One of the biggest aspects of my job as a Youth Advocate at Juvenile Regional Services is checking in with the kids who are in the post dispositional phase. This means that the juvenile has gone through the sentencing process and is either on probation or in secure care. The majority of juveniles that I work with are on probation, with review hearings as often as every 30 days. That means that every 30 days, the juvenile goes before the judge and the judge looks over the juvenile’s progress, including drug testing, any academic issues, and any other issues that the juvenile is facing. Due to the fact that I have only been at JRS for two months, when I first started I had to go down a list of names and see what was going on with those juveniles.
While routinely going down my list of clients, I happened to call a client with the initials R.J. He didn’t have a review hearing for another four months, but I figured I would check in anyway. I reached his father who informed me that not only was R.J. not currently in school but that the 15 year old had not been enrolled since May of last year. He explained that R.J.’s mother had moved to Texas and had possession of many of R.J.’s documents such as social security card and birth certificate. His father had been fiercely trying to get R.J. enrolled in a school but it seemed that doors were continually being shut in his face. This was infuriating for many reasons, but one of the most important was that R.J. could be sent to jail for not being in school. The juvenile courts in New Orleans view academic issues as being non-compliant with probation. A catchy phrase for the repercussions of this practice is the “school to prison pipeline”. Kids are pushed out of schools for minor disciplinary infractions, or, as in R.J.’s situation, they are kept out of public schools illegally. These juveniles, living without the structure of school, disproportionately end up the criminal justice system with a recidivism rate that will make your head spin. In New Orleans, juveniles have been sent to jail for repeatedly not passing classes or not attending. So the thought of R.J. going before the judge without even being enrolled in any school was a scary one.
I told him I would do all that I could to help get his son into school, which of course I thought was very little. I was not his mother and if they wouldn’t listen to his father, why would they listen to me? The following day, I went to the Welcome School, the building where administrators hold expulsion hearings and enroll students who are not currently enrolled. After meeting with a social worker for about 30 minutes and presenting her with R.J.’s academic records from his previous school, she brought me in to meet the person who decides where to enroll the students who aren’t currently enrolled in a school. He told me that there was space at an 8th grade academy and that he would sign a letter stating that they had to enroll R.J. as soon as possible. The following day after that, I drove myself, R.J. and R.J.’s father to this 8th grade academy. They addressed me with all of their questions and 45 minutes later, for the first time since May 15th of the previous year, R.J. was an enrolled student.
While pleasantly surprised at this result and the euphoric feeling I had (one I do not get often working within the juvenile justice system), I could not shake a different feeling that was hanging on me. Why hadn’t my initial trepidation proved true? Why was I able to help R.J. when his own father could not? This was certainly not the first time being utterly blindsided by my own privilege but it was startling nonetheless.
So where does that collision of my reality and my own privilege leave me? I love my job and the work that I do but I am also deeply troubled by this system that I am attempting to work within. The conclusions I have reached are somewhat mixed. Yes, it was because I was white and yes, it was because I was dressed in my business casual attire that I was able to get R.J. into school and his father could not. But he is in school now…so that is enough?
Of course it isn’t, but for now it simply has to be. This experience has made me realize that grand, sweeping changes are not going to happen in front of my eyes and the successes I do have, however few and far between, need to be celebrated. So, here’s to R.J. And now, onto the next.
Further Reading on the School-to-Prison-Pipeline:
-The Advancement Project has a groundbreaking new study out called Test, Punish, and Push Out: How Zero Tolerance and High-Stakes Testing Funnel Youth into the School to Prison Pipeline.
-The Southern Poverty Law Center works in Louisiana to stop the School to Prison Pipeline by enforcing Special Education Law.
-ACLU Talking Points on the School-to-Prison-Pipeline