By Alice Doyel
In this week’s blog, I spoke with Karen Pillar, one of TeamChild’s bright and compassionate attorneys dedicated to helping our youth live safe and happy lives. TeamChild provides legal advice and legal advocacy to people 12 to 24 years old who are involved with or at risk of involvement with the juvenile court system. They also have produced a comprehensive Education Advocacy Manual, which is free of charge and has helped many advocates and caregivers be better advocates for their child’s education.
At this time of national crisis, we must protect our children and youth, especially those most vulnerable due to racism, economic conditions, and disabilities.
TeamChild is an organization supporting youth in Washington state for twenty-five years. TeamChild is available to young people to help them figure out what barriers they are facing either before they are involved with juvenile court, or because of their current or past involvement. TeamChild’s long term goal is less court contact overall. Kids get referred sometimes from people who are connecting with them at school and seeing that there is some sort of problem. It doesn’t have to be a school-based problem. Sometimes kids don’t have a safe place to live, sometimes they’re trying to get other types of services in the community – maybe mental health treatment or some other treatment. They may be eligible for disability-related support. Sometimes they are denied a service that they feel like they should get. TeamChild tries to prioritize youth who already have some involvement with the courts, or where some things are happening to them to create a risk of court involvement. They may have been arrested and/or had police interrogations.
Karen explains that school discipline is one of the highest indicators of future court involvement. Even young people who have never been to court and have never been arrested are at high-risk of future court involvement if they are experiencing removals from school. This is especially true for a young person of color.
School defines a behavior as “bad,” including those for typical age-related behaviors. This often snowballs into other people seeing that behavior as bad, ultimately having police involved. We should ask questions instead of criminalizing behaviors. “What’s wrong? What’s in your way? What’s on your mind? What’s the burden that you’re carrying? What’s happening to you? What do you need?”
Karen says she actually feels more hopeful now. She feels that although society is slow to respond to the science explaining adolescent brain development, the stones of the path are being laid in front of us. She knows that it is hard to get people to walk on the stones even if they are right there. But Karen has hope that there can be more change and more progress on expanding the culture that resists the temptation to remove and to punish. She sees parenting trends are moving in the right direction on that. She hopes schools will be a natural follow-through of this parenting culture.
Karen feels society has changed a bit in recognizing the full humanity of young people and younger parents. Parents are more apt to engage their children in decision-making and dialogues about what they want for their own lives. She thinks that kind of culture will grow. This kind of thinking and acting can help minds move away from old-fashioned thinking about who has knowledge about what’s best for them, and who should be in charge. Karen hopes this leads to a change in determining what is the right response to suffering and to expanding people’s awareness of what suffering looks like.
A primary factor in reducing the school-to-prison pipeline is addressing the racial disparity harming students of color and understanding the role of white privilege.
Karen firmly asserts that as a country we need to learn and understand the white supremacy framework that builds our systems and perpetuates power, whether it is very conscious or very subtle or unconscious. There is a lot more knowledge and a lot more access to knowledge about it. There is definitely a movement in education in training teachers to confront white privilege and racism both to teach better and to teach the history of this country more accurately. Teachers need to understand that if you are in the dominant culture and you are teaching students who are not in the dominant culture, race is going to play a role in your classrooms. Cultural differences are particularly pronounced when white staff teaches students who are not white. This needs to be a continuing area of focus in schools. It also needs to be a continuing area of focus in the law, because the law is also based on a lot of white supremacist principles. Our nation’s big systems embrace a protocol of what it means to be exceptional, by producing a lot of work and by having certain types of knowledge. That doesn’t recognize other exceptional people, like people who have different types of knowledge or who don’t produce certain work at a certain pace, but produce other meaningful results in their own manner and their own time.
Karen states that issues underlying the school-to-prison pipeline are always embedded in racism. However, she has hope that we are making some progress with these conversations regarding race. Karen sees that we are making some progress in understanding gender. There is the ability in people to think beyond a binary perspective of gender. Karen sees that this helps us even in regard to race – it reminds us that humanity is broad and has a lot of diversity. Sometimes she has found white parents who can engage in gender diversity, becoming more open to engaging in racial understanding. When you start to understand that the world isn’t always “this way” in one way, you can then see that the world isn’t always “this way” in other ways. There is less rigidity and more open thinking. If you really drill down on the change we need in discipline and the change we need in our education system, it is understanding that the power of whiteness has held inequity together for so long.