presented examples of young peoples' experiences within the pipeline, and the types of legal advocacy attorneys can provide.
According to the American Civil Liberties Union, the School to Prison Pipeline is a disturbing national trend wherein children are funneled out of public schools and into the juvenile and criminal justice systems. Many of these children have learning disabilities or histories of poverty, abuse or neglect, and would benefit from additional educational and counseling services. Instead, they are isolated, punished and pushed out. "Zero-tolerance" policies criminalize minor infractions of school rules, while high-stakes testing programs encourage educators to push out low-performing students to improve their schools' overall test scores. Students of color are especially vulnerable to push-out trends and the discriminatory application of discipline.
"I wanted the event to expose attendees to how lawyers and organizers can advocate for youth at different stages of the prison pipeline – in schools, in court and as youth re-enter their communities after being involved in the criminal justice system," said Sparer Fellow Dacia Read '14, who organized the event.
The panel began with a presentation by Legal Services NYC, Bronx Attorney Andy Artz, who shared his experiences representing students in superintendent's suspension hearings. In 2011-2012, New York City public schools reported 69,643 suspensions, disproportionately issued to students of color and special education students. Artz explained the negative impact of such punitive discipline practices being used in schools, often keeping students out of school for upwards of 30-90 days. He emphasized the heightened punitive nature of school discipline practices when combined with the over policing of NYC public schools, and expressed concerns about the use of EMS services to address behavior issues in school.
Bronx Defenders attorney Cara Suvall shared her experiences representing youth ages 16 and over in the Bronx Criminal Court. "Daily, I get a client's file, go into holding cells in court, call out a name and a skinny, black boy comes forward," she said. As New York and North Carolina are the only two states in the country who still charge children 16 and older as adults, Suvall explained the special challenges she and other public defenders face in advocating for a young person's specific needs in adult court.
Sparer alum Laurie Parise '04, Executive Director of Youth Represent and instructor of the Law School’s Youth Reentry and Legal Services Clinic, discussed the legal services that her organization provides to its clients (24 and under) who may face discrimination in school, or while seeking employment, housing and higher education opportunities after being arrested and/or convicted of a crime. "When I first started, there was no one working on youth re-entry needs,” she said. “Now, we're working with the advocate community to implement specific criminal justice reform campaigns such as 'Raise the Age' and 'Ban the Box.' [“Raise the Age” advocates raising the age of criminality from 16-18; “Ban the Box” supports banning questions related to criminal history on public job applications.] We're regularly representing youth and families in NYCHA housing proceedings, employment discrimination proceedings and in efforts to clean up their rap sheets to avoid the negative consequences of prior arrests."
Jaime Koppel of the Children's Defense Fund provided context to connect the efforts of each of the other panelists. "The Children's Defense Fund's work is born out of our history with the civil rights movement. In New York, we think it's important to connect each of the stories you've heard from panelists today. We often step back to think not only of the 'School to Prison Pipeline,' but the 'Cradle to Prison Pipeline’." Koppel urged attendees to keep sharing data and stories to make children’s experiences within these pipelines evident to the greater public.
By Dacia Read ’14