(Originally appeared in the Boston Bar Journal on October 4, 2018. Reprinted with permission from Boston Bar Association.)
by Janelle Ridley
Janelle Ridley works for the Boston Public Schools (BPS) as the Coordinator for System-Involved Youth. She is an expert in identifying and implementing services to aid youth in transitioning from detention back to BPS, and seeks to intentionally foster educational equity and actively work to dismantle the school-to-prison pipeline.
No one can contest that Black and Brown boys are overrepresented in the juvenile and criminal justice systems. Boston is not an anomaly; this has been a national crisis since the 1980s when zero-tolerance policies were introduced by former President Ronald Reagan’s administration at the onset of the “War on Drugs.” Once Congress passed the Drug-Free Schools and Campuses Act of 1989, school districts across the nation implemented zero-tolerance policies that have since criminalized seemingly innocuous behavior that is often due to trauma, poverty, and a plethora of reasons that make it impossible for students to function in a traditional school setting. Thus, agencies and individuals alike must be intentional about our approach in working with our youth to address the root causes and not merely criminalize the symptoms. In light of the aforementioned, this article will explore the efforts of Boston Public Schools (BPS) and others are making to ensure EVERY student has access to equitable educational opportunities. First, I will outline my work in this area. Next, I will describe Transition H.O.P.E., a pilot program launched in Summer 2018 to assist youth who have been detained at DYS facilities. Finally, I will describe efforts BPS is making to develop an intentional approach to assist youth more generally.
As the District Coordinator for System-Involved Youth at BPS, I have been pioneering new ground for academic and social integration for youth who have been exposed to systems including, but not limited to, the Department of Youth Services (DYS) and the Department of Children and Families. Through strategic transdisciplinary partnerships, I am ensuring that BPS is holding the fidelity of its mission to provide access to equitable educational opportunities to EVERY student. Concomitantly, I am working tirelessly to dismantle the cradle-to-prison pipeline while creating a path from prison-to-school. Ultimately, my objective is to disrupt the generational cycle of America’s mass incarceration crisis on Boston’s youth, and the debilitating effects of trauma on underrepresented communities. Prior to my work at the District, I devised Street Trauma, a transformative curriculum that empowered my former students at East Boston High to speak as experts of their lived experiences and enjoined educators to be more intentional about how they interacted with Black and Brown youth. Though I am no longer in the classroom, I have expanded my curriculum to colleges/universities where I serve as an adjunct professor to reach individuals seeking to work in urban settings.
BPS Office of Social Emotional Learning and Transition H.O.P.E
Transitioning back to BPS from the DYS is a nonlinear reorientation process that requires youth to sever ties with their former ways of life, both good and bad aspects, to embrace the new. Change is inevitable and a part of life, but the transition process for system-involved youth is complex and strenuous. Furthermore, the majority of the youth detained at DYS by the courts have experienced some amount of school failure and are often already behind in their educational attainment. Therefore, even short periods of detention may result in further isolation from their school communities and exacerbate opportunity gaps.
Determined to disrupt the odds stacked against the youth, I launched Transition H.O.P.E. in Summer 2018, a pilot program through BPS Office of Social Emotional Learning & Wellness with a holistic framework designed to ensure all system-involved youth have access to educational equity by: holding High Expectations for each and every young person; providing Opportunities that are realistic and within their perspective; helping the youth envision Pathways to Success by taking ownership of decisions for desired long-term outcomes; and providing Encouragement to help youth acknowledge that success is theirs to claim and define irrespective of the past. The pilot was launched at the DYS Metro Pre-Trial Detention unit with a total of 16 youth. After a successful summer, we plan on expanding Transition H.O.P.E. in the Fall of 2018 to additional DYS units and facilities serving youth assigned to BPS.
Transition H.O.P.E., powered by strategic partnerships with Lesley University, engages youth in college-level academic discourse and exposes them to pathways beyond high school. Lesley tutors worked diligently with youth to build higher order thinking skills and foster the ability to see beyond the limitations placed upon them. As a result, two of our youth enrolled at Benjamin Franklin Institute of Technology (BFIT) upon release and are exploring career options that they would otherwise not have imagined they could attain. Moreover, going on our mantra, “When you engage a youth, you reach the family,” one of the youth’s brother also enrolled at BFIT this summer and they are now attending classes together while serving as a strong support system for each other.
BPS is intentional about cultivating a culture of accountability to the success of these youth and pursuing transformational leadership to unearth the passion, purpose, and potential buried within all youth. It is also essential that the transitional process consists of positive affirmations and the presence of consistent adults in their lives. With the support and guidance of mentors (including former professional basketball players, Becoming a Man, Mass Mentors), youth are devising roadmaps to success in the academy and beyond. The H.O.P.E. team stresses accountability through periodic check-ins with both the youth and their mentors. As Frederick Douglass asserted, “It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.” Thus, BPS is intentional about integrating the following frameworks in its approach:
- Holistic Development: Employ a whole-child framework to cultivate cognitive, cultural, emotional, physical, social, and spiritual development.
- Open-minded Attitude: Employ a growth-mindset framework to teach our youth that their attitude, not aptitude, determines their altitude.
- Purpose Cultivation: Employ a visualization framework to activate the subconscious mind to create new neural pathways for the manifestation of desired aspirations.
- Engaged Citizenship: Employ a civic engagement and transformational leadership framework to build capacity for individual and collective responsibility.
The incorporation of youth voice is essential to each of these integrated components. BPS district leaders made several visits to DYS over the past year to listen to the needs of the youth and wrestle with tough questions like “How can teachers be better equipped to engage with youth who are subject to complex trauma?” It is impossible to narrow the opportunity gap and dismantle the prison pipeline without giving youth platforms to be heard.
The partners who are working with our inner-city youth are recognizing the harm caused by the school-to-prison pipeline, including collateral consequences in employment, education, housing, and beyond upon involvement in the justice system. Research has shown that concepts such as “trauma-informed learning” and “social emotional learning” have gained significant traction over the past few years as alternatives to exclusionary discipline practices. These constructs posit that the microsystems youth inhabit, like their communities, homes, and schools are critical to addressing their needs. At the recent Coalition for Juvenile Justice Youth Summit, youth from across eighteen states described their school experiences as “inhumane” and their communities as “unsafe” due to the high concentration of poverty and crime that stems from systemic inequality and policies from the “War on Drugs.”
Recognizing that isolation is the enemy of transformative progress, BPS is extending an invitation through Transition H.O.P.E., to partner with us and alongside Mass Mentors, William James College, Benjamin Franklin Institute of Technology, Timothy Smith Network, the Juvenile Detention Alternative Initiative, Northeastern Center for the Study of Sport and Society, Harvard University Transformative Justice Series (located in the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice), Brandeis University, Suffolk County Sheriff Department Family Matters Program, Boston Police Department, STAR and most certainly Lesley University. If you have any interest in aligning work, please feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.