After the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, no one could have anticipated all of the challenges associated with rebuilding the city. One of the major concerns was creating a more equitable educational landscape; one that meet the needs of all children. The nation called it an experiment, an opportunity to right the wrongs of the past, to institute a “recovery” for the failing schools of New Orleans. But in the months following the storm, the traditional public schools were in crisis; the district suffered from negligent leadership, a severe lack of teachers, a criminal decrease in social workers and counselors and an increase in the police presence in schools. In the first full school year of the rebuilt school system, a disproportionate percentage of students were suspended for nonviolent classroom disturbances, the number of expulsions exploded and community leaders and judges alike complained of the significant numbers of school arrests for matters that could have been handled without involving law enforcement.
One of the strengths of our young people, families and communities is their belief and investment in education as the most promising tool to create life opportunities. For decades, New Orleans Public Schools’ discipline policies and practices (such as zero-tolerance) have pushed children out of school increasing students’ chances of involvement in the juvenile or criminal justice systems. In addition, students have been and continue to be removed from educational environments through school-arrests for minor offenses and discouraged from attendance by intimidating police practices on campus. Research shows that these policies and practices:1) do not improve student behavior; 2) exclude students from educational opportunities; and 3) increase the young person’s likelihood of involvement in the juvenile or criminal justice systems.
In this context, the Schools First project, at the Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana (JJPL), was born. While JJPL has traditionally worked to reform the juvenile justice system from the back-end (conditions of confinement, alternatives to detention and incarceration), the organization decided to address the policies and practices of our educational systems that funnel children into the juvenile justice system. The Schools First Project of JJPL was initiated in the summer of 2006 to reduce the number of students suspended, expelled, pushed-out and arrested in schools in New Orleans.
To date, we have many successes, including:
· Conducting educational advocacy trainings for other youth advocates, parent and student groups, local offices of national teacher training programs and Recovery School District (RSD) teachers and administrators;
· Helping to revise the RSD’s Student Code of Conduct to include mandatory interventions and decrease the number of suspendable violations
· Starting a volunteer law project at Loyola Law School in New Orleans to provide volunteer representation to youth facing disciplinary proceedings in New Orleans.
· Advocating for and coordinating specialized training for RSD school security officers;
· Serving as part of the legal team representing Jesse Ray Beard in the Jena 6 case;
· Being mentioned as a resource for stopping the school-to-prison pipeline on the website of national organizations ;
· Securing a commitment from the Recovery School District to ban the use of fixed restraints on all children and the handcuffing of students under ten years old, through litigation with the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) as co-counsel and a YASS led-organizing campaign, after a 6 year old first grader was handcuffed to a chair in his elementary school
As the nation watches the course of education reform in New Orleans, JJPL continues our advocacy to reform the practices and policies that push out or otherwise exclude students from a quality education.
For more information please contact Jolon McNeil