On May 17, the Boston Bar convened attorneys for the next step in the pilot phase of its Service Innovation Project, which will focus on engaging the legal community in disrupting the school-to-prison pipeline. At an issue briefing panel, a distinguished group of experts provided a comprehensive overview of the issue to attendees, and challenged them to think about actionable next steps to work toward solutions.
The panel, moderated by Northeastern University Law School’s Susan Maze-Rothstein, consisted of:
- Jessica Berry – Deputy Director, Children’s Law Center of Massachusetts
- Jay D. Blitzman – First Justice for the Middlesex Juvenile Court and Presiding Justice, Lowell
- Matt Cregor – Education Project Director, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Economic Justice
- Janelle Ridley – District Coordinator for System-Involved Youth, Boston Public Schools
- Marlies Spanjaard – Director of Education Advocacy, the EdLaw Project
The goal of the panel was to give attendees a deeper understanding of the many complicated and intersecting issues that perpetuate the school-to-prison pipeline, facilitating economically disadvantaged youth slipping into the justice system in Boston and all over the United States. From their unique professional vantage points, each panelist was able to share examples of glaring inequities which are, unfortunately, commonplace.
In summing up the structure of the school-to-prison pipeline, panelists explained that communities with high poverty rates and larger-than-average incarcerated populations also tend to have the most overcrowded, underfunded schools. Though staying in school has proven to be a deterrent from getting involved in the justice system, the increase in policing on school campuses in the past 20 years has led to more arrests on school grounds than ever before. In addition, students who are suspended or expelled from school, often for minor non-violent infractions, are at higher risk to drop out of school and thus more likely to enter into the criminal justice system.
These factors disproportionately impact black and Hispanic students, as well as students with disabilities, and the panelists cited multiple sources of data on the devastating impact that disparity is having in majority-minority communities.
“There is no such thing as race-neutral, zero-tolerance (policies),” Judge Blitzman said, adding that well-intended legislation meant to bolster school safety has led to the “criminalization of adolescence” for at-risk youth.
Ridley said one of the most important parts of her job is simply to listen to students, something the students may not feel they are getting from other adults at school or at home.
“We have a lot of quantitative data, but what we’re missing is the qualitative data: the stories, the reasoning, and what got these kids to where they are,” she said.
Following the panel, attendees formed small breakout groups to discuss what they had learned and think about next steps. Throughout the room, attorneys thought about various ways to offer pro bono assistance directly to affected children and families. But other, multidisciplinary approaches were also a focus of the discussion – such as public information campaigns targeted to schools, parents and the general public. Many attendees expressed their enthusiasm for restorative-justice-style programs in schools, giving students the chance to express their feelings and hopefully avoid suspension or expulsion.
The Boston Bar would like to thank everyone who participated, and we look forward to working together with the Service Innovation Project Advisory Committee to take these ideas and incorporate them into our work going forward.
Special thanks to the Boston Bar Foundation Burnes Innovation in Service Fund, made possible by a generous gift from Richard and Nonnie Burnes. This fund provides critical support for the Service Innovation Project. For more information on the Burnes Innovation in Service Fund or the Boston Bar Foundation, contact Megan Leppert at 617.778.1924 or firstname.lastname@example.org.