Investigation Focuses On U.S. Juvenile Justice, Issues Of Race

Published: Wednesday, September 9, 2020 - 2:19pm
Updated: Wednesday, September 9, 2020 - 2:36pm
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MARK BRODIE: At a time when the country is grappling with racial inequality, reporters from across the U.S. with the News21 project set out to investigate the country's juvenile justice system. They call the project "Kids Imprisoned," and among their findings was evidence of the effect race has on juvenile cases across the country. Daja Henry was a fellow on the project. She focused on how young people of color often feel a disproportionate effect of the juvenile justice system. She joins me to talk more about this. And Daja, how does juvenile justice fit into the bigger conversation happening right now around the country about inequality in general?

DAJA HENRY: I think it's important to remember that, like, none of this is happening out of nowhere in that juvenile justice fits in that, because it's not often spotlighted as an issue that is at the forefront. When we see, like we have the videos of people being murdered and, and of the protesting in the streets. But a lot of people forget about the, the children and the people who are behind bars.

BRODIE: Now, you did a bunch of reporting that focused on what was going on and what has been going on for quite some time in schools. How does that fit into juvenile justice in general? I mean, we think so much about juvenile corrections, but as you reported, the school systems themselves play a fairly large role in this, right?

HENRY: Right. I think that it all starts in the schools. The way we train and teach and nurture or discipline our children, it's reflected in the justice system. So a lot of times schools can be feeders into the juvenile justice system.

BRODIE: How has progress been slowed for young people of color?

HENRY: I think it goes back to the way that children of color are treated in schools. So a lot of times we have these vague codes of conduct that allow room for bias to creep into the way that they're enforced. So we may see like a hair dress code that is enforced disproportionately among people of color. And just the way that teachers are perceiving the behaviors of these students can often be misinterpreted. As for one student, it may just be kids being kids, but for another student of color, then the teachers are perceiving them as threats or as disruptive.

BRODIE: There has been so much discussion, both here in the Valley and around the country about the role of police officers, school resource officers (SROs) in schools. And there's been efforts to get rid of some of those police officers or SROs in schools. How does that relate to, you know, how you report the school-to-prison pipeline and just the general way in which many black students are looked at and treated in schools?

HENRY: Right. So a lot of advocates would say that the presence just being, just having SROs, school resource officers, in the schools escalates situations that, for example, a situation may be something that a teacher could resolve in class, but just because the the officer is there, they're utilized to solve a problem which escalates from a discipline problem to a justice system involvement. School resource officers also affect the climates because we see a lot of them in schools with majority students of color. And we know from what is going on around us that students of color may not have the best perception of police officers and they may feel threatened or uncomfortable in the school environment, which is, what should be one that's nurturing for them and they should be able to learn in that environment.

BRODIE: So based on your reporting and people with whom you spoke, does it seem as though there's any kind of consensus as far as the best way to make sure that schools are safe from outside threats or even inside threats, but also that students are treated equally? And, as you say, you know, discipline issues aren't moved up and amplified to legal and justice issues?

HENRY: Well, I think I've seen both arguments in my reporting that school resource officers should be in schools or that they should not. The role of the school resource officer is often portrayed as, since we have this heightened threat of school shootings from like, outside threats that police officers should be there to protect against that. But in my reporting, we actually found that there was no evidence that school resource officers helped prevent shootings in any way or outside threats.

BRODIE: So juvenile justice broadly, we've seen a lot of change over the years in that area. But have you found that communities of color have benefited in the same way or even a similar way as white children?

HENRY: I have not seen students of color benefiting in any way. There's a movement, definitely, in trying to better the juvenile justice situation. But again, it all starts in schools. And we're seeing, for example, in Oakland, which just disbanded their school police force, which I guess that will be beneficial for students of color. But in Oakland, they, they really started with trying to reform the school, the relationship between school police officers and, in the schools, the students in the schools. So they started with defining the powers that the school resource officers would have, because there's a lot of vague things in place that oftentimes allow people to bring their biases into how they enforce discipline. So they started with small things like that. So as far as benefiting youth of color, I think there's always something happening behind the scenes in order to better the situation, be it gradually or as we see this moment, everything is happening rapidly.

BRODIE: All right. That is Daja Henry, a 2020 News21 fellow, one of the reporters on the Kids Imprisoned project. Daja, thanks for your time. I appreciate it.

HENRY: Thank you. 

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