FFLIC’S 50/2017 Campaign: Building a Movement to Stop the School to Prison Pipeline Updates – December 2014

FFLIC’S 50/2017 Campaign: Building a Movement to Stop the School to Prison Pipeline Updates – December 2014

With our 2.5 staff we continue to grow our membership, empower our families, and advocate on behalf of those youth who are incarcerated as well as those who are caught in the school to prison pipeline as per our strategic plan.  Our strategies of leadership development, outreach and direct-organizing, and advocacy support one another in that without the direct involvement of parents, families, and communities, we will not be able to effectively sustain and eventually eradicate the cycle of poverty and racism in Louisiana that continues to keep our children from recognizing and utilizing their full potential.

Transformative Leadership Development

The goal of the FFLIC transformative leadership development is to move our people from our base to active members to leaders. We do that in two ways:

Our first phase is a leadership trajectory training that lifts up those parents and community members that we have identified as potential leaders.  The purpose of the training once a member completes all modules is to get those affected by the issues ready to take seats at tables where education and juvenile justice issues are discussed.   The second phase moves our base to active members in which they may only have participated in some trainings but participate in 50% of our activities from our organizational strategic plan. Both phases move families and community members into leadership positions in which they lead the community by teaching others to care and take ownership and responsibility for the community so that transformation can take place. By doing so, parents will be able to advocate for their children who are locked in prison or have been pushed out of school due to punitive disciplinary actions and are in danger of being ushered into the juvenile justice system.  Upon completion, our members receive certificates of completion and those who have completed the leadership trajectory graduate and are then brought into FFLIC’s annual strategic planning process to help us further develop our work.

This year we were pleased to highlight several of our December 2013 parent leader graduates in our monthly FFLIC newsletters.  Ms. Troylynn Robertson first became involved in FFLIC’s work in 2010-2011 when her youngest son became entangled in the justice system.  FFLIC helped Ms. Robertson to understand the legal aspects of what was happening to her, helped her choose a lawyer, and briefed her on good questions to ask. Before she encountered FFLIC she said she felt very alone, like she was “on an island by myself,” but the support of the organization helped her to stay strong.  Ms. Robertson was grateful for the support of FFLIC and wanted to help with the work so she started by coming to FFLIC member meetings, doing outreach, going to the courthouse with FFLIC staff member Mr. Johnson, and talking to young people. Now, she serves on FFLIC’s Board of Directors and is a key part of all organizational decisions.

Ms. Sonia Coleman first became involved with FFLIC in 2010, when she returned to Shreveport from Texas. Her son, then 15, was on probation and she moved home to get him help. However, she found the services available seriously lacking, even detrimental. In fact, it was at the very counseling center where she had sent him to get help—at a moment when the counselors had instructed her to leave—that he was accused of another crime. Ms. Coleman didn’t know about FFLIC then, she didn’t know about any resources to help her, and she didn’t have money to hire a lawyer. According to her, the staff psychologist lied in court. It was her word against his, and her son received a juvenile life sentence. With Mr. Johnson’s guidance, she learned more about her rights and what was happening to other children in Shreveport and around Louisiana. Although she has been continually stymied in her own case, she has dedicated herself to trying to help other children and other parents. Ms. Coleman began working within the Shreveport FFLIC chapter by literally going door to door and talking to other families and other mothers. Ms. Coleman currently spearheads the active FFLIC chapter in Shreveport, working with residents to construct their own version of a secure-care facility.  Ms. Coleman says “It’ll be smaller, more like a home. The children will have bedrooms. There will be security, but the whole facility will be designed to help children succeed, not to punish them.”  It is members like Ms. Coleman that continue to become empowered by this work, actively taking ownership and control of changing systems that are resistant to change.

Pastor Gladys Kindred first became involved with FFLIC six years ago and she has worked to support incarcerated young people in Lake Charles for longer than that. She says that many people she knows cannot attend meetings because they’re single parents or work multiple jobs, so she gets the information they need and then brings it back to her congregation and her community.  She is the Pastor of the Oasis Mercy Seat Family Church and also runs Oasis International Outreach. She says that when she joined FFLIC, she realized that she needed to connect people to each other in order to create positive change. “Sometimes we think problems are only happening in our own community, but actually they’re happening all over. We have to connect and collaborate,” she says.  Along with connecting parents, families, and communities across the state around issues of injustice and mass incarceration, Pastor Gladys meets regularly with youth and adults who are incarcerated at the Calcasieu Correctional Center and at the Calcasieu Juvenile Detention Center nearby.  Pastor Gladys says “There are a lot of youth out there that need FFLIC’s help, and other organizations’ help, and we all need to come together to tackle that beast because it is a beast.”  She says that often FFLIC shows parents, families, and children a way to escape from their current situation and prevents them from being endlessly mired in the criminal justice system. Pastor Gladys works tirelessly not only for FFLIC, but also as a pastor and a leader in her community and her state.

FFLIC is proud of its members and their willingness to step up and drive reform regardless to whether they are directly or indirectly affected by the injustices that continually plague our youth and families.

Over the past 11 months, FFLIC has held 8 chapter meetings (3 in New Orleans, and 5 in Shreveport), 4 statewide chapter meetings via conference call to save funding, and have outreached to a total of 258 individuals, adding 20 (10  new paid members and 10 pro bono members) members. In August 2014, two of our 2013 parent leader graduates Lillian Tillman and Troylynn Robertson joined us at our annual strategic evaluation retreat.  Our parent leaders debriefed us about their experiences in performing outreach and organizing and how the uses of surveys are capturing our work.  We discussed what adjustments needed to be made to make outreach more effective in reaching those who are in need of our services as well as debriefed on ways to increase membership.  In September 2014, FFLIC held its first leadership training for 2014 in Lake Charles.  Through outreach with constituents in the Lake Charles area, we had a successful attendance of approximately 20 people.  Mr. Johnson, our Statewide Juvenile Justice Reform Director, performed the first level of training which covers our organizational history and guidelines, know your rights, and advocacy and organizing 101.  Of those in attendance, FFLIC has identified four people whose children have been pushed out of school due to harsh disciplinary policies and into juvenile detention facilities who we will move through the full leadership trajectory plan.  FFLIC will continue the leadership trajectory trainings in both Lake Charles and Shreveport throughout October and November.  In January 2015 we will host our annual membership meeting in Lafayette to get input from members to help develop our strategies for 2015 and we will graduate our next parent leaders.

Education Discipline Reform

The education reform field is crowded and comes with many challenges in Louisiana, especially in New Orleans with many organizations popping up to “make education better”.  However, we continue to ensure our families voices are present at the tables where decisions are being made about their lives and those of their children.  In the spring of 2014, FFLIC brought together a collaborative to look at many bills which we supported or opposed as a means to build unity and fulfill our goals of our 50/2017 campaign. We hosted a Dignity in Schools (DSC) Model Code training with 72 people in attendance from across the state.  The Model Code articulates a positive vision for ensuring a fundamental right to education based on the best practices, research and experiences of communities around the country, and on a human rights framework for schools grounded in principles of equity, dignity, and community participation.  The Model Code also presents policy-makers and communities with recommended language for alternatives to pushout and zero-tolerance practices.  On April 27, 2014, FFLIC held a direct action “FFLIC Day at the Capitol” to bring to light the need to implement positive practices in schools and demanded that Senator Elbert Guillory speak to our families on a SB 652[1] which he authored that if passed would have given teachers the authority to call the police if they felt threatened by a child or that another child was in danger.  Due to our organizing, the bill was successfully defeated.  Our direct action was also a time for our parents to speak to lawmakers on the need for a moratorium on suspensions.  We also with the assistance of Senator Sharon Weston Broome organized and achieved three Senate Resolutions during the 2014 legislative session:  SCR 134 which requests BESE to study and report to the legislature regarding current student discipline policies and possible changes to these policies; SR 174 which urges and request BESE to review and consider adopting the United States Department of Education’s Guiding Principles: A Resource Guide for Improving School Climate and Discipline as a master plan for supporting student behavior and discipline; and SCR 148 which requests the DPSC, Youth Services, office of juvenile justice to report to the legislature on Louisiana’s progress in conforming to and complying with the original goals and purposes for juvenile justice reform outlined in Act 1225 of 2003.

Even with these policy wins, working within the New Orleans school system is not an easy process when you are holding them accountable.  Another goal in our 50/2017 Campaign has been to work with schools with the highest suspension rates.  By 2017 we are working to have identified five schools across the state of Louisiana who are willing  to sign on to the Dignity in Schools Campaign calling for a moratorium on out of school suspensions revamping school discipline policies to allow our children to stay in school receiving the education they are entitled to.   Because of the many stories we continued to hear from families and children about being forced to “withdraw” from school, on September 1, 2014, FFLIC developed and launched the “People’s Data Campaign” in order to collect data from families about the effects of punitive school discipline policies on our children.   The campaign seeks to readily identify schools that are rapidly funneling our children into the prison pipeline so we will have the data to support the need for schools to implement solutions to suspensions like Positive Behavior Supports (PBS) which FFLIC fought for and won in 2010.  Currently we are working with two schools in New Orleans, Harney Elementary and New Orleans College Preparatory.  These two schools were chosen as we have developed relationships with teachers or other partners that assist us in working within the school.  Harney was selected based on a prior relationship as over the past three years we have partnered with a teacher to provide Easter Baskets to their Kindergarten, 1st and 2nd grades as a part of their Positive Behavior Supports program.  Harney also has a high suspension rate of 22.7% which makes them a candidate for our goal of reducing suspensions and expulsions.  Because of our relationship with the Youth Empowerment Project, we were able to connect to their Village Program and develop their student discipline codes as well as connect with their partner school, New Orleans College Prep which has a suspension rate of 46.39%.   At the present time, we do not have an actual number of suspensions the referenced percentages translate to, however, as we move forward with the work we plan to produce a report by February 2015 to present to the legislature and the Juvenile Justice Reform Act Implementation Commission (JJRAIC) in order to inform or push legislation in 2015.

Finally we would also like to make mention of one of our youth members Rahsaan Ison.  Rahsaan is a 16 year old student at the New Orleans Center of Creative Arts. He started working with FFLIC when he was suspended from school in early 2014 for crossing against the railroad tracks in front of his school after being dropped off by his mother who was late for work. Rahsaan is a talented musician and an aspiring entrepreneur as he had formed his own bowtie and accessory company “Ison Bowties, Etc.” while in school. Unfortunately during his and his mother’s tireless fight to have him returned to school, his mom lost her job and they became homeless for a period of time.  Rahsaan with the assistance of FFLIC began forming a youth group in New Orleans organized around the national Dignity in Schools Campaign (DSC) working against school pushouts and harsh discipline policies.  We were so proud of Rahsaan’s perseverance and initiative that we nominated him for the Marguerite Casey Foundation’s Sargent Shriver Youth Warriors Against Poverty Leadership Award and he won the award receiving $5,000 in recognition of his vision, passion, and dedication to improving the lives of families in his community. Rahsaan recently went to Portland, OR to collaborate with other DSC youth creating a music CD focused on the frustrations of school push-out.

Juvenile Justice Reform

FFLIC continues its efforts to hold Louisiana accountable for reforming our state’s juvenile prison system, however, we have faced some serious setbacks this year. In early 2014, Jetson Correctional Center for Youth (JCCY) in Baker, LA was shutdown unfortunately with no clear plan as to what to do with the youth who were housed within the facility.  Most youth were transferred 90 miles away to Bridge City Correctional Center for Youth (BCCY) located in the metro New Orleans area.  Others were sent to the Swanson Correctional Center for Youth (SCCY) which is 180 miles away from JCCY.  The closing of JCCY closed the fast track program that allowed youth the opportunity to regain freedom in 6 months.  Youth who commit sex offenses are only housed at BCCY which leaves youth who have committed lesser offenses at risk for violence.  Parents are no longer able to see their children as most cannot afford to travel such a far distance.  When visiting is scheduled, parents are given less than 24 hour notice and there is no way to confirm that a parent has actually been notified or reached that they can come visit their child. FFLIC conducted a compliance visit to BCCY in July 2014 and submitted a report to the Office of Juvenile Justice (OJJ) on the issues that needed to be immediately addressed which included: the ratio of teachers to students; the long waiting periods to enter the vocational programs offered; outdated equipment used in the vocational programs; and lack of timeliness in contacting parents or guardians for visitation.  We have yet to hear back from OJJ.  FFLIC has also scheduled a compliance visit for SCCY in December 2014 in which we will submit a report as well to OJJ on our findings in hopes of a favorable response.

To further add to this JCCY debacle, Governor Jindal has approved capital funding to rebuild a new facility on the JCCY grounds after years of wasting tax payer money on the old facility. Even though FFLIC has had several meetings with OJJ officials, there has been no word as to whether this new facility will be constructed based on the suggested Missouri Model providing dorm like facilities that foster an interactive approach between youth, families, treatment center staff and community staff. The Missouri Model takes a caring, personal approach rather than a correctional approach to treating young people. Although OJJ reported 316 youth in non-secure care in the 2nd quarter of 2014[2], we are still actively working to reduce this number by 50% in 2017. JJRAIC has only had one meeting this year and continues to remain powerless to hold OJJ accountable.  Governor Jindal continues to cut OJJ’s budget limiting the development of community based alternatives.  In addition, OJJ continues to have a high staff turnover ratio bringing in staff who lack adequate training perpetuating the lack of accountability and risk to injury to youth.  In the spring of 2014, we spoke with Representative Walt Leger to discuss the lack of accountability by the JJRAIC and what we could do to address this issue and his suggestion was developing some type of legislation. FFLIC continues to push for another meeting with the JJRAIC before the end of 2014 and will be connecting with the Louisiana Public Defender Board (Gina Womack is a board member) and the Louisiana Center for Children’s Rights to research bills that will be brought forth to legislation in 2015 that will possibly hold OJJ and JJRAIC accountable and not negatively impact the juvenile justice system.

Another huge setback not only for juvenile justice reform but on a personal level came in June 2014 when Mr. Johnson’s son Ernest Cloud was remanded back to the Bridge City Correctional Center for Youth after the Louisiana Supreme Court overturned Ernest’s release saying that he failed to complete the requirements of his probation by not completing a vocational course while he was at BCCY.  When Mr. Johnson came to us 6 years ago, he was seeking help in advocating for Ernest who was 14 at the time.  Mr. Johnson fought tirelessly for his son’s freedom and three years later Ernest was released from custody and Mr. Johnson was a fulltime FFLIC staff member.  We all have been devastated by this ruling and fail to comprehend how Ernest is being punished for the lack of responsibility and accountability by BCCY staff to make sure that he was placed on the waiting list and enrolled in the course once room became available.  This egregious act continues to demonstrate how the injustices of a broken system continue to oppress those who are working hard to remove themselves from it. BCCY only has one vocational program for culinary arts with 6 spaces.  There were 26 people on the waiting list while Ernest was at BCCY.  He would have loved to have taken the training however his counselor never placed him on the waiting list.  Before Ernest was remanded back into BCCY custody, he was employed, taking a vocational training course, and expecting his first child, a son.  He was unable to be there for the birth of his child and must complete an 18 month vocational program before he can be released.  Through Mr. Johnson’s tireless efforts to appeal this injustice along with the support of FFLIC, Ernest was released on October 6, 2014 and will hopefully not be subjected to any further unjust action by the Supreme Court.

On a more positive note, Mr. Johnson was appointed as the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative (JDAI) advisory committee chairperson and has been working closely with Judge Mark Doherty to ensure the necessary policy changes and programs are established to reduce the reliance on secure care facilities ultimately reducing the negative and long lasting impacts on our youth, taxpayer dollars, and public safety.  Gina Womack and Mr. Johnson along with FFLIC members have attended 21 JDAI committee meetings and participated in 7 Alternative to Detention work group meetings so far this year. Mr. Johnson has facilitated 7 of the JDAI meetings.  He spearheaded the discussion around establishing a policy to have youth reviewed every 30 days to determine if alternatives are effective, so that youth do not stay in an ineffective program longer than they should.  The committee is looking to develop a pilot alternative program entitled “Community Coaches Service” whose mission will be to provide youth, families, juvenile court, and the community of New Orleans with a stable but not intrusive community based alternative to incarceration for pre –adjudication youth that serves to reduce the risk of re-offense and failure to appear for court. The service design of Community Coaches will be an individualized supervisory one to ensure youth return to court, are connected to resources, and are referred to human social services. We would also like to express our excitement at Mr. Johnson being a recent recipient of the National Juvenile Justice Network’s Beth Arnovits Gutsy Youth Advocate award for his tenacious work on behalf of young people in trouble with the law.  He also served on the Marguerite Casey Foundation’s Equal Voice Action (EVA) Advisory Board for the development of its 501(c)(4)  and was recently placed on that national organization’s board.

Another milestone in our juvenile justice reform efforts was the appointment of FFLIC as a non-voting member to the Louisiana Pretrial Service Commission.  We will review the state’s pretrial service laws and policies and make recommendations for policy and legislative changes that will assist in providing more effective pretrial decision-making.  Also on September 9, 2014, FFLIC finally accomplished another policy win when the Children Youth and Planning Board agreed to adopt the Family Bill of Rights act which serves as a set of guidelines for those who work in the juvenile justice field on family involvement and addresses the needs of “ALL children, youth, and families of New Orleans” who are in or targeted by the juvenile justice system.

[1] Reference to SB 652 is for information and context purposes only and FFLIC will not be requesting or earmarking any future grant funds for lobbying activities.

[2] Louisiana Juvenile Justice Quarterly Indicators http://ojj.la.gov/ojj/files/file/Demographics/ojj%20indicators_5_service_area_2014Q2.pdf

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