Speaking to a group of Indiana educators, school administrators and legal professionals, retired Judge Irene Sullivan drew applause when she stated school suspensions and expulsions should be illegal under federal law.
Sullivan, a Pinellas County Florida Circuit Court juvenile judge from 1999 to 2011, was a keynote speaker during a two-day conference hosted by the Children’s Policy Law Initiative of Indiana. CPLI is a nonprofit focused on reforming laws and public policies to prevent the criminalization of children.
The conference, “Summit on Equitable School Discipline and the Decriminalization of Children,” included speakers and panel discussions on school discipline, alternative strategies and possible legislative actions.
Sullivan advocated for keeping children and teenagers out of the juvenile justice system by getting them attached to school. If they are engaged with their school, she said, they will maintain good attendance and, ultimately, they will achieve in the classroom.
Criminalizing youngsters and punishing them in juvenile court is not a remedy, the former juvenile judge said. The juvenile justice system cannot address the underlying issue that is causing the delinquent behavior.
The panel discussion on school discipline that followed Sullivan reiterated many of her observations and ideas. Panelists described truancy as the gateway to the juvenile justice system and called the practice of suspending or expelling students for being truant absurd.
Tippecanoe Superior Court Judge Faith Graham highlighted a survey of local schools that found the main reasons for suspending students and sending them to juvenile court were not for drug or weapons possession, or for fighting. Rather, students were coming to court for being defiant and having poor attendance.
Rachel Roman-Lagunas, juvenile delinquency attorney with the Marion County Public Defender Agency, admonished schools to handle truancy and discipline problems themselves rather than referring the students to juvenile court.
The juvenile courts are overworked with crimes like shootings and burglaries, she said. They are “just managing the situation” and they are not equipped to help the students.
However, Bruce Carter, staff and student wellness coordinator for Wayne Township Schools, expressed some of the frustration schools feel in getting the attention of the children and their families.
Carter said getting students into the juvenile justice system and putting them on probation was not necessarily a negative course of action. Instead, getting probation involved can help get the parents to cooperate and work with the schools.
Roman-Lagunas responded that in Marion County, the courtroom was the first stop for the students. If they are put on probation, they have to pay a fee.
Both Karega Rausch, research association at the Indiana University Equity Project, and Hardy Murphy, research scientist and scholar in the School of Education at Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis, talked about the detrimental impact of expelling or suspending students from the classroom.
It prevents the students from getting an education and increases the likelihood they will land in the juvenile justice system and drop out of school altogether. In addition, it withdraws guidance offered by teachers and counselors and makes the students, who have already made bad choices, responsible for guiding themselves.
Echoing Carter, Rausch said schools are still expelling and suspending students for truancy to underscore the seriousness of the offense. The schools want students and their parents to understand attending class is important.
Rausch credited CPLI with tackling two issues together – trying to abolish suspensions while also trying to get the resources that schools can use to find the root cause of the truancy problem. The two approaches have to be implemented at the same time since doing only one could cause more damage.
For example, Rausch said, stopping suspension without providing alternatives might foster another form of discipline that has the same negative impact as removing a student from school.
After her presentation, Sullivan also praised the work of CPLI, especially its work to collaborate between the schools, the judges and the juvenile justice system.
“These kids, most of them who are in deep in the juvenile justice system, have backgrounds with severe trauma – sexual abuse, physical abuse, emotional abuse or they have chaotic lives, moving around every six months, switching schools,” Sullivan said. “That’s chaotic, that’s traumatic. So the people here are addressing all of those things which I think is great. It’s very progressive.”