Archive for the ‘JustChildren Local & Statewide Advocacy’ Category

Virginia Schools Need Support Staff, Not More Police

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Virginia Schools Need Investment in Support Staff—Not More School Resource Officers

Yesterday, Governor Northam announced over $3.47 million in School Resource Officer (SRO) incentive grants to 53 localities across the Commonwealth. The funding will allow school divisions to add more SROs to Virginia’s K-12 public schools, increasing the number of SROs in Virginia by 10 percent, according to the press release. To create safer schools where all children can learn and thrive, Virginia must divest from placing law enforcement inside schools and make bold new investments in school support staff and trauma-informed and restorative practices.

School Policing Is A Racial Justice Issue

African-American students are disproportionately swept into the criminal justice system for incidents that take place at school. A 2017 Virginia Tech study uncovered significant racial disparities in referrals to law enforcement for school-based offenses: African-American students accounted for roughly 23 percent of the student population in Virginia but nearly 50 percent of referrals to the juvenile justice system. Those disparities are heightened inside school buildings and persist throughout Virginia’s law enforcement and juvenile court process. A single report of a student to law enforcement, even if it does not lead to a juvenile court intake, can have devastating and ongoing consequences for a student: stigmatization by school staff and peers, erosion of trust in school staff, susceptibility to more police encounters, and loss of interest in school.

As outlined in an extensive report from The Advancement Project, school policing has roots in efforts to quash youth support for the Civil Rights movement, and African-American students report feeling less safe with police in schools.

Our Schools Don’t Need More SROs

According to Virginia’s 2017 Statewide School Safety Audit Survey, 87 percent of high schools and 85 percent of middle schools have either a full-time or part-time SRO. In recent years, in headline after headline, we have heard about school police officers responding with force against students with disabilities, using chemical restraints like pepper spray against middle school students, threatening or intimidating students, and harboring ties to white supremacist groups. Through data collection, we see vague, subjective behavioral “offenses” like disorderly conduct charges decrease in the community, yet substantially increase in our schools. Only this past General Assembly session did lawmakers mandate that all SROs receive training specific to their duties—a law that will not even go into effect in full until July 2020.    

Both the data and historically overpoliced communities themselves tell us clearly: rather than providing for the safety of students, a school law enforcement presence merely shuttles more students—and disproportionately more African-American students—into court for school discipline matters that should be handled by school personnel.

Meanwhile, Virginia understaffs positions critical to student support—positions that should be the first line of support for students who instead are garnering charges—and student caseloads are staggering. School counselors had an average caseload of 385 students in 2016, well above the recommended standard of 250 students. In 2015, school social workers had an average caseload of 1,600 students; the national recommendation was 1,000.

Virginia Must Fix Its School Funding Crisis

SROs are law enforcement officers, not student support personnel. Rather than prioritizing SROs, the Commonwealth must first fulfill its state constitutional duty to invest in high-quality, twenty-first century schools with adequate student support staff. But given the opportunity, the administration has neglected to propose, and the General Assembly has declined, over and over, to fully fund the required staffing positions to achieve high-quality schools for all students. Despite broad support for a new law, effective July 1, to require school divisions to lower counselor-to-student ratios, the state’s FY20 budget doesn’t fully fund the new caseload requirements—leaving local school divisions with an unfunded mandate. This shortfall also exists despite recommendations from the Virginia Board of Education to lift the state budget’s arbitrary “support position cap”—which limits funding for school support positions, including central office positions, attendance officers, school social workers, and maintenance personnel.

To truly create supportive learning enforcements for our students—Virginia must fully fund our schools.

 

 

 

Educate Every Child: A 2019 Legislative Snapshot

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Educate Every Child: A Snapshot of the 2019 Legislative Session

 

Our JustChildren program’s Educate Every Child campaign is one of our longest, most ambitious efforts; it seeks to fulfill the promise of our state Constitution to ensure a free, high-quality, public education to all children in the Commonwealth. Our policy work focuses on improving the critical attributes of such a system: equity, access, support, quality, opportunity, and sustainability, all of which create more justice for our clients and their families. We also specifically seek to redress the racial inequities that persist in our schools and to dismantle the effects of the racist laws and policies upon which our public K-12 education system was historically built.

During the 2019 General Assembly session, we reached some significant milestones in our ongoing work to increase support staff and decrease criminalization of students in Virginia’s public schools. As of the close of the regular session, we successfully championed the following:

Reducing School Counselor Caseloads

  • Partnering with The Commonwealth Institute for Fiscal Analysis, we helped secure an initial $12 million to seed a phase-in plan to reduce school counselor caseloads to the nationally recognized best practice of one counselor per 250 students (1:250), across school levels. We continue to advocate for a Governor’s budget amendment for the 2019 Reconvened Session to fully fund the Year One plan at $36 million, and will further advocate for the full three-year plan (or better) in the coming biennial budget for the 2020 session.

Increased Targeted Funding for Low-Income Students

Mandatory Training for School Resource Officers

  • As part of our yearlong effort to direct reinvigorated focus on “school safety” towards prevention and positive supports to students, we successfully advanced bills and policy initiatives through the House Select Committee on School Safety, the Governor’s School Safety workgroup within the Children’s Cabinet, and the Virginia Commission on Youth to require all School Resource Officers (SROs) to be trained to meet minimum certification and re-certification standards established by the Department of Criminal Justice Services. We’ll continue working with DCJS to ensure those standards include training in topics like working with students with disabilities, cultural competency, the mental health needs of students, child and adolescent development, and mediation and de-escalation skills. We were also able to limit additional funding for SROs to existing positions—no small feat in an era when more law enforcement is a popular response to school safety concerns.

Mandatory MOUs for Cops in Schools

  • Within that same “school safety” work with the relevant committees, we successfully advanced a legislative policy initiative to require Memorandums of Understanding (MOUs) between local school divisions and local law enforcement whenever SROs are placed in schools, in an effort to define and refine the scope of police duties and actions in the school environment. SROs should not be responsible for or reacting to school discipline matters. These bills emerged from the House Select Committee on School Safety through our yearlong effort to shape that committee’s focus and agenda.

Increased Transparency & Accountability in Disciplinary Alternative Education

While successes like the ones listed above might seem to become fully assembled over the course of one legislative session, the behind-the-scenes story unfolds over a much longer timeline. Our advocacy to improve support staff in schools, for example, measures itself in decades.

Most recently, last year during the 2018 legislative session, in partnership with Sen. Jennifer McClellan, we brought the most recent recommendations from the Virginia Board of Education to fully fund the Virginia Standards of Quality to the General Assembly, in the form of several budget amendments designed to eliminate the arbitrary decade-old cap on school support staff and assure that students had adequate access to school counselors, psychologists, social workers, and nurses. The presentation of those amendments in committee helped once again put the General Assembly on notice that our public K-12 system is radically underfunded, and that the Commonwealth is not fulfilling its constitutional duty to provide high-quality education to Virginia students.

We then leveraged the awareness we raised during the 2018 session into both broad-based and targeted advocacy within the various school safety committees and workgroups over the past year, to again demand adequate school funding for K-12—especially for economically disadvantaged students, this time zeroing in on school counselors and the At-Risk Add-On funding as priority measures. Among our efforts:

  • In July 2018, we authored a letter to the House Select Committee on School Safety, the Governor and the Children’s Cabinet, and the Virginia Commission on Youth outlining detailed policy recommendations for improving school safety in Virginia schools, with proposals including: increasing school counselors, improving SRO training, and requiring MOUs when using law enforcement in schools. We secured more than 25 organizational co-signers to the letter, and many of our recommendations became a part of each of these group’s final school safety platform.
  • In August 2018, with The Commonwealth Institute for Fiscal Analysis, we released a report, “Investing in Student Safety and Success: The Growing Importance of Effective Staffing in Virginia Schools,” which outlined the multi-faceted need for support staff in our schools.
  • In November 2018, we hosted a Legislative Listening Session for current school counselors to share their experiences and recommendations directly with legislators. The event was held at ART180, in the midst of an art installation created primarily by current or formerly incarcerated students entitled “Lift Us Up, Don’t Push Us Out.”
  • Prior to and during the 2019 legislative session, we helped several legislators and Gov. Northam’s administration to draft the successful legislation that will expand SRO training and provide for the statewide use of rigorous MOUs between schools and law enforcement. We successfully advocated for the inclusion of the Department of Criminal Justice Services model MOU as a framework with which the local agreements must align. We worked diligently on this DCJS model as it was developed in 2015-2016, based in large part on our own model school/law MOU within our 2016 report on school policing, which adheres to best practices and a student-centered, trauma-informed approach. 

The road to equity, access, support, quality, opportunity, and sustainability for Virginia’s schools is a highway, not a cul-de-sac. Even with these victories, our work will continue—into the coming legislative sessions, within administrative agencies, in conversation with the media, in collaboration with our organizational coalitions (which commonly include groups like The Commonwealth Institute For Fiscal Analysis and the Virginia School Counselors Association), and—most importantly and urgently—in partnership with affected communities. We will continue to prioritize racial equity and an anti-racist agenda in our policy advocacy and partnerships. And we will continue to use data to help tell the policy stories necessary to effect change. This post maps only two years’ worth of our commitment to demanding that Virginia fulfil its constitutional duty to assure every child receives a high-quality public education; the successes detailed here grow out of two decades of JustChildren’s efforts, and serves only as a mile-marker in our ongoing work. We’re grateful to our partners and the children, families, and communities we represent—building this path will take every one of us together.

To stay up-to-date on our Educate Every Child and school funding campaigns, please sign up for our alerts here.

 

 

Response to RTD Editorial on Students w/ Autism

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FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

CONTACT:
Rachael Deane
Legal Director, JustChildren Program, Legal Aid Justice Center
804-521-7304 | rachael@justice4all.org

Legal Aid Justice Center Responds to Richmond Times-Dispatch Editorial on Students with Autism

Richmond, Virginia (November 30, 2018) – In response to the recent Richmond Times-Dispatch editorial on children with autism, the Legal Aid Justice Center makes the following statement:

The Richmond Times-Dispatch editorial, “Bring more light to decisions about autism and the classroom,” evokes a much darker time in Virginia’s history: when we routinely separated children with disabilities from their families and peers and placed them in institutions. Whether they were called orphanages, state hospitals, or group homes, these facilities segregated and secluded children with disabilities, offered little education, and were breeding grounds for physical and emotional abuse. Prior to the enactment of the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (now the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA) in 1975, millions of children with disabilities in the United States had no access to public education, and unsafe institutions were the norm.

Provision of a public education to children with autism is not “special treatment”—it’s the law. The IDEA and its progeny of court cases guarantee children with disabilities the right to receive a free, public education tailored to their individual needs. The IDEA requires public schools to educate children with disabilities in the least restrictive environment: to the maximum extent possible, these children must be educated alongside other children without disabilities. The law recognizes that all children benefit when they learn in an integrated, diverse environment.

Children with autism—like all children—are not a monolithic population, nor are the behaviors associated with autism categorically disruptive or indicative of the need for removal from a classroom. And the notion that classrooms are ever pristinely “free from interruption” such that students with autism or other disabilities are exacting a cost on others is a harmful myth. Children can be disruptive in classrooms for a variety of reasons that run the gamut from hunger to trauma to academic frustration to just a simple bad mood. As we noted in our Suspended Progress 2018 report, exclusionary discipline—using access to education as a form of punishment—is harmful and self-defeating. The Virginia Department of Education and many local school divisions are rightly turning to root-cause disciplinary interventions, recognizing that behavior is a symptom, and that student accountability doesn’t have to mean punishment or exclusion. They should be commended for taking this research-driven, goal-oriented direction—which does include methods such as restorative practices, an optional tool that many divisions already implement with great success.

Budgetary stress in Virginia’s public schools is not the fault of children with autism or any other child who enters the schoolhouse with unique educational needs. Instead, we have only ourselves to blame. Virginia’s schools have been strapped for cash for decades, while student needs and the Commonwealth’s performance expectations continue to increase. In 2009, the General Assembly slashed funding for school support positions by implementing an arbitrary cap on the amount of state dollars that go toward funding school counselors, psychologists, social workers, and other vital positions. The Virginia Board of Education has recommended more than one billion dollars per biennium in additional funding just to meet minimum educational standards for all children, whether they come to school with disabilities or not.

Compassion and understanding are not zero-sum goals. Education is not a gift we choose to bestow upon children with autism if we decide the “tradeoffs” are worth it. And we are not mainstreaming students with disabilities by assuring their access to education in the least restrictive environment. Students with disabilities—including autism—are the mainstream, as are other children with unique educational needs—like economically disadvantaged students, English Learners, and students dealing with trauma. Every child in our schools is brimming with potential, with so much to teach one another.   

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The Legal Aid Justice Center (LAJC) fights injustice in the lives of individual Virginians while rooting out exploitative policies and practices that keep people in poverty. LAJC uses impact litigation, community organizing, and policy advocacy to solve urgent problems in areas such as housing, education, worker’s rights, civil rights, immigration, healthcare and consumer finance.

Follow us on Twitter @LegalAidJustice and find us on Facebook.

New Report on Virginia’s School Discipline Crisis

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FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE                                                                                                                                      

CONTACT:
Amy Woolard
Attorney and Policy Coordinator, Legal Aid Justice Center
434-529-1846 | amy@justice4all.org

New Report: Virginia’s School Discipline Crisis—Racial Disparities Widened in 2016-17; Suspended Students Across the Commonwealth Received Inadequate (or No) Education While Out of School

Charlottesville, Virginia (October 25, 2018) – Virginia schools continued to use school exclusion as a consequence for student behavioral concerns at an alarming rate during the 2016-17 academic year—an ongoing crisis that harms Black students and students with disabilities most profoundly.   

A 2018 update to the Legal Aid Justice Center’s Suspended Progress report series reveals that, during the 2016-17 school year, Virginia schools issued over 127,800 out-of-school suspensions to over 73,000 students, marking an increase over the prior year in the number of students in the Commonwealth subjected to exclusionary discipline.

In this update to Suspended Progress, the Legal Aid Justice Center finds that:

  • Black students were suspended at rates 5 times higher than Hispanic and white students, a significantly wider gap over the prior year;
  • Students with disabilities were suspended at rates 3 times higher than that of non-disabled students;
  • Virginia schools continued to suspend very young students at an astonishing rate, issuing nearly 18,000 short-term suspensions and at least 111 long-term suspensions just to children in pre-k through 3rd grade—a marked increase over the 2015-16 year;
  • Once again, the vast majority of all suspensions were issued for minor offenses, with approximately two-thirds of all suspensions issued for behavior offenses like: possession of cell phones, minor insubordination, disrespect, and using inappropriate language; and
  • Students excluded from their home school—if they continue to receive education at all—are often funneled into inadequate alternative programs that operate without accountability to academic goals or the Commonwealth’s high educational standards.

“Too often in Virginia schools, we use ‘suspension’ and ‘accountability’ as synonyms,” said Amy Woolard, Legal Aid Justice Center attorney and author of the report. “When students exhibit behavioral issues, we can and should look to alternatives to school exclusion that can hold students accountable if needed, while also continuing their education and addressing underlying needs, such as physical and mental health supports, trauma-informed care, disability services, and mentoring.”

The report points to proven alternatives to school exclusion that keep students connected to academics and provide tailored interventions when needed. Those trauma-informed alternatives include restorative practices, multi-tiered systems of supports, and Social and Emotional Learning programs as positive steps local schools can implement in lieu of exclusion.

The Legal Aid Justice Center’s report provides policymakers with immediate steps to take during the 2019 General Assembly session to continue their work in pushing forward on positive reforms of the disciplinary system. It also offers local school boards and communities a framework for ensuring student codes of conduct promote positive school climate and keep students on track toward graduation—all of which, in turn, increases school safety for students and school staff alike.

“We must address our constitutional duty to provide a high-quality public education to all students, and particularly to Black students and students with disabilities, who have been bearing the devastating brunt of school exclusion practices for far too long,” said Woolard. “Our response to behavioral issues cannot continue to drive students out of the classroom and away from the positive connections and critical supports they need to thrive and successfully reach graduation.”

To read the report, visit: www.justice4all.org/suspension.

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About the Legal Aid Justice Center
The Legal Aid Justice Center (LAJC) fights injustice in the lives of individual Virginians while rooting out exploitative policies and practices that keep people in poverty. LAJC uses impact litigation, community organizing, and policy advocacy to solve urgent problems in areas such as housing, education, civil rights, immigration, healthcare and consumer finance. LAJC’s primary service areas are Charlottesville, Northern Virginia, Richmond and Petersburg, but the effects of their work are felt statewide.

Follow the Legal Aid Justice Center on Twitter @LegalAidJustice and on Facebook.

 

School Safety Requires Student Supports

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FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE 

CONTACT:
Rachael Deane
Legal Director, JustChildren Program, Legal Aid Justice Center
804-521-7304 | rachael@justice4all.org

Richmond, Virginia (July 6, 2018) – In advance of the July 11 meeting of the Virginia House Select Committee on School Safety, the Legal Aid Justice Center and 23 advocacy organizations are calling upon the General Assembly and Governor Northam to address the Commonwealth’s school safety concerns by investing in supports and services to meet the needs and improve the health and welfare of students well before behavior reaches a point of violence. Rather than looking toward “hardening” our schools, Virginia policymakers must prioritize supporting and strengthening our students.

In a letter today to the House Select Committee on School Safety, which was also delivered to members of the House Appropriations Committee and Governor Northam, LAJC and its partner organizations offered detailed recommendations around four main school safety policies:

  • Increasing school support staff, such as school counselors and nurses;
  • Improving school policing accountability through tailored, mandated training for school resource officers on working with children and youth;
  • Investing in positive school discipline and school climate programs and methods, such as restorative practices; and
  • Broadening the accessibility of supports and services under relevant funding streams, such as the Children’s Services Act.

“Rather than focusing solely on what makes school buildings more secure, policymakers should be asking what makes our students safer, healthier, and more connected to their education, and we already know many of the answers,” said Rachael Deane, Legal Director of the JustChildren Program of the Legal Aid Justice Center. “School counselors, nurses, psychologists, and other support staff play an irreplaceable role in students’ overall well-being. It’s time to lift the state’s funding cap on these positions and to invest in prevention, positive intervention, mental health, and trauma-informed supports. These approaches dramatically improve safety not just for students, but also for teachers, staff, and communities as a whole.”

 

2018 Legislative Session Wrap Up

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The 2018 Virginia legislative regular session came to a close this month on March 10, but reached its conclusion without the General Assembly passing a biennial budget for 2018-2020.  The main issue preventing agreement on the budget was whether or not Virginia will opt into federal funding to expand our Medicaid program to cover the three to four hundred thousand uninsured Virginians living in poverty who are currently ineligible for any affordable quality health plan. While Governor Northam and a majority of the House of Delegates agreed on a plan to move forward with expanding coverage, Senate Republicans did not, and the budget bills did not move forward.

Still, Virginia can only operate with an approved budget, so Governor Northam has called a Special Session for April 11th, at which point legislators will return to Richmond and try again to come to an agreement on funding priorities. LAJC continues to unequivocally support expanding Medicaid (or a sincerely similar plan) to ensure health care coverage access for the 400,000 Virginians who are cut off from being able to access critical basic care. We are members of the Healthcare for All Virginians coalition, and stand in support with the coalition’s work.

The Reconvened or “Veto” session is scheduled for April 18th, at which point the General Assembly will deal with any amendments to bills from the Governor and other matters. Below you’ll find some highlights of our legislative session work:

Educate Every Child:
SB 170 (Stanley): Our effort to dramatically curb suspensions of young students in grades pre-K through third grade is on its way to Governor Northam’s desk, coming out of both the Senate and House on very strong votes. The bill caps most all suspensions of children in these grades at no more than three days. During the 2015-2016 school year, Virginia schools doled out more than 17,300 suspensions just in these early years. We’re grateful to our bipartisan patrons and champions, especially Senators Stanley, McClellan, Locke, and Dunnavant for their strong advocacy.
 
HB1600 (Bourne) is also awaiting Governor Northam’s pen, passing out of the legislature on similarly strong votes. This bipartisan bill, chief co-patroned by Del. Dickie Bell, narrows the length of most all long-term suspensions to a period of 11-45 days, down from its current span of 11-364 days, in an effort to reduce school pushout.
 
Read more on the data and policy behind these bills in our Suspended Progress 2017 report released last September. Also stay tuned for more analysis of implementing these new laws, via practice advisories and follow-up reporting in the next edition of Suspended Progress.
 
K-12 Budget Amendments: Like everyone in the Commonwealth, we’re eager to see the biennial budget process resolved. If the legislature approves a plan to accept federal funding to increase health care access, we anticipate at least some of those savings to be invested in K-12 education. Both the House and Senate have indicated their interest in directing some funds toward students and teachers, though their respective approaches differ. We’ve advocated for increases in the funding stream directed towards economically disadvantaged students (the “At-Risk Add-on”) and funds for schools to implement alternatives to suspensions and expulsions. We’ll update you all after the Special Session to outline how the agreement is to unfold for K-12.

Juvenile Justice:
We’ve been working to protect investments in home- and community-based alternatives to incarceration for youth, supporting efforts to keep youth out of incarceration. Through our partnership in the RISE for Youth coalition, we’ve been working hard to push back against legislative efforts to unnecessarily construct new, large youth prisons that we know hurt youth and families. Stay tuned for our budget result analysis in this area, as well.

Protect Civil Rights and Decriminalize Poverty:
One in six drivers in Virginia has their license suspended for unpaid court fines and fees—an unfair, automatic process that keeps many people in a cycle of debt, unemployment, and further criminal charges. We worked hard to champion SB 181 (Stanley), a bill that would’ve repealed this suspension statute and helped dismantle the Commonwealth’s debtors’ prison model that our code enables. The bill performed strongly in the Senate, reporting out of a challenging Courts committee, an often insurmountable Finance committee, and the Senate floor before crossing over into House Appropriations, where it was ultimately struck down on a 5(Rs) – 3(Ds) party line vote. We increasingly built strong bipartisan legislative and media support for the bill before and over the course of the session, and have already begun plans to bring it back next year.

Support Immigrant Communities:
LAJC partnered with VACOLAO on priorities to ensure that immigrant communities have equal treatment, equal opportunities, and equal representation in the Commonwealth, including: driver’s license/permit access for all immigrant Virginians and in-state tuition access for immigrant Virginia students regardless of legal status. Unfortunately, despite fervent advocacy and inspirational positive turnout at committee hearings, these bills were voted down along party lines. We will continue to advocate on these and other immigration issues, to grow bipartisan support for these critical human and civil rights efforts.

To become involved with our legislative advocacy, please contact LAJC Attorney and Policy Coordinator Amy Woolard at amy@justice4all.org. You can also sign up for email alerts on our website here

RISE Coordinator Valarie Slater Wins Fellowship

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FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

CONTACT:
Rachael Deane
Legal Director, JustChildren Program, Legal Aid Justice Center
804-521-7304 | rachael@justice4all.org

LOCAL ADVOCATE WINS PRESTIGIOUS FELLOWSHIP IN YOUTH JUSTICE
Fellowship Supports Juvenile Justice Reform Advocates of Color

Richmond, Va., September 29, 2017 —Valerie Slater, attorney and RISE for Youth coalition coordinator at the Legal Aid Justice Center, has been has been chosen as a fellow in the Youth Justice Leadership Institute. The Institute is a prestigious national fellowship program for juvenile justice reform advocates run by the National Juvenile Justice Network (NJJN) in Washington, DC. Applications to the year-long leadership development program are competitive, and only ten people are selected each year.

Ms. Slater coordinates the Reinvest in Supportive Environments (RISE) for Youth coalition, a statewide, nonpartisan campaign coalition with the central goal of developing community-based alternatives to youth incarceration.  She is a former staff attorney at the disAbility Law Center of Virginia and a graduate of the University of Richmond School of Law, where she participated in the school’s Children’s Defense and Education Rights clinics.

“Valerie is an exceptional leader who amplifies the voices of youth and communities of color to reform Virginia’s juvenile justice system,” said Rachael Deane, the legal director of the JustChildren program at Legal Aid Justice Center. “This fellowship will enhance the work of the RISE Coalition to demand alternatives to incarcerating youth in Virginia.”

“Youth justice can only be equitable when affected youth and families are a part of shaping what that system of justice looks like,” said Valerie Slater. “Overwhelmingly, impacted youth and families are people of color. I am honored to have this opportunity to grow as a leader as we work to tear down barriers and build opportunities for impacted communities to assert their power to help transform juvenile justice in Virginia.”

Although communities of color are heavily impacted by juvenile justice policy, advocates of color are surprisingly underrepresented in advocacy leadership. The Youth Justice Leadership Institute seeks to address this imbalance by offering fellowships to develop the leadership and advocacy skills of people of color who are in the youth justice field. During the year-long program, Institute fellows increase their knowledge about the juvenile justice system’s structures, reform needs, and effective advocacy and organizing techniques to achieve system change. They are also matched with experienced advocates, who mentor them over the course of the year. 

Photos, videos, and more information about the Institute and previous fellows can be found here: http://bit.ly/uMuJ9q

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The Legal Aid Justice Center (LAJC) fights injustice in the lives of individual Virginians while rooting out exploitative policies and practices that keep people in poverty. LAJC uses impact litigation, community organizing, and policy advocacy to solve urgent problems in areas such as housing, education, civil rights, immigration, healthcare and consumer finance. LAJC’s primary service areas are Charlottesville, Northern Virginia, Richmond and Petersburg, but the effects of their work are felt statewide.

RISE for Youth is a statewide, nonpartisan campaign coalition whose central goal is to develop a continuum of community-based alternatives to incarceration that will keep juvenile justice system involved youth closer to their homes and support networks while making our communities safer.

The National Juvenile Justice Network is composed of coalitions, organizations and alumni of the Youth Justice Leadership Institute across 34 states and the District of Columbia, all of whom advocate for a fairer justice system for children and teens.

New Report: Suspension & Expulsion in Virginia

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Sad studentVirginia schools have a crisis on their hands. Waves of students are being pushed out of school though the widespread, discriminatory overuse of suspension and expulsion.

Suspended Progress, a new report released today by the JustChildren Program of the Legal Aid Justice Center reveals that, last school year, Virginia schools issued over 126,000 out-of-school suspensions to approximately 70,000 students. The report details disturbing findings from the 2014-15 school year, including:

  • One-fifth of all suspensions were issued to pre-kindergarten and elementary school students;
  • The majority of suspensions were for relatively minor, non-violent, subjective misbehavior like “disruption,” “defiance,” and “disrespect;”
  • African American students and students with disabilities were suspended at hugely disparate rates; and
  • Statewide suspension rates flattened out after years of steady progress.

“Suspension hurts everyone. Suspended students are at a significantly greater risk of academic failure, dropping out, and becoming involved in the justice system,” said Angela Ciolfi, JustChildren’s Legal Director and co-author of the report. “Worse yet, suspension damages school climate, public safety, and the economy.” The U.S. Departments of Education and Justice have been pushing states across the country to reduce school exclusion, and many states have made tremendous strides in limiting the use of suspension and expulsion, investing in prevention and alternatives, and holding districts accountable.

JustChildren’s report also provides information about proven behavioral interventions and alternatives to suspension and expulsion, including MyTeachingPartner, social and emotional learning, multi-tiered systems of support, threat assessments, and restorative practices. These programs and frameworks have been shown to both improve school safety and climate and reduce suspensions and disparities. “What’s so sad is that we know what works,” said Jason Langberg, a JustChildren attorney and co-author of the report. “We just haven’t had the political will to abandon the failed ‘zero tolerance’ mentality and to begin providing educators with the resources they need to ensure schools are safe and supportive.”

The report concludes with common sense recommendations for lawmakers and policymakers. JustChildren calls upon the General Assembly, Virginia Board of Education, and local school board members to act with a sense of urgency in promoting positive school climate and keeping students in school and on a path toward graduation and success in adulthood.

Press Release

Report

For more information, contact Angela Ciolfi at (434) 529-1810 or angela@justice4all.org.

JustChildren Releases School Policing Report

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Protecting Childhood: A Blueprint for Developmentally Appropriate School Policing in Virginia

The JustChildren Program at the Legal Aid Justice Center has released a report identifying the problems of placing law enforcement officers in schools. The report provides a list of detailed recommendations that will improve school safety, increase academic achievement, and help break down the school-to-prison pipeline.

School security personnel are increasingly commonplace in Virginia’s public schools. There are two types. School resource officers (SROs) are certified law enforcement officers who are typically employed by local law enforcement agencies and assigned to provide coverage to public schools. School security officers (SSOs) are individuals employed by school divisions to maintain order and discipline in their assigned schools. To date, little analysis of school policing in the Commonwealth exists. This report aims to change that.

More info here.

Report says Virginia should require school police training and alter laws to reduce arrests (Center for Public Integrity)

Full Report (PDF)

 

Victory for Bill to Limit Restraint & Seclusion!

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The Legal Aid Justice Center was part of a coalition of 40 groups from across the state representing parents, children, students, advocates for people with disabilities, child abuse prevention advocates and legal advocates applauds the Virginia General Assembly for passing legislation that will limit the harmful use of seclusion and physical restraint in schools to emergency situations. The Coalition for the Improvement of School Safety advocated in support of H.B. 1443 and S.B. 782, which passed with overwhelming support from both houses and is expected to land on the desk of Gov. Terry McAuliffe soon.

“We are proud to have joined with our partners to support this legislation, which will provide meaningful protections to Virginia students and give school staff the tools they need to prevent and address challenging behaviors,” said Angela A. Ciolfi, legal director of the JustChildren Program at Virginia’s Legal Aid Justice Center. “Physical restraint and seclusion should never be a default form of school discipline.”

Resources

Press Release (PDF)

Media Coverage

 

The Roanoke Times, “Stories of trauma in Virginia prompt crackdown on seclusion rooms”

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