Tuesday, October 13, 2015
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School to Prison Pipeline

The US Would Save $$$ by Helping Disadvantaged Kids…Disparate School Discipline….California Endowment’s Robert Ross on Justice Reform…and the Struggles of an Understaffed Juvie Lock-Up

July 31st, 2015 by Taylor Walker


A new White House Council of Economic Advisers report shows that it is much more expensive not to tear down the school-to-prison pipeline, lower incarceration rates, and ensure boys and young men of color have the same opportunities to succeed as their white peers.

While black kids represent 18% of the preschool population, they make up 48% of preschoolers who have received two or more out-of-school suspension. Those disparities certainly don’t get any better as kids get older, either. There were 875,000 kids arrested in 2013, the majority of them racial minorities.

Despite similar rates of marijuana use, black people are four times as likely as white people to be arrested for marijuana possession.

The White House report points out that we spend around $112,000 on incarcerating a kid for a year, in comparison to $23,000-$31,000 for a year of college, $13,000 for K-12 public school, and around $1,300 for a major mentoring program like Big Brothers Big Sisters or One Summer Plus.

There are disparities in higher education achievement as well. Only 12.4% of Latino men and 20.8% of black men ages 25-29 have a college degree, compared to 37.7% of white men of the same age.

If we closed the higher education gap between men of color and white men ages 25-64, the number of men of color with a bachelor’s degree (or higher) would double, and they would earn around $170 billion more per year.

The report says that intervention at these milestone life changes are crucial to close the gaps:

• Entering school ready to learn
• Reading at grade level by third grade
• Graduating high school ready for career and college
• Completing post-secondary education and training
• Successfully entering the workforce
• Reducing violence and providing a second chance


Black kids often receive suspensions, expulsions, or justice system referrals, while white kids receive medical treatment for the same offenses, according to a Penn State study.

The study, published in the Sociology of Education, used data from 60,000 schools in 6,000 schools districts.

The Daily Beast’s Abby Haglage has more on the report (which is behind a paywall). Here’s a clip:

David Ramey—assistant professor of sociology and criminology at Penn State and the author of the study—has spent years researching how sociological factors affect schools’ modes of punishment. Even when the level of misbehavior is the same, he says, the treatment is not. “White kids tend to get viewed as having ADHD, or having some sort of behavioral problem,” he says. “Black kids are viewed as being unruly and unwilling to learn.”

Ramey is clear about the distinction between the two disciplinary styles. Criminalized discipline revolves around penalizing the student, using concrete things like suspension, expulsion, or referral to law enforcement. Medicalized is distinctly more benign, searching for solutions through medical attention or psychological intervention.

The deeper implications of Ramey’s results are troubling. Misbehavior from black students is seen as a crime that warrants punishment; misbehavior from whites is a malady that needs medicine.

The American Civil Liberties Union refers to this issue as the “school-to-prison-pipeline” (STTP): “a nationwide system of local, state, and federal education and public safety policies that pushes students out of school and into the criminal justice system.” Dwindling resources, pressure to bring in high test scores, and increased caution from school shootings are all cited as contributing factors.


In an op-ed for the Huffington Post, California Endowment President Robert Ross applauds President Barack Obama’s recently heightened focus on shifting the nation away from punitive and costly mass incarceration, moving instead toward a prevention and opportunity mindset. Ross highlights the progress California has made toward meaningful criminal justice reform, including passing Prop 47 (which reclassified certain non-serious felonies as misdemeanors), and implementing restorative justice in schools that were funneling kids into the juvenile justice system. Here’s a clip:

We worked with young leaders to address the fact that, for many of our young people, their criminalization begins as early as elementary school. Rather than asking why our students are acting out, they are being pushed out of school and police are being called in to deal with things such as talking back to teachers.

Through our grantees’ efforts, more schools in California are now adopting positive school discipline–giving students the opportunity to reconcile their mistakes–rather than pushing students out of schools and into the juvenile justice system.

Not only do our policies reflect prioritization of punishment over prevention, but so does our state spending. In California, we spend $62,300 a year to keep one inmate in prison but just $9,100 per year to educate one student in our public schools, one of many statistics we highlighted through our Do The Math campaign.

Realizing this contradiction, California voters decided to shift spending priorities towards prevention by passing Proposition 47, the Safe Neighborhoods and Schools Act, which gives Californians a second chance at opportunity by lowering some non-violent offenses to misdemeanors rather than felonies and shifts up to $1 billion dollars every year toward community health programs.

These efforts will help turn the tide on our prison population, which has grown 430 percent nationally since 1970. At the same time that we seek to break the school-to-prison pipeline, we cannot forget those who have ended up in prison.

One of the most moving things we did last year was visit one of our prisons here in California, to be able to hear from incarcerated people about the type of opportunities they’d like while behind bars to prepare them to best re-enter their lives and communities.

What we heard is they’d like to further their education, be offered opportunities to heal from intense trauma, and have more communication with their families.

We applaud President Obama for visiting El Reno Correctional Institution and we encourage more of our national leaders to do the same. And to take time listening to our youth, you’d be surprised how much information they’ll share about the type of opportunities and future they’d like us to build for them, but it’s up to us to act on that information.


Brett Myers of of NPR’s Youth Radio visited a juvenile detention facility in San Leandro, CA, that’s struggling to maintain their reputation as a model juvenile facility to due to severe understaffing. Even though they watch over a smaller population of kids than the facility housed around 2010, guards are doing double the amount of overtime they did five years ago, and the kids are paying the price. Use-of-force incidents have tripled, and kids are spending more time in their cells missing out on recreation time.

Myers’ story is part of a series on juvenile justice. (On Thursday, WLA pointed to two stories on juvenile probation that are also from this series.)

Here’s a clip from the write up of the radio show:

According to county records obtained by Youth Radio, guards used pepper spray 147 times last year. The kicker: 90 percent of state-run juvenile correctional agencies don’t allow guards to carry pepper spray. But here, with guards working an average of 30 hours of overtime per week, there has been an increase in the use of force on juvenile inmates — like guards performing takedowns or handcuffing inmates. The department calls these acts “use of physical and mechanical restraints,” and that number nearly tripled in the past five years…

Supervisor Ray Colon has been working for Alameda County Juvenile Hall for 25 years.

“You’ve got a couple of staff watching a number of kids, and things happen,” he says.

During waking hours, the state mandates a minimum of one guard for every 10 kids in detention.

When they’re short on guards, supervisors sometimes run what they call split recs — basically dividing recreation, exercise and dinner time in half. Fifteen kids come out while the other 15 remain in their cells.

“The kids don’t always get the services they should get because we’re running short. They spend more time in their room, which is unfortunate, but it’s the reality of not having the staff to complete the duties we need to do,” Colon says.

Malik, 18, spent more than four months incarcerated in Alameda County Juvenile Hall. He says when young people are locked in their cells, tensions flare.

“Man, more fights, more attitudes. Kicking and banging — it’s just angry. They want to be out of their rooms. That’s why I used to kick and bang,” he says. “If I know that I have a guaranteed hour of PE each day no matter what, I’m going to be angry if I can’t get that.”

Posted in Education, juvenile justice, Obama, racial justice, Rehabilitation, Restorative Justice, School to Prison Pipeline | 5 Comments »

A Ride Home, Fresno’s Restorative Justice, $$ Spent on Misconduct in Biggest Police Departments, and Obama Visits Prison

July 17th, 2015 by Taylor Walker


Carlos Cervantes and Roby So, members of the Anti-Recidivism Coalition (ARC), pick up men newly released former third-strikers from prison to help them through their often overwhelming first day on the outside.

Through their Ride Home Program, Carlos and Roby, who spent 11 and 12 years in prison themselves, often travel hours to meet people exiting prison, to help them acclimate and bring them up-to-date on what they missed while they were locked up.

When men and women come out of lock-up, they are often given just $200 to start over with, and if they don’t have family waiting to meet them, they have to navigate the unfamiliar alone.

NY Times’ Jon Mooallem has a great longread (and documentary video) on Carlos and Roby and their Ride Home program. Here are some clips:

Unlike typical parolees, third-strikers are often notified of their release just before it happens, sometimes only a day in advance. (It can take months for a judge to rule after papers are filed.) They’re usually sent out the door with $200, a not-insubstantial share of which they often pay back to the prison for a lift to the nearest Greyhound station: An inmate might be released from a prison outside Sacramento and expected to find his way to a parole officer in San Diego, 500 miles away, within 48 hours. Stanford’s Three Strikes Project was setting up transitional housing for its clients, but initially, a lot of the third-strikers weren’t making it there — they were just blowing away in the wind. Then, Carlos and Roby started driving around the state and waiting outside to catch them.

The job started as a simple delivery service, to carry some of these discombobulated bodies from one place to another. In late 2013, the director of the Three Strikes Project, Michael Romano, contacted a nonprofit called the Anti-Recidivism Coalition, which has built up a close community of formerly incarcerated people in Los Angeles. (Romano, who is also an A.R.C. board member, is a friend of mine.) Romano asked if A.R.C. could dispatch one of its members to pick up third-strikers and drive them to their housing near the Staples Center in Los Angeles. A.R.C. recommended Carlos, a dependable young man just three years out of prison himself, who — most important — also had his own car and a credit card to front money for gas. Carlos was hired, for $12 an hour, to fetch an old man named Terry Critton from a prison in Chino. On the way back, Critton asked if Carlos wouldn’t mind stopping at Amoeba Records, so he could look at jazz LPs — he’d been a big collector. They wound up spending almost two hours in the store, just looking. Then, Critton wanted a patty melt, so Carlos found a place called Flooky’s, where they ordered two and caught the end of a Dodgers game. It was extraordinary: All day, Carlos could see this man coming back to life. He wanted to do more pickups, and he wanted to get his friend Roby involved. He told his bosses he needed a partner.

By now, Carlos and Roby — officially, A.R.C.’s Ride Home Program — have done about three dozen pickups, either together or individually, waking up long before dawn and driving for hours toward prison towns deep in the desert or up the coast. Then they spend all day with the guy (so far they’ve picked up only men), taking him to eat, buying him some clothes, advising him, swapping stories, dialing his family on their cellphones or astonishing him by magically calling up Facebook pictures of nieces and nephews he’s never met — or just sitting quietly, to let him depressurize. The conversation with those shellshocked total strangers doesn’t always flow, Roby told me. It helps to have a wingman.

‘‘The first day is everything,’’ Carlos says — a barrage of insignificant-seeming experiences with potentially big consequences. Consider, for example, a friend of his and Roby’s: Julio Acosta, who was paroled in 2013 after 23 years inside. Acosta describes stopping for breakfast near the prison that first morning as if it were a horrifying fever dream: He kept looking around the restaurant for a sniper, as in the chow hall in prison, and couldn’t stop gawking at the metal knives and forks, ‘‘like an Aztec looking at Cortez’s helmet,’’ he says. It wasn’t until he got up from the booth and walked to the men’s room, and a man came out the door and said, ‘‘How you doin’?’’ and Acosta said, ‘‘Fine,’’ that Acosta began to feel, even slightly, like a legitimate part of the environment around him. He’d accomplished something. He’d made a treacherous trip across an International House of Pancakes. He’d peed.

But what if Acosta had accidentally bumped into a waitress, knocking over her tray and shattering dishes? What if that man had glared at him, instead of greeting him, or snapped at him to get the hell out of the way? Ann Jacobs, director of the Prisoner Re-entry Institute at New York’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice, told me that even the smallest bungled interactions on the outside leave recently incarcerated people feeling ‘‘like they’re being exposed, like they’re incompetent. It’s feeding into their worst fear, their perception of themselves as an impostor who’s incapable of living a normal life.’’ Carlos and Roby have learned to steer their guys through that perilous newness — and to be nonchalant about it, to make the sudden enormity of life feel unthreatening, even fun. On one ride home earlier this year, I watched a third-striker venture inside a convenience store, alone, to buy a candy bar while Roby pumped gas. The man seemed emboldened after a few hours of freedom, actually hopping a bit as he walked. But then he tripped over the curb and tumbled forward, arms thrashing, nearly face-planting in front of the door. Roby just shrugged and said, ‘‘Well, you’ve got to get that one out of the way.’’

‘‘Been a long time since I looked at a menu,’’ Dale Hammock said. He was sheltered in a corner of a booth at a Denny’s near the prison. The restaurant was overcrowded, loud and full of the kind of hyperdifferentiated nonsense that ordinary Americans swim through every day, never assuming it can or should be fully understood. But Hammock was having trouble sorting the breakfast menu from the lunch menu, and the regular Denny’s menu from the Denny’s Skillets Across America limited-time menu. There were two kinds of hot sauce and four different sweeteners on the table. On the Heinz ketchup bottle, it said: ‘‘Up for a Game? Trivial Pursuit Tomato Ketchup.’’

The first meal after a long prison sentence is an ostensible celebration laced with stress. The food tastes incredible. (Roby gained 60 pounds after his release, desperate to try the Outback Steakhouse Bloomin’ Onion and other fast-casual delicacies he’d seen commercials for on TV.) But ordering — making any choice — can be unnerving. Waiters are intimidating; waitresses, especially pretty ones, can be petrifying. So at Denny’s, Roby started things off, ordering a chocolate milk. Hammock ordered a chocolate milk, too. Then he reconsidered and said: ‘‘I want a milkshake! I’ll just have that!’’ He ordered a Grand Slam. Then he changed it to a Lumberjack Slam. And when the waiter shot back with ‘‘Toast: white, wheat or sourdough?’’ Hammock went stiff momentarily, then answered: ‘‘Toast, I guess.’’


The Chronicle of Social Change’s Lisa Jenkins looks at efforts in California to steer kids away from the juvenile justice system, with a particular focus on the Keeping Kids in School Project and the Victim Offender Reconciliation program (VORP), an important part of the restorative justice efforts in Fresno schools. Here’s a clip:

The 2013 KKIS conference was the first concrete step in changing the tone of the conversation around truancy. At the core of the 2013 conference was a recognition that students need to be physically in school in order to receive the state’s educational services. Being deprived of these services, as inevitably happens when one is chronically absent, has been tied to other problems; research presenters at the conference utilized statewide data showing a direct link between missing school, suspension from school and ultimately dropping out.

Making this link clear to parents, guardians and other stakeholders is the most important part of the work that KKIS is doing, said Gordon Jackson, director of the coordinated student support division in the California Department of Education, in a phone interview.

“Of course, all across the span of economics or earned income, there is this common thread among parents of wanting good things to happen for their kids,” Jackson said. “There is really a focus on the challenge of catching students early, before they develop truancy patterns, and involving the parents.”

This idea has been taken to heart in Fresno County, where the regional KKIS focus group and other stakeholders are working to improve academic performance of elementary and middle school students in order to prevent their eventual court-system involvement. This means targeting those with complicated home situations, and even creating personalized plans for how students will get to school. There is a particular focus on literacy, as studies have shown that students with strong reading engagement experience less absenteeism.

According to education specialists, one promising solution to this excessive absenteeism (and to numerous other justice questions) is a coordinated system of restorative justice.

Restorative justice programs involve two crucial components: a discussion among those involved with the crime or truancy, and a concrete plan for rectifying the situation. The oldest such program in the state, VORP of the Central Valley, was founded in 1982 by Ron and Roxanne Claasen, but has only relatively recently gained the momentum to become a part of the local juvenile justice vocabulary.

For the Claasens, who also founded the Discipline That Restores program at Fresno Pacific University, these techniques are an important part of getting students to reconnect with their school communities. After involvement with restorative justice techniques, VORP estimates that eight of every ten juvenile offenders successfully move on from crime and return to school. Instituted across school districts, these results are significant; when comparable California communities have instituted district-wide restorative justice policies, they have cut suspensions by up to 60 percent in just five years.


The ten cities with the largest police departments paid out a total of $248.7 million last year in officer misconduct settlements and court judgments. That number is up 48% from 2010′s grand total of $168.3 million. Between those five years the ten cities paid out a combined $1.02 billion. New York City was responsible for a whopping $601.3 million, more than half of that 2010-2014 grand total. In comparison, Los Angeles, while still among the top three cities that spent the most, had a five year total of $57.1 million.

Los Angeles, Baltimore, Phoenix, unlike the other seven cities, experienced a decline in payout amounts between 2010-2014. And in LA, 39% of payout dollars were spent on misconduct cases. In Chicago, misconduct cases accounted for 89% of the total.

The Wall Street Journal’s Zusha Elinson and Dan Frosh have more on the numbers.

Cities are cutting more checks to people who were wrongfully imprisoned years ago because of police misconduct. As more wrongful convictions come to light, jury verdicts have risen, with some now exceeding $2 million a year behind bars.

New York City agreed last year to pay $41 million to five black and Hispanic men imprisoned for the 1989 beating and rape of a jogger in Central Park, then freed after another man confessed and DNA evidence confirmed his story. City lawyers under former Mayor Michael Bloomberg had fought a lawsuit brought by the five men, which alleged that detectives coerced confessions from them as teens. Under current Mayor Bill de Blasio, the city agreed to a settlement equal to about $1 million for each year each man spent behind bars.

New York City Corporation Counsel Zachary Carter said the settlement “should not be construed as an acknowledgment that the convictions of these five plaintiffs were the result of law-enforcement misconduct.”

Chicago has been trying to resolve cases stemming from allegations that detectives, led by former commander Jon Burge, tortured black and Hispanic suspects with implements like electric cattle prods, coercing confessions from them and putting them behind bars from the 1970s to early 1990s for crimes they didn’t commit. Those cases have cost the city more than $60 million in payouts. In May, Chicago launched a $5.5 million reparations fund for some of the victims.

A Chicago police spokesman called Mr. Burge’s actions a “disgrace.” Mr. Burge was convicted of federal perjury and obstruction charges in 2010. Mr. Burge, who has been released from prison, declined to comment.

In New York, settlements and judgments in misconduct cases hit $165 million in fiscal 2014, up from $93.8 million in 2010. Both New York and Los Angeles, which paid out $10.7 million on such cases last year, now are tracking claims more closely and trying new approaches to risk management.

New York City’s government-run hospitals were for years the city’s leading source of liability payouts, primarily because of medical-malpractice settlements. But beginning in the 2010 fiscal year, the police department surpassed the city hospitals in total liability payouts.

The trend caught the attention of New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer, who launched a program to track legal claims called ClaimStat. “Instead of accepting rising claims and settlements as the cost of doing business,” Mr. Stringer says, the city can use the data to identify underlying problems and make changes to prevent future suits.

The number of new claims filed against New York City police, including allegations of police misconduct and damage from car crashes, rose 71% between 2004 and 2013, according to the comptroller.

“While the filing of a lawsuit does not prove any misconduct on the part of an officer, the department is aware of the increasing number of actions filed against the NYPD,” a spokeswoman said, adding that the department is “addressing these very real concerns” with the creation of a risk-management bureau and police litigation unit.

The settlement with Mr. Garner’s estate came nearly a year after his confrontation with officers who accused him of selling untaxed cigarettes—a scene captured in a widely viewed video. Mr. Stringer said the settlement “acknowledges the tragic nature of Mr. Garner’s death while balancing my office’s fiscal responsibility to the city.”


On Thursday, President Barack Obama became the first sitting president to visit a federal prison. NPR’s Scott Horsley has the story on the president’s visit.

Posted in LAPD, Obama, Reentry, Restorative Justice, School to Prison Pipeline, Zero Tolerance and School Discipline | 5 Comments »

Finding the Child Welfare Czar….”Overcorrected, Overdirected, and Overpunished” Kids…Dylan Roof and CA Prison Segregation…and More

July 9th, 2015 by Taylor Walker


The LA County Board of Supervisors held a closed-door meeting Tuesday to interview two candidates to lead the Office of Child Protection, an entity recommended by a Blue Ribbon Commission on Child Protection convened to jumpstart much-needed reform efforts in the county child welfare system.

The Supes are slated to interview two more candidates today (Thursday), and could possibly issue their final decision today, as well.

Fesia Davenport, who has served as the interim child welfare czar, is reportedly among those being considered for the position.

Holden Slattery has more on the issue in a story for the Chronicle of Social Change. Here’s a clip:

Fesia Davenport, who the board appointed as interim director of the office in February, is a candidate for the position, according to Wendy Garen, president and CEO of the Ralph Parsons Foundation, which was one of 17 foundations to endorse the BRC recommendations in a letter to the Board of Supervisors.

“It’s been a robust process. There are outside candidates,” Garen said. “I do believe that Fesia [Davenport] is a candidate and that her performance to date has been remarkable.”

Garen said she has no knowledge about the other candidates and, due to that, she does not know whether Davenport is the best candidate for the job.

The creation of an Office of Child Protection was the most prominent recommendation to emerge from the Los Angeles County Blue Ribbon on Child Protection’s (BRC) December 2013 interim recommendations and again in its final report in April.

“I hope that the OCP director who the board ultimately hires is a person that is imbued with many of the traits that the child protection commission envisioned initially,” Leslie Gilbert-Lurie, co-chair of the transition team tasked with implementing the BRC recommendations, said in a phone interview Tuesday. “A strong leader with experience in child welfare who is collaborative and imaginative, and not afraid to stand up to the existing institutions.”


Katherine Reynolds Lewis has an excellent longread for the July/August issue of Mother Jones Magazine about psychologist Ross Greene’s game-changing discipline methods of teaching kids problem-solving skills instead of employing the now largely discredited punishment-reward system developed by B.F. Skinner in the mid-20th century.

The idea is that, punishing children who are acting out, and who are often called “challenging,” only exacerbates kids’ underlying problems and helps to push them through the school-to-prison pipeline. Kids brains have not developed enough to have control over their behavior and emotions, so punishing them, instead of helping them understand the “why” behind their behavior, is extremely counterproductive, according to Greene’s theory.

Here are some clips:

…consequences have consequences. Contemporary psychological studies suggest that, far from resolving children’s behavior problems, these standard disciplinary methods often exacerbate them. They sacrifice long-term goals (student behavior improving for good) for short-term gain—momentary peace in the classroom.

University of Rochester psychologist Ed Deci, for example, found that teachers who aim to control students’ behavior—rather than helping them control it themselves—undermine the very elements that are essential for motivation: autonomy, a sense of competence, and a capacity to relate to others. This, in turn, means they have a harder time learning self-control, an essential skill for long-term success. Stanford University’s Carol Dweck, a developmental and social psychologist, has demonstrated that even rewards—gold stars and the like—can erode children’s motivation and performance by shifting the focus to what the teacher thinks, rather than the intrinsic rewards of learning.

In a 2011 study that tracked nearly 1 million schoolchildren over six years, researchers at Texas A&M University found that kids suspended or expelled for minor offenses—from small-time scuffles to using phones or making out—were three times as likely as their peers to have contact with the juvenile justice system within a year of the punishment. (Black kids were 31 percent more likely than white or Latino kids to be punished for similar rule violations.) Kids with diagnosed behavior problems such as oppositional defiant disorder (ODD), attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and reactive attachment disorder—in which very young children, often as a result of trauma, are unable to relate appropriately to others—were the most likely to be disciplined.

Which begs the question: Does it make sense to impose the harshest treatments on the most challenging kids? And are we treating chronically misbehaving children as though they don’t want to behave, when in many cases they simply can’t?

That might sound like the kind of question your mom dismissed as making excuses. But it’s actually at the core of some remarkable research that is starting to revolutionize discipline from juvenile jails to elementary schools. Psychologist Ross Greene, who has taught at Harvard and Virginia Tech, has developed a near cult following among parents and educators who deal with challenging children. What Richard Ferber’s sleep-training method meant to parents desperate for an easy bedtime, Greene’s disciplinary method has been for parents of kids with behavior problems, who often pass around copies of his books, The Explosive Child and Lost at School, as though they were holy writ.

His model was honed in children’s psychiatric clinics and battle-tested in state juvenile facilities, and in 2006 it formally made its way into a smattering of public and private schools. The results thus far have been dramatic, with schools reporting drops as great as 80 percent in disciplinary referrals, suspensions, and incidents of peer aggression. “We know if we keep doing what isn’t working for those kids, we lose them,” Greene told me. “Eventually there’s this whole population of kids we refer to as overcorrected, overdirected, and overpunished. Anyone who works with kids who are behaviorally challenging knows these kids: They’ve habituated to punishment.”

Under Greene’s philosophy, you’d no more punish a child for yelling out in class or jumping out of his seat repeatedly than you would if he bombed a spelling test. You’d talk with the kid to figure out the reasons for the outburst (was he worried he would forget what he wanted to say?), then brainstorm alternative strategies for the next time he felt that way. The goal is to get to the root of the problem, not to discipline a kid for the way his brain is wired.

“This approach really captures a couple of the main themes that are appearing in the literature with increasing frequency,” says Russell Skiba, a psychology professor and director of the Equity Project at Indiana University. He explains that focusing on problem solving instead of punishment is now seen as key to successful discipline.

If Greene’s approach is correct, then the educators who continue to argue over the appropriate balance of incentives and consequences may be debating the wrong thing entirely. After all, what good does it do to punish a child who literally hasn’t yet acquired the brain functions required to control his behavior?

Schools and juvenile detention centers are starting to pick up Greene’s methods and are experiencing complete behavior turnarounds:

In 2004, a psychologist from Long Creek Youth Development Center, a correctional center in South Portland, Maine, attended one of Greene’s workshops in Portland and got his bosses to let him try CPS. Rodney Bouffard, then superintendent at the facility, remembers that some guards resisted at first, complaining about “that G-D-hugs-and-kisses approach.” It wasn’t hard to see why: Instead of restraining and isolating a kid who, say, flipped over a desk, staffers were now expected to talk with him about his frustrations. The staff began to ignore curses dropped in a classroom and would speak to the kid later, in private, so as not to challenge him in front of his peers.

But remarkably, the relationships changed. Kids began to see the staff as their allies, and the staff no longer felt like their adversaries. The violent outbursts waned. There were fewer disciplinary write-ups and fewer injuries to kids or staff. And once they got out, the kids were far better at not getting locked up again: Long Creek’s one-year recidivism rate plummeted from 75 percent in 1999 to 33 percent in 2012. “The senior staff that resisted us the most,” Bouffard told me, “would come back to me and say, ‘I wish we had done this sooner. I don’t have the bruises, my muscles aren’t strained from wrestling, and I really feel I accomplished something.’”

Read on…


In an essay for the Marshall Project, James Kilgore, who spent the majority of a six-and-a-half year prison term in California facilities, considers how Charleston church shooter Dylan Roof might be received at a CA prison where inmates have been racially segregated for decades.

Kilgore calls for national dialogue on white supremacy in prisons and urges lawmakers and corrections officials to put an end to their “complicity in reproducing hatred and division” through racially segregated detention facilities.

Here’s a clip:

He would certainly find instant camaraderie with the Peckerwoods, the Skinheads, the Dirty White Boys, the Nazi Low Riders. His admirers, men with handles like Bullet, Beast, Pitbull, and Ghost, would vow to live up to Roof’s example, either by wreaking havoc when they hit the streets or maybe even the very next day in the yard.

Roof’s newfound fan club would be ready to provide him with prison perks — extra Top Ramen, jars of coffee, a bar of Irish Spring. The guards, many with their own Roofish sympathies, would cut him some slack — an extra roll of toilet paper here, a few illicit minutes on the telephone there. If Roof were so inclined, the guards might turn a blind eye to his indulgence in illegal substances, from tobacco to papers of heroin to the carceral Mad Dog 20/20 known as “pruno.”

If Roof played by the convict code, he might quickly rise in the ranks of the white-power structure in the prison yard. Maybe after a few years, he would earn the status of “shot caller,” the highest rank within the racial groups. Then he could order hits on young white boys who defiled the race by playing a game of chess with a black man or offering a Latino a sip of his soda. Like all his white comrades, Roof would use the white showers, the white phones, the white pull-up bars. The yard might spark visions of a segregated utopia for Dylann, a wonderland where everyone was in their right place — separate and unequal.

But white supremacists in prison also live in a world of racial enemies. Fueled by paranoia and buttressed by complicit guards and administrators, Roof would be the target of personalized vengeance attacks. Just like on the streets, he would be constantly looking over his shoulder to fend off real and imagined enemies. In particular, he would realize that in a prison yard, there are plenty of black lifers who have nothing to lose and the muscle power to break him in half, like a dry stick. A warrior who took down Roof would get a hero’s welcome in the torturous isolation blocks at Pelican Bay or Corcoran. All this tension would no doubt make Roof a little uneasy, perhaps force him to remain “suited and booted,” armed with a razor blade in his mouth or a sharpened shank up his rectum.

But even with danger all around him, Roof might find solace in the fact that the prison authorities would not assign any whites and blacks to share a cell and would enable the segregation of day rooms and exercise spaces. This would be a refreshing change of pace for Roof.


The parents of a 19-year-old robbery suspect, Rashad Davis, fatally beaten in his jail cell in May, want answers from the San Bernardino Sheriff’s Department about why their son was assigned to a cell shared by a mentally unstable cellmate accused of beating a man to death with a baseball bat.

The SB Sheriff’s Dept. has not indicated whether or not Davis was housed with 22-year-old Jeremiah Ajani Bell due to a breakdown in screening protocol, but the department has recently been the subject of several scandals and investigations, including alleged excessive use of force and inadequate mental health treatment for inmates.

The LA Times’ Paloma Esquivel has the story. Here’s a clip:

Posted in CDCR, DCFS, Foster Care, LA County Board of Supervisors, Mental Illness, race, School to Prison Pipeline, Trauma, Zero Tolerance and School Discipline | No Comments »

Playwright Takes on School to Prison Pipeline… LAT Calls for Real Oversight of the LASD… .LAPD Praised for Handling of Mentally Ill…Update on SB 124, Juvie Solitary

July 6th, 2015 by Celeste Fremon


Playwright/actress Anna Deavere Smith has never been one to be scared off by complex subject matter.

When Smith premiered Twilight: Los Angeles 1992, her searing and revelatory one woman play about the aftermath of the Rodney King verdicts—first performing it in Los Angeles in 1993, then a year later in New York—reviewers fell over themselves praising the work. At the same time, they also argued with each other about whether Smith’s creation was really theater, or some strange new kind of journalism.

The confusion had to do with the fact that Smith had gathered the material for the play that would make her a critical success by interviewing nearly 300 people, many of whom had some direct connection to the riot, some of whom did not. Then, from those interviews, she shaped monologues for more than 40 “characters,” real people whom she inhabited on stage, one after the other, with eerie accuracy.

The parts she played included former LAPD chief Daryl F. Gates, a south LA teenager, one of the members of the Rodney King jury, a Beverly Hills real estate agent, a former Black Panther party head now living in Paris, truck driver Reginald Denny, the widow of a Korean American grocer killed during the madness, a pregnant cashier hit by a random bullet who managed, against odds, to save herself and her baby—and several dozen more.

All of this came together to produce what NY Times’ theater reviewer David Richards called, “an epic accounting of neighborhoods in chaos, a city in anguish and a country deeply disturbed by the violent images, live and in color, coming over the nightly airwaves.”

Now, 22 years later, Smith is working on another play that makes use of her signature form of documentary theater to illuminate another crucial cultural moment. (Smith has authored around 18 of these documentary plays thus far.) The new play, which has the working title of “The Pipeline Project,” investigates what the playwright describes as “the school-to-prison pipeline—the cycle of suspension from school to incarceration that is prevalent among low-income Black, Brown, Latino, and Native-American youth.”

As she did with Twilight, for the last year or so, Smith has been interviewing hundreds of people including students, teachers, parents, police, thought and policy leaders, psychologists, community activists, heads of prisons, people who are incarcerated, kids in juvenile hall, public defenders…and many more, as she fashions her theatrical characters.

Smith said that she got the idea after educators and reformers approached her to see if art could affect policy change. And so: The Pipeline Project.

Most recently, she has been performing pieces of the work-in-progress at select regional theaters in Berkeley, CA, Baltimore, MD, and Philadelphia, PA. Then after each performance, Smith engages in an extended dialogue with the audience, sort of town hall meeting style, all of which she uses to continue to recalibrate her material.

Eventually Smith will have a full length theater piece, that she’ll debut around the country.

In the meantime, Californians will have the opportunity to see the work-in-progress version starting this coming Saturday, July 11, when Smith will begin previews at Berkeley Rep’s Roda Theatre. This pre-play play will run through August 2.

Robert Hurwitt of the San Francisco Chronicle talked to Smith while she was in rehearsal for her Berkeley opening, about what she wants from this part of the process, and from the Pipeline Project as a whole.

Here’s a clip:

“This is one of those rare moments when people do begin to think about race relations in this country,” Anna Deavere Smith says over the phone from Berkeley Repertory Theatre, where she’s in rehearsal for the premiere run of her latest solo piece. The new work, with the complicated but accurate title “Notes From the Field: Doing Time in Education, the California Chapter” is about the treatment of African American and other disadvantaged youth in our schools and what’s increasingly being called the school-to-prison pipeline.

“I started thinking seriously about these matters in 2010, and I started my work, my interviews in 2013,” Smith says. “A lot has happened very quickly in this country during that time. … You can’t really think about inequities in education without looking at the broader canvas of racial inequity in America. And you can’t think about school discipline without thinking about the ways in which the types of discipline that are of greatest concern mimic some of the practices in prisons.

“So it’s a problem, and it’s an opportunity. I did my first staged readings of this piece here at the Rep last July and left town and — boom! Ferguson. And just since then, because of technology, Americans have watched any number of bad interactions between authority and young African American males, and these videos have taken the country by storm and have caused a lot of people to go, ‘Wait. What? Something’s going on here about men of color. What is this? Wow! Whoa! No! How could that happen?’”

Notes from the Field: Doing Time in Education, the California Chapter: Previews begin Saturday, July 11. Opens July 14. Through Aug. 2. $25-$89. Berkeley Rep’s Roda Theatre, 2015 Addison St., Berkeley. (510) 647-2949. www.berkeleyrep.org.


The LA Times editorial board has called for a civilian commission with teeth before, but this time the board lays out the absolutely dismal history of attempts to oversee the department, all of which have failed utterly.

Let us hope the LA County Board of Supervisors are paying attention.

Here’s a clip:

Los Angeles County has a commission created more than a half century ago, that is tasked with monitoring jail conditions and holding government accountable for improper treatment of inmates. As reports circulated in recent years of inmate beatings and abuse at the hands of sheriff’s deputies, the Sybil Brand Commission for Institutional Inspections failed to find or act on the pattern of brutality that has resulted in the county paying millions of dollars in verdicts and settlements, the resignation last year of Sheriff Lee Baca the indictment this year of former Undersheriff Paul Tanaka (among others), the convictions of several deputies for obstruction of justice, and the ongoing criminal investigations into inmate mistreatment. It instead reported accomplishments such as commending the sheriff for his cooperation during jail inspections.

Following reports of numerous improper uses of force by deputies more than two decades ago, the Board of Supervisors hired special counsel Merrick Bobb, who regularly reported on problems in the jails and elsewhere in the department; but the board, distracted by other emergencies and concerns, took little action on Bobb’s recommendations. The board abolished his office just over a year ago.

In 2001, in response to concern that abusive deputies were not facing meaningful discipline, the county created an Office of Independent Review to provide civilian oversight of the discipline process. But in order to get access to confidential sheriff files, the office agreed that such documents would be privileged, and in so doing it became in essence the department’s attorney, and wound up providing in-house advice rather than actual oversight. That office, too, was abolished last year.

Those efforts illustrate the two primary avenues of failure in oversight of the sheriff’s department. The supposedly independent overseer either is absorbed into the sheriff’s world, as with the Office of Independent Review, or becomes an agent of the Board of Supervisors, ineffectual like the Sybil Brand Commission or else too easily ignored, given the board’s many duties and political pressures, like the Office of Special Counsel.

There is an urgent need for a new model that does not replicate those that so utterly failed during the jail abuse scandal. The oversight body must have sufficient independence from both the board and the sheriff, sufficient access to department documents to perform its task, sufficient standing to apply political pressure in cases when the sheriff refuses to cooperate, and sufficient professionalism and restraint to avoid becoming a runaway tribunal.

To design such a model, the Board of Supervisors appointed a panel to consider various possibilities and make recommendations. The Working Group on Civilian Oversight completed its report late last month. It falls woefully short.


While, it doesn’t magically solve every single problem, with 61 sworn officers and 28 mental health workers, the Los Angeles Police Department’s mental evaluation unit is the largest mental health policing program of its kind in the nation and, by all accounts, it’s doing a lot of good, both in helping take the pressure off patrol officers while, most importantly, aiding in productive and appropriate resolutions, rather than harmful outcomes, for the city’s mentally ill.

According to LAPD spokespeople, the unit has become a vital resource for the city’s 10,000-person police force.

NPR’s Stephanie O’Neil has a good new story on the unit and how it functions.

Here’s a clip:

Officer Ted Simola and his colleagues in the unit work with county mental health workers to provide crisis intervention when people with mental illness come into contact with police.

On this day, Simola is working the triage desk on the sixth floor at LAPD headquarters. Triage duty involves helping cops on the scene evaluate and deal with people who may be experiencing a mental health crisis.

Today, he gets a call involving a 60-year-old man with paranoid schizophrenia. The call is typical of the more than 14,000 fielded by the unit’s triage desk last year.

“The call came out as a male with mental illness,” says the officer on the scene to Simola. “I guess he was inside of a bank. They said he was talking to himself. He urinated outside.”

If it were another department, this man might be put into the back of a police car and driven to jail, so that the patrol officer could get back to work more quickly. But LAPD policy requires all officers who respond to a call in which mental illness may be a factor to phone the triage desk for assistance in evaluating the person’s condition.

Officer Simola talks to the officer on the scene. “Paranoid? Disorganized? That type of thing?” The officer answers, “Yeah, he’s talking a lot about Steven Seagal, something about Jackie Chan.” Simola replies, “OK, does he know what kind of medication he’s supposed to have?” They continue talking.

The triage officers are first and foremost a resource for street cops. Part of their job entails deciding which calls warrant an in-person visit from the unit’s 18 cop-clinician teams. These teams, which operate as second responders to the scene, assisted patrol in more than 4,700 calls last year.

Sometimes their work involves high-profile interventions, like assisting SWAT teams with dangerous standoffs or talking a jumper off a ledge. But on most days it involves relieving patrol officers of time-consuming mental health calls like the one Simola is helping to assess.

The man involved in this call has three outstanding warrants for low-grade misdemeanors, including public drinking. Technically, any of them qualifies him for arrest. But Simola says today, he won’t be carted off to jail.

“He’ll have to appear on the warrants later,” Simola says, “but immediately he’ll get treated for his mental health.”


The bill to drastically restrict solitary confinement for California ‘s locked up kids, has one more committee to make it through, and then it goes to the assembly floor and, if passed there, on to the governor.

The bill’s author, Senator Mark Leno, has tried to address some of the concerns of the bill’s opponents, with a set of amendments, but so far they’ve not done the trick writes Kelly Davis for The Crime Report.

Here’s a clip:

In response to opposition from county probation unions and California’s influential prison guard union, Leno has agreed to several amendments since the legislation was first introduced in February. The most recent amendment allows a youth to be confined beyond four hours if he can’t be safely re-integrated into the general population.

But the amendments have not appeared to sway the critics.

At the committee hearing, Craig Brown, a lobbyist with the California Correctional Peace Officers Association, argued that the Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ), which runs California’s four juvenile correctional facilities, has implemented numerous reforms over the last several years, including significant reductions the use of confinement. In 2004, the DJJ, then called the California Youth Authority, entered into a consent decree with the Prison Law Office after documented cases of young people being kept in solitary confinement—sometimes in cages—for 23 hours a day.

Leno’s bill would add another layer of regulations and “mess up all that progress” Brown said.

There are currently no laws governing the use of juvenile solitary confinement in California.

The lack of regulations has played a role in at least four lawsuits-—the one filed against the Prison Law Office against the DJJ, and three subsequent lawsuits against county probation departments.

Posted in American artists, American voices, Inspector General, jail, LA County Board of Supervisors, LA County Jail, LAPD, LASD, School to Prison Pipeline, solitary, Youth at Risk, Zero Tolerance and School Discipline | 24 Comments »

Arresting Kids Under 12, Hidden Costs of Running Jails, Pell Grants for Inmates, Body Cams, and Freddi Gray

May 22nd, 2015 by Taylor Walker


Arrest rates for California’s kids under the age of twelve have experienced a steep decline over the last 30 years, according to a new report from the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice. The number of young arrestees dropped a whopping 93%. The decrease appears to be due, in part, to a drop in child crime between the late 70′s and now, but it may also be attributable to local efforts to decriminalize kids. Two cities, however, have not gotten their act together with regard to child and pre-teen arrests.

Statewide, almost 14,000 kids under twelve were arrested in 1978, nearly a third of whom were younger than ten. Thirty-five years later, in 2013, when the number of kids under twelve had risen by 40%, just under 1,400 kids younger than twelve (219 under ten) were arrested.

Most of California’s 58 counties mirrored the state trend, but eleven did not. Nine of those counties were tiny. No kids were arrested in those counties spanning the three decades. But two small counties experienced higher arrest rates, but those counties’ only arrested between zero and four kids. Stockton and the city of San Bernardino broke from the pack. In both cities, school district officers are allowed to arrest young kids, and they do arrest them—a lot. Stockton only has 1% of the state’s total number of kids under ten, those kids account for 26% of the state’s total arrests of kids in that age group.


The US spent $22.2 billion on jails in 2011. And that price tag is much lower than if it included costs not covered in the official jail budgets—for example, employee benefits, inmate health care, capital costs, administrative costs, legal costs, and inmate services—, according to a new survey and study from the Vera Institute of Justice.

Vera researchers surveyed 35 jail systems (including Alameda County) in 18 states, holding 9% of the US jail population. The study found that many jail systems had difficulty calculating the total cost (incurred by taxpayers) of running their jails. And if jails don’t track those costs, and taxpayers do not know how much they are truly spending on locking people up in local jails, and neither do the policymakers pushing criminal justice reform.

According to the Vera survey, eight of the jail systems spent non-budget dollars equaling more than 20% of their budget. Twelve of jail systems surveyed could not come up with their non-budget costs.

Here’s a clip from the study:

…in addition to the $1.1 billion spent by the City of New York Department of Correction in 2014, other city agencies spent an additional $1.3 billion for jail employee benefits, health care and education programs for incarcerated people, and administration, bringing the total cost to $2.4 billion.

Because reported jail costs are too often incomplete, policymakers and the public are seldom aware of the full extent of their community’s financial commitment to the jail. As policymakers focus on justice reform at the local level, they need to understand how much the community is actually spending. To this end, researchers at the Vera Institute of Justice developed a survey to help counties tally the actual price of their jails.

The only way to safely reduce the cost of jail is to limit the number of people in the jail, because the cost largely comprises expenses for staff and the number of staff is dictated by the population of incarcerated people. In fact, the inmate population is such a key cost driver that it is possible for “expensive” jails (meaning those with a high average per-inmate cost) to be the least costly to taxpayers.

Consider the example of two counties of similar size: Johnson County, Kansas, and Bernalillo, New Mexico. By comparing the average cost per inmate, the jail in Johnson County appears to be more than twice as expensive as the jail in Bernalillo County ($191.95 per day versus $85.63 per day in 2014). But taxpayers in Johnson County actually spend less on the jail than taxpayers in Bernalillo County do, because the incarceration rate in 2014 was more than three times lower (121 per 100,000 versus 369 per 100,000). As a result, the annual cost of jail in Johnson County is $49 million ($82 per county resident), versus $78 million ($113 per county resident) in Bernalillo County.


The US Department of Education is expected to lift a portion of a punitive 1994 ban on inmate eligibility for Pell Grants to attend college while they are behind bars.

A RAND study found that for every dollar spent on education for inmates, the state would save $5, and greatly reduce recidivism rates.

PBS’ Paul Fain has more on the issue, including what ending the Pell Grant ban would look like from a financial standpoint. Here’s a clip:

If the project is successful, it would add to momentum for the U.S. Congress to consider overturning the ban it passed on the use of Pell for prisoners in 1994.

“The idea is under consideration,” a department spokesperson said.

Sources said the Obama administration backs the experiment, and that it would be unveiled this summer.

A likely scenario would be for state and federal prison education programs from a handful of colleges to become eligible for Pell Grants. Various restrictions might apply, such as for participating students to be eligible only if they are scheduled for release within a specific number of years.

Even a limited experiment will provoke controversy. Spending government money on college programs for convicted criminals is an easy target for conservative pundits and for some lawmakers from both political parties.

For example, last year New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo dropped his proposal to use state funds for prison education programs after the plan received immediate and fierce opposition.

Yet advocates for removing the federal ban point to evidence that supporting educational opportunities for prisoners pays off for students, for government coffers and for society on the whole.


Some Republican state lawmakers support prison education programs, experts said, because they like the clear return on investment.

“It is financially wise,” said John Dowdell, coeditor of The Journal of Correctional Education. “It’s time to get over the emotional bias and do what the data says.”


In LA and around the country, law enforcement agencies are purchasing and implementing police body cameras as a means of increasing accountability to the public. But so far, police forces (including the LAPD) have argued that privacy for both officers and the people they come in contact with, and maintaining investigation integrity, outweigh the public’s desire for department transparency.

In April, LAPD Chief Charlie Beck said that officers could review their body cam footage before writing reports. Chief Beck also said that for the most part, captured video will be treated as evidence, and will not be made public. (The LA County Sheriff’s Dept. requires the officers to provide statements before viewing footage.)

The LA Times’ Richard Winton sheds some light on the controversy and the difficulty in finding a middle ground. Here’s how it opens:

Cameras mounted inside patrol cars captured every moment.

With their guns drawn, Gardena police officers screamed instructions at three men on the sidewalk. The officers warned them to keep their hands above their heads, mistakenly believing that they had been involved in a robbery.

Exactly what happened next is in dispute, but what is undisputed is that the men were unarmed when police opened fire, killing one and seriously wounding another.

Afterward, the Gardena Police Department allowed the officers — over the objection of a sheriff’s investigator — to review video of the incident. But the department has refused to make the videos public, even after the city agreed to pay $4.7 million to settle a civil rights lawsuit over the shooting.

Across the country, law enforcement agencies are equipping police and patrol cars with cameras to capture interactions between officers and the public. But many of those police forces, like Gardena’s, do not release the recordings to the public, citing concerns about violating the privacy of officers and others shown in the recordings and the possibility of interfering with investigations.

That approach has drawn criticism from some civil rights activists who say that the public release of recordings is crucial to holding police accountable — especially if the officers involved in the incidents are allowed to view the videos.

Gardena Police Chief Ed Medrano defended his department’s position as consistent with that of other law enforcement organizations around the country. He added that it was intended to protect the integrity of investigations as well as the privacy of officers and those who come into contact with police.

“The general public does not have an unfettered right to see every video that is taken by law enforcement,” Medrano said in an email. “Thus, absent a court order to the contrary, many agencies across the country, including Gardena, do not intend to release videos to the public.”


On Thursday, a grand jury chose to indict six officers allegedly connected to the death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore.

The Baltimore Sun has the story. Here’s how it opens:

Baltimore grand jury returned indictments against the six officers charged earlier this month in the in-custody death of Freddie Gray, State’s Attorney Marilyn J. Mosby announced Thursday.

Prosecutors presented evidence to the grand jury over the course of two weeks, Mosby said. Reckless endangerment charges were added against all six officers, while false imprisonment charges against three were removed. The remaining charges are largely the same ones her office filed May 1, following an independent investigation.

“As our investigation continued, additional information has been discovered, and as is often the case during an ongoing investigation, charges can and should be revised based upon the evidence,” Mosby said at a news conference.

The case now moves to Baltimore Circuit Court, where the officers will be arraigned July 2. All remain free on bail.

Gray, 25, was arrested April 12 after running from officers patrolling the Gilmor Homes area of West Baltimore. His death seven days later led to widespread protests that gave way to citywide rioting, deployment of the National Guard and institution of a curfew.

Thrust into a national debate over cases of police brutality, Mosby stunned many when she moved swiftly to bring charges against the officers that included second-degree murder and involuntary manslaughter.

Posted in Education, jail, juvenile justice, LAPD, School to Prison Pipeline, Youth at Risk | 21 Comments »

Landmark Lawsuit Filed Against Compton School District for Failing to Help Severely Traumatized Kids Struggling With Learning

May 19th, 2015 by Celeste Fremon

On Monday, a one-of-a-kind, and potentially important lawsuit was filed by the public interest law firm, Public Counsel, and by Irell & Manella LLP, in behalf of five student plaintiffs plus three teachers, alleging that the teenagers named, and others with similar experiences who attended schools in the Compton district, “have been denied meaningful access to public education” as a result of the district’s “practices and policies that fail to accommodate the effects of complex trauma.”

“These policies and practices,” the lawsuit alleges, are against federal law and “perpetuate and sometimes create trauma on their own.”

The idea that childhood trauma really, no kidding, affects a kid’s ability to learn, or to sit still in a classroom, to focus on a test, or to respond constructively to criticism by a teacher, or react with moderation to a challenge or bullying by another student, are still only at the barest edge of mainstream acceptance, never mind that, for some years, we’ve had the scientific ability to observe the physical changes that occur in a kid’s brain in response to severe or sustained childhood trauma. Most of our public systems don’t behave as if we know what we know.

The purpose of this lawsuit is to change all that by forcing the hand of at least one school district—namely Compton—and, in so doing, setting a legal precedent that could trigger more change across the county, the state and beyond.


At a mid morning video conference, four of the plaintiff kids told their stories, (see video above) after which attorneys Mark Rosenbaum, Laura Faer and Katheryn Eidmann, all from Public Counsel explained in more detail what they believed to be the importance of their legal filing

“The number one public health problem in the United States today is the affect of childhood trauma on students’ opportunity to learn.” said Rosenbaum, “The widely known, but little addessed scientific fact of life is that childhood trauma can negatively affect the capacity of any child to learn and to succeed in school.”

Nowhere, Rosenbaum said, is the school-derailing impact greater than in high violence neighborhoods and communities, “where children suffer frequent and severe traumatic episodes that are so stressful that they overwhelm a young persons ability to cope. Unadressed trauma is the enemy of the brain,” he said. All the experts have told us that the surest way to reduct the achievement gap in American between our have and have not communities, is to address childhood trauma in our public schools.”

But that, Rosenbaum and the other attorneys say, is what Compton, and many school districts around the state and the nation—have failed to do.

Rather than “taking reasonable steps to address the needs of students affected by trauma,” the suit claims that CUSD punished and/or excluded the kids who were suffering most in ways that made succeeding in school all but impossible, and all this happened at a time when the kids needed help the most.

One student-plaintiff, Peter P., had a history of being repeatedly abused and watching his junky mother and his siblings badly abused as well. Eventually he and his sibs were removed to the foster care system, where Peter P bounced in and out of homes, and witnessed a frightening amount of street violence. (You can read the details here.)

Peter P became homeless for two months in March and April 2015, when he was 17. During this period, he slept on the roof of the Dominguez High School cafeteria. When his roof sleeping was fully discovered, instead of being offered help or services, he was suspended.

“If we cannot address the causes of extreme childhood trauma,” said Rosenberg, “we can at least address its effects so that all children can learn and achieve their dreams. But schools like those in Compton, he said “too often treat their students as bad children, not students to whom bad things have happened.”


So what, specifically, does the lawsuit hope for in the way of changes?

The attorneys point out that there are “proven models” already adopted by some districts across the country, that have helped both students and teachers “become more resilient in the face of adversity and trauma.”

The models include:

• Adequate mental health and counseling service for the highest need students;
• Trauma-informed training and support for all educators and school staff;
• Teaching children skills to cope with their anxiety and emotions; and
• Implementing positive school discipline and restorative strategies that keep children in school and create a safe and welcoming environment.

“Schools that fail to address the impact of trauma on students are engaging in unlawful discrimination,” said Laura Faer, Public Counsel’s Statewide Education Rights Director. “Trauma is a top predictor of school suspensions, expulsions and school-based referrals to law enforcement. Schools that fail to meet their obligation to become trauma-informed frequently deny student’s meaningful access to education and impermissibly put them on a school to jailhouse track.”

We will keep you posted on the outcome.

Posted in ACEs, Restorative Justice, School to Prison Pipeline, Trauma, Zero Tolerance and School Discipline | No Comments »

Oakland School Board May Vote Wed. to End “Willful Defiance”…. LA County Supes Toss ICE Agents Out of Jail (Mostly)…More Reasons to Like Body Cameras

May 13th, 2015 by Celeste Fremon

On Wednesday afternoon, May 13, the Oakland Unified School District board
is planning to vote on whether or not to eliminate all “willful defiance” suspensions and involuntary transfers by July 1, 2016.

Representatives of a coalition of organizations that are pushing for the vote—including Public Counsel, the Black Organizing Project, the ACLU of Northern California, and others—have commended the district for making “great strides” by instituting changes in its discipline policy that have decreased school suspensions by 50% in the last 2 years.

But in a statement issued Tuesday, the group pointed out that African-American students continue to be removed from school at “extremely disproportionate rates,” particularly for “disruption and willful defiance.” (Although African American students made up 28% of the students enrolled in OUSD, in 2013-14, they accounted for more than half of the students suspended for “disruption and willful defiance.”)

Willful defiance, as you may remember, is the nearly infinitely expandable category that means kids can be tossed out of school for such minor misbehaviors as talking back, failing to have school materials, forgetting to turn off a cell phone, and dress code violations.

Los Angeles Unified School District, which is the largest district in the state, and the second largest in the nation, banned willful defiance as a cause for suspension in May of 2013.

Then in September 2014, Governor Jerry Brown signed into law AB 420, a bill that eliminated all expulsions for the catch-all category, and banned its use for suspensions in grades K-3.

The law made California the first state in the nation to put such limits on the use of willful defiance.

In a November 2013 policy statement, the American Academy of Pediatrics said that “out-of-school suspension and expulsion are counterproductive to the intended goals, rarely if ever are necessary, and should not be considered as appropriate discipline in any but the most extreme and dangerous circumstances…”

We’ll let you know how the vote turns out.

UPDATE: Oakland did indeed vote unanimously to eliminate willful defiance as a reason to suspend any student and to invest at least $2.3 million to expand restorative justice practices in its schools. Good job, Oakland!


At Tuesday’s board meeting, in a 3-2 vote, the LA county Supervisors voted to dump a long-controversial immigration-related program, which former sheriff Lee Baca had been notoriously loath to relinquish, many thought, because of the extra funding it brought in from the feds.

KPCC’s Leslie Berestein Rojas has more on the story. Here’s a clip:

The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted Tuesday afternoon to discontinue the immigration enforcement program known as 287(g), which since 2005 has allowed trained deputies to act as immigration agents in county jails.

Supervisors Hilda Solis, Mark Ridley-Thomas and Shiela Kuehl voted in favor of the motion to scrap the program, a voluntary partnership with the Department of Homeland Security.

Under 287(g), sheriff’s deputies trained by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement were tasked with questioning jail inmates about their immigration status, and notifying federal agents.

The board meeting was packed with activists for and against discontinuing 287(g), with dozens of people stepping up to comment before the vote took place. Those against the program said it exacerbated deportations and separated families; those in favor of keeping the program argued that it promoted public safety.

The vote was taken after nearly three hours of impassioned public comment, most of it by community members with personal stories to tell about how 287(g) had affected their lives.

But while the supes closed one door to ICE, they opened another with an agreement to cooperate with a new federal program known as the Priority Enforcement Program, or PEP, which replaces the unpopular Secure Communities, and which allows ICE to be invited inside the jails in certain instances, theoretically when inmates who have convicted more serious crimes are deemed deportable.

Supervisor Sheila Kuehl voted against the PEP agreement.


Oakland police have seen use of force incidents cut in half since their employment of police body cams, and the number of complaints against police have tumbled as well, writes civil rights attorney James S. Muller in an Op Ed for the LA Times, about what he has concluded regarding the need for body cameras based on his years of suing police in court.

Here’s a clip from the opening:

Across the table from me, about to be deposed in a case of alleged LAPD excessive force, sat a young police officer. For once, I thought, I was facing a cop who might help my case. She clearly wasn’t accustomed to this. I could read in her face a combination of anger and disgust. Maybe, I thought, just maybe, she would tell the truth.

It was an especially egregious case. An elderly woman had been thrown down the steps by an officer pursuing a suspect. The woman suffered a devastating compound fracture of her leg; she wouldn’t walk again. It was avoidable, bad policing, and I hoped the officer who had witnessed it might not feel bound by the cop code of silence.

As it turns out, I was wrong. That deposition would be one more in the long history of the refusal of police to be honest about excessive force, a history that those of us who do civil rights work know all about but that the general public has only begun to understand as videos of bad policing come to light.

The practice of police videotaping is both part of the solution for excessive force and evidence of how routinely officers have lied about it with impunity. Results from police departments using body cameras demonstrate these effects.

Read on.

Posted in Education, LA County Board of Supervisors, LA County Jail, LAPD, LASD, School to Prison Pipeline, Willful defiance, Zero Tolerance and School Discipline | 2 Comments »

Manifesting Justice This Week in Los Angeles

May 4th, 2015 by Taylor Walker


As events in Baltimore and elsewhere continue to unreel, on Saturday in Los Angeles, a unique combination pop-up art show and public discussion launched at the Baldwin Hills Theater to promote dialogue about civil rights, social and criminal justice, and activism in order to “build a healthier and more just future.”

The 10-day event, called Manifest Justice, put on by Yosi Sergant of TaskForce PR, along with the California Endowment and Amnesty International, features the work of more than 190 artists, discussions with criminal justice leaders and activists, as well as music, poetry, plays, workshops, and a lot more.

Manifest Justice opened Saturday morning with a Prop 47 Record Change Fair, organized by Californians for Safety and Justice. Attendees with felonies that qualified for reclassification under Prop 47 were offered free legal advice from LA County public defenders and volunteer attorneys, along with help in filling out required court forms. (We’ll have more on the Record Change Fair later this week.)

At 10:00a.m., US Rep. Tony Cardenas (D-Calif.) chaired a community dialogue in which an array of panelists told of their personal experiences with the justice system.

There was, for example, Charity Chandler, a woman who now works as an activist at Anti-Recidivism Coalition (ARC), founded by former film producer Scott Budnick.

Chandler’s first encounter with LA County’s juvenile justice system began in her early teens with a six-month stint in Juvenile Hall for petty theft after she stole a pack of underwear and a t-shirt.

From that point on, Chandler said she went through things “no child should have to experience,” cycling in and out of juvenile detention and foster care.

When she found out she was pregnant at 18 with a little boy, Chandler had to convince herself that she was not worthless. Chandler made a vow to herself, “I refuse to be a statistic, and I refuse to bring a black man into this world…and have him suffer like me and so many countless others.”

That decision sent Chandler down a path of transformation and redemption. Chandler became an advocate, and enrolled in school while she was pregnant. She said she finished graduate school this week.

(For more of Chandler’s story, watch her TEDx talk at Ironwood State Prison.)

Other panelists discussed their efforts toward policy change.

Dr. Paul Song, head of, Courage Campaign, spoke about the importance of funding universal pre-kindergarten as a force against poverty and crime.

Dr. Song pointed to stats indicating that kids in poor communities who didn’t participate in government-funded pre-K were 70% more likely than their peers to get arrested for violent crime by the age of 18, and that career criminals can cost the state as much as $1.3 million.

Song argues that while Governor Jerry Brown is intent on storing surplus budget money in a rainy day fund, “for many communities at risk…it has never stopped raining.”

Another panel member, Winston Peters, an LA County Assistant Public Defender, told his story of transformation. Peters said he focused only on the legal aspects of his cases, until he worked at a now-defunct juvenile center in South Los Angeles where, Peters said, he realized that, while he was a good a lawyer, his young clients faced a list of daunting issues that the law failed to adequately cover, abuse, trauma, and mental illness among them.

Peters also noted that LA’s public defender’s office has made efforts to bridge the gap he witnessed all those years ago, by creating a multidisciplinary approach that includes hiring social workers to team up with the attorneys in the juvenile justice division.

Elsewhere in the Baldwin Theater, a massive cardboard Lady Liberty holds her head in her hands. Across the room, a Ferguson police car has been turned into a garden.

Here are photos of a handful of the art installations on display (but really must be seen in person).

“The Talk,” by Michael D’Antuono:

Jordan Weber:

Yolanda Guerra:

Scheduled for later in the week are workshops, discussions, performing arts, and other not-to-be-missed experiences.

But, if you only choose one day to visit the Manifest Justice exhibit, consider making it Wednesday, May 6. At 6:30p.m., Sybrina Fulton, Trayvon Martin’s mom, and Dr. Robert Ross, head of the California Endowment, will discuss “resilience,” followed by a play from Patrisse Cullors of Dignity and Power Now and #BlackLivesMatter.

There are a ton of other great events and reasons to take in Manifest Justice before it’s over, so check out the website and calendar for yourself.

Note: Watch artist Max Rippon paint overlapping NY Times headlines to create “The True Is a Moment of the False” in the above video.

Posted in American artists, American voices, art and culture, Civil Rights, criminal justice, Foster Care, juvenile justice, prison, Public Defender, racial justice, School to Prison Pipeline | 15 Comments »

VISALIA: What Happened to Suspension Rates When a California School District Decided That ALL Its Kids Mattered?

April 3rd, 2015 by Celeste Fremon


California’s Visalia Unified School District used to suspend their students at an appalling clip. For instance, for the 2009-2010 school year—a time when other districts were getting pressure to improve their stats—Visalia still suspended a flabbergasting 40.5 percent of its secondary school students. But then its superintendent and a few of his administrators got together and made some profound changes in how they disciplined kids.

So what did they do and how did they do it?

We’ll get to that in a minute. First a very brief overview of school discipline in America.


We initially became aware of Visalia’s record a month ago when a national report was released that looked at which of the nation’s school districts had the worst records for overuse of suspensions and expulsions, and which districts were doing things right.

The report—“Are We Closing the School Discipline Gap?”—was created by UCLA’s Center for Civil Rights Remedies, and the numbers it documented were alarming. It turned out that, despite a several years of public conversation about the damage that an overuse of suspensions can do to kids’ ability to succeed in the classroom and beyond, nearly 3.5 million public school children were suspended at least once during the 2011-2012 school year—with many suspended multiple times. Since most suspensions were an average of 3.5 days, that meant that in one school year, 18 million hours of learning were lost for American kids.

Beyond the overview of suspension patterns, the report also looked at individual states and individual school districts within those states, to find out which districts were still doing a bad job at finding disciplinary solutions other than tossing kids out of class —especially black and disabled kids—and which districts had actually managed to take great leaps in improving their discipline stats.

The report also found that, in some districts, the overall numbers weren’t all that awful, but the racial disparities were, said Daniel J. Losen, the director of the Center for Civil Rights Remedies, and the report’s lead author.

“The fact that 14 percent of districts suspended more than one of every 10 black elementary students, and 21 percent of the districts suspended one of every four black secondary students, or more, is shocking when compared to the Latino and white distribution,” Losen said. “The Normandy school district in Missouri, where Michael Brown attended is among the highest suspending districts in the entire nation with an overall suspension rate for black students of just under 50 percent.” This type of large disparity, he said, “impacts both the academic achievement and life outcomes of millions of historically disadvantaged children, inflicting upon them a legacy of despair rather than opportunity.”

But the report’s news wasn’t all bad, Losen pointed out when I spoke to him recently.

For example, in California, he said, there was one particular district that made it on the list of the report’s most improved districts in the nation when it came to secondary schools. The district was Visalia, and it went from suspending a gasp-worthy 40.5 percent of its secondary students in 2009-2010, to 15.5 percent in 2011-2012.

Now Visalia’s rate is down to around 11 percent (still lower when Visalia includes its charter high schools).

Losen suggested I check out Visalia.


“We still overuse suspension in our system,” said Dr. Craig Wheaton, Visalia’s superintendent, when I called him to ask him about his precipitous drop in out-of-school discipline numbers “I think we had very high rates that we brought down to a more reasonable level. But they need to be lower,” he said.

Okay, fair enough, but how did they make the drastic change they’ve already accomplished?

Changing a system is not something you do overnight, Wheaton said. “It’s a cultural change we’re talking about. You can’t just quit suspending kids. We had to first begin with the cultural change around how we approach discipline as a whole and, over time, that began to affect our suspension/expulsion rate.

“We began asking ourselves,” Wheaton said, “how do you work with discipline in such a way that it becomes a positive learning experience, rather than punitive?”

One of the specific things Wheaton did to reboot the district’s approach to discipline was to ask all of his teachers to read a best-selling parenting book called “Positive Discipline,” by Jane Nelson.

“We had Jane Nelson work with us, and she developed a positive discipline work training for us that really helped.”

What really affected their data, he said, “was just looking at ourselves and asking how we could create discipline as a learning environment that kept the behavior from occurring again.”

Yet, upstream of everything was a change in attitude by the adults toward the kids they were teaching, and that occurred slowly.

“We started looking at two rails. One rail was student achievement. But we were having to emphasize school achievement so much because of No Child Left Behind. So we started saying that the other rail was really about relationships with kids. All kids need to feel like they belong. They need a sense of significance and belonging. You can’t just demand that students achieve at high levels. You need to win their hearts first. You need to establish a relationship.”


Wheaton said that he and his colleagues also began looking at where kids started to detach from school that ultimately led them to acting out.

To find out, they pulled together all the district’s expulsion cases for the prior year-–which amounted to around 100 folders. “Then we reviewed them in teams. We looked all the way back to when the kids were in grade school, and noted when they began acting out, and what was going on with each of them then. In the majority, 9th grade was the big moment. In general, kids started disengaging in 3, 4th and 5th grades. By 7th grade it got more serious. And by 9th grade, they’re getting suspended.”

So Wheaton and company started thinking, “How do we ID and support kids— especially in elementary and middle school—and help them to feel like they belong, and are engaged?” Going off the rails, he said, “It doesn’t just happen over night.”

Another part of keeping kids engaged, Wheaton said, was to have programs other than academics that the students found important and gave their school time extra meaning. “We tried to hold on to all those things, in spite of budget cuts.” He fought to keep strong athletic activities, and other things, like music and performing arts. “We have a very strong music program that starts in 4th or 5th grade, and musical theater at all high schools and some middle schools.” Most recently they’ve done Guys & Dolls and Grease. “And Mary Poppins, a fabulous production with a professional company coming in and putting up the wires so she could fly through the rafters.”


Not everyone bought in to the new discipline practices, Wheaton said.

“I just don’t want to paint a rosy picture that everything’s alright, because it’s a struggle. Some people are against what we’re doing. They feel that we’re turning too soft, that we’ve gone overboard, and that certain kids should be kicked out.” But a lot of those people are older, he admitted, and are retiring out of the system.

“But even now, our teachers’ association still reminded teachers that they have the right to suspend.” Wheaton sighed.

“The truth is, we identified the need [for a new discipline system] long ago. We really wanted our schools to be safe learning environment, but the answer was always suspension.”

The new direction really began, Wheaton said, “when we talked about doing the best we could for ‘all students.’ And we started questioning who was ‘all?’ Who does that include? Did we mean all? Or did we really mean most.

And if all truly meant all, they were going to have to make some changes.

So they did. “And we’ve still got farther to go.”

AND…BEFORE YOU GO OFF FOR THE WEEKEND: THE ACLU IS STRONGLY ADVOCATING FOR SUBPOENA POWER FOR THE SOON-TO-BE-CREATED SHERIFF CIVILIAN OVERSIGHT COMMISSION. Here’s the ACLU’s forceful and fact-driven letter, for your reading pleasure. It was sent on Friday to those who have decision-making capabilities in the matter. It should also be noted that the LA Times editorial board is of the same opinion.

Posted in Education, School to Prison Pipeline, Zero Tolerance and School Discipline | No Comments »

The Trauma Files: You Too Can Take the ACEs Test…Now That We’re Finally Having a Serious Conversation About the Effects of Childhood Trauma

March 6th, 2015 by Celeste Fremon

Several times a year, I am asked to speak about juvenile justice issues at classrooms
full of graduate students studying public policy, or some similar subject. These days when I talk about criminal justice–juvenile or otherwise—I always bring up the issue of trauma.

I trot out the results of research showing that kids in the juvenile justice system are 8 times more likely to suffer from post traumatic stress disorder—PTSD—than non-incarcerated kids in the community.

I note that the prevalence of PTSD is higher among girls in the justice system (49%) than among boys in the system (32%).

I explain that for school age kids, PTSD can look a lot like attention-deficit disorder, with the accompanying lack of concentration, resulting poor grades, plus the kind of inability to sit still that often leads to school discipline.

Then I tell the students that there is a newer way to look at the kind of extreme stress and trauma that can cause PTSD in kids—along with related difficulties in school performance, behavior and so on.

It is called Adverse Childhood Experiences—OR ACEs.

(We’ve written about ACEs in the past here and here and here.)


In the late 1990s, Vincent Felitti, founder of the Department of Preventive Medicine for Kaiser Permanente in San Diego, and Robert Anda of the US Centers for Disease Control, conducted a landmark study that examined the effects of what they termed adverse childhood experiences–ACEs—things like abuse, neglect, domestic violence and other forms of family dysfunction and catastrophe.

Felitti and Anda studied around 17,000 people in all, the majority of whom were white, well-educated, and middle class or above. Each subject was asked to answer a series of questions about highly stressful events or conditions in their childhood, along with another basic set of questions about physical and emotional issues in their adulthood.

When the researchers analyzed the resulting data, they found find a powerful connection between the level of adversity faced and the incidence of many health and social problems. The two also discovered that ACEs were more common than they had expected. About 40 percent of Felitti and Anda’s respondents reported two or more ACEs, and 25 percent reported three or more.

Since then, similar studies and surveys have been conducted in several states, with findings that are either consistent, or more dramatic.

It is at around this point in my lecture that I ask the class members if they’d like to take an ACEs test themselves.

It isn’t the full test that Felitti and Anda gave, only a 10-question quiz, but it will still give them a good idea of what we’re talking about.


If you click the link below you can take it yourselves.


Of course there are other significant forms of childhood trauma that are not listed in the quiz: having a friend killed, repeated exposure to community violence, surviving and recovering from a severe accident, being the subject of severe bullying or violence by a friend or acquaintance….and so on.

Moreover, the test doesn’t measure traumatic events occurring in young adulthood, or adulthood, which can compound the effects of earlier trauma, or cause it’s own after effects.

Yet it’s a good place to start.


After everyone has finished and privately noted their personal scores, we talk further about how trauma is the unacknowledged elephant in the room when it comes to the subjects of school discipline, justice policy, prisoner reentry, etc., and also, as it turns out, when it comes to physical health.

I tell stories about the young men and women I got to know during my first few years of gang reporting in the early 1990′s, and how their ACEs scores were off the charts. And now, 20 years later, many of them are struggling with the physical and emotional issues that the first ACEs study described.

When we talk about criminal justice policy reform, juvenile justice reform, school discipline reform, prisoner reentry, we also have to have the conversation about trauma, I say.

When the class is over, there is inevitably a cluster of students who want to talk more. Once we’ve chatted a little, I ask those who have lingered behind if they’d be willing to reveal their own ACE scores; what they tell me no longer surprises: ….5….6…7….

And in the last class at which I lectured, one obviously bright woman took a breath and said… “10.”

(Her story is an interesting one and I hope to persuade her to write about it for WLA)


I bring all this up because this week NPR’s Laura Starecheski produced an excellent three part series for All Things Considered about the world of ACEs, which will further explain why this topic is something we should all know more about.

Part 1 is titled Can Family Secrets Make You Sick and it talks about the Felitti/Anda study, and how it was received—when it first came out, and now.

Here a clip.

In the 1980s, Dr. Vincent Felitti, now director of the California Institute of Preventive Medicine in San Diego, discovered something potentially revolutionary about the ripple effects of child sexual abuse. He discovered it while trying to solve a very different health problem: helping severely obese people lose weight.

Felitti, a specialist in preventive medicine, was trying out a new liquid diet treatment among patients at a Kaiser Permanente clinic. And it worked really well. The severely obese patients who stuck to it lost as much as 300 pounds in a year.

“Oh yeah, this was really quite extraordinary,” recalls Felitti.

But then, some of the patients who’d lost the most weight quit the treatment and gained back all the weight — faster than they’d lost it. Felitti couldn’t figure out why. So he started asking questions.

First, one person told him she’d been sexually abused as a kid. Then another.

“You know, I remember thinking, ‘Well, my God, this is the second incest case I’ve seen in [then] 23 years of practice,’ ” Felitti says. “And so I started routinely inquiring about childhood sexual abuse, and I was really floored.”

More than half of the 300 or so patients said yes, they too had been abused.

Felitti wondered if he’d discovered one of the keys to some cases of obesity and all the health problems that go along with it.


In Part 2, NPR and Starecheski offered their own interactive ACEs test and what the scores mean.

Part 3 is titled 10 Questions Some Doctors are Afraid to Ask

I met Felitti last fall and he said that when he and Anda first published their results in the late 1990s, they expected an overwhelming response from the medical community.

Instead for the next fifteen years they got….crickets.

Here’s what the CDC’s Anda told Starecheski:

“I thought that people would flock to this information,” Anda says, “and be knocking on our doors, saying, ‘Tell us more. We want to use it.’ And the initial reaction was really — silence.”

In fact, it took a long time to even get the study published. A number of top medical journals rejected the article, Anda says, “because there was intense skepticism.”

Here are some clips from the rest of the story:

For one thing, doctors aren’t taught about ACE scores in medical school. Some physicians wonder what the point would be, as the past can’t be undone. There also is no way to bill for the test, and no standard protocol for what a doctor should do with the results.

But Felitti thinks there’s an even bigger reason why the screening tool largely has been ignored by American medicine: “personal discomfort on the part of physicians.”

Some doctors think the ACE questions are too invasive, Felitti says. They worry that asking such questions will lead to tears and relived trauma … emotions and experiences that are hard to deal with in a typically time-crunched office visit.


According to Dr. Jeff Brenner, a family doctor and MacArthur Fellows award-winner in Camden, N.J., getting these rough measures of adversity from patients potentially could help the whole health care system understand patients better.

The ACE score, Brenner says, is “still really the best predictor we’ve found for health spending, health utilization; for smoking, alcoholism, substance abuse. It’s a pretty remarkable set of activities that health care talks about all the time.”

Brenner won his MacArthur fellowship in 2013 for his work on how to treat the most complicated, expensive patients in his city — people who often have high ACE scores, he found.

“I can’t imagine, 10, 15 years from now, a health care system that doesn’t routinely use the ACE scores,” he says. “I just can’t imagine that.”

Brenner only learned about ACE scores a few years ago, and says he regrets not integrating the tool into his practice sooner. But like most doctors, he says, he was taught in medical school to not “pull the lid off something you don’t have the training, time or ability to handle.”

In theory, Brenner says, talking to patients about adverse childhood experiences shouldn’t be any different than asking them about domestic violence or their drinking — awkward topics that doctors routinely broach now.


The good news is that there are some promising programs popping up all around the nation, including a number in California, which make use of what we know about the effects of childhood trauma.

For instance, we’ve talked several times about Dr. Nadine Burke Harris, and her remarkable pediatric practice in San Francisco. And there is this pediatric program in Kansas City, profiled by Eric Adler for the Kansas City Star. Here’s a clip:

Never mind the little girl’s name. What’s important is that she was about 10 years old and all the doctors she had seen month after month had failed to ease her pain.

The girl’s stomach wrenched. Her chest tightened. Her skull seared with lightning-bolt headaches.

Then at Children’s Mercy Hospital, pediatrician Lisa Spector decided to probe with a different set of questions. Instead of asking what was wrong physically, Spector asked the girl what had happened to her in her young life. Quickly, the crux of her pain became clear:


“It was impacting her physical and mental health,” Spector said.

At school, she was bullied. At home, she witnessed repeated domestic violence. She talked of her dad belittling and abusing her emotionally. She recently had been a victim of an attempted carjacking; the thief fled after seeing her in the back seat.

Day to day, she was living a tense and unsure existence that was translating itself into hobbling pain.

That the child’s troubles ultimately eased not with medication but with counseling can be credited to a serious effort by Children’s Mercy to focus on “trauma-informed” care.

For a growing number of children across the country, the approach has become the key to their emotional and mental health, “the most important thing we can do for people,” said Marsha Morgan, chief operating officer for behavioral health at Truman Medical Center.

Trauma-informed care focuses on the notion that a traumatic event in childhood, either experienced or witnessed, can alter the biology of the brain. A trauma-informed strategy works on multiple fronts — using counseling and changes to one’s personal interactions and environment — to lessen or bypass those negative associations while forming new and more positive associative pathways in the brain.

“I’ve worked in this field for over 42 years, and this is the most important thing I’ve ever done,” Dr. Morgan told Adler as they talked about the hospital’s trauma work.

We’ll be talking more about trauma, its effects,. and what can be done to prevent and address them, as we profile more of important programs over the coming weeks and months

Posted in ACEs, Community Health, juvenile justice, mental health, prison policy, PTSD, Public Health, School to Prison Pipeline, Trauma, Zero Tolerance and School Discipline | No Comments »

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