Virginia continues to struggle with issues relating to juvenile justice and student discipline.
In 2015, more youth in Virginia were referred to law enforcement than all other states across the country. While that’s not the case now, the state continues to outpace many others when it comes to the number of youth who are arrested – and end up behind bars.
“At night I know I’m locked in. I’ll be up at like 3 in the morning just looking at the door. The cold door open up, but it ain’t opening for me.” That’s the voice of a teen who was incarcerated in a detention center.
As part of the Performing Statistics art and advocacy initiative, he and other youth detained at the Richmond Juvenile Detention Center recorded their experiences and observations.
Beaumont closed last year due to a number of factors.
“Everyone deserves another chance. I would have been doing community service for this whole six months, I would have been in a substance abuse program, an anger management program…I could have done anything. It would have gave me more of a second chance, it would have gave me more of what I had to do…time to get back and learn.”
In 2016, Virginia’s Department of Juvenile Justice announced plans to transform its current system and turn youth prisons into rehabilitation centers.
Director Andrew Block shared some of his vision in a Ted talk last year.
“We created alternative placements so not everybody had to get sent upstate. We started changing probation practices so we could get the right kid, the right program at the right time so hopefully they didn’t have to enter the services or penetrate as deeply. But we also realized we had to do better work in those facilities.”
Block aims to decrease the number of total youth beds by 70% from 550 in 2016 - which included those at Beaumont - to about 150, but he says it’s not realistic to think secure facilities can go away any time soon for all youth.
The department has requested help from the state to build a 60-bed youth facility near Hampton and a new facility to replace Bon Air.
Valerie Slater with the Legal Aid Justice Center says this doesn’t do enough for the Hampton Roads community – where there’s a high percentage of incarcerated kids. While she agrees with Block that sometimes a secure setting is necessary, she says the proposed location for the 60-bed center – on the Isle of Wight - is too isolated. She adds it should be even smaller – around 30 beds or less - and situated in the community itself.
“Why not go into the communities and look at state owned properties that could potentially be fitted for secure care? That would be so much more effective. Because then you would be putting resources into communities that are struggling, and when you pour resources and they also come with rehabilitative services it's not just the young people that will change. It's the communities and the families that they're coming from that will change right along with them.”
Slater and others would like to see the department partner with programs that are already working in the community - like Teens with a Purpose - as well as those that’ve been effective in other states, like the Roca program in Boston - that intervenes in the lives of at-risk young men, moms and gang members to help them find employment.
Meanwhile, Slater and others say the state needs to do more to prevent young people from ending up in jail in the first place. Several bills are in play to address what’s known as the school-to-prison pipeline.
There’s been a compromise on a Senate bill originally prohibiting suspensions and expulsions for most kids grades K-3 to allow three-day suspensions.
Republican Delegate Dickie Bell –who is sponsoring a similar House bill - says that suspension length is already common.
“Well it allows for three-day suspensions. And that’s the average length of a suspension for this age group now. So what does it do? It doesn’t accomplish anything.”
Stacey Doss’s five-year-old son is African American and has a learning disability. She says because of her son’s problems in the classroom, he’s been suspended several times much to her – and her son’s - dismay.
“Why can't I go to school mom? Why can't I go? And I had to try to explain to him, a five year old. Well honey you are suspended you cannot go to school today but tomorrow will be a better day because tomorrow you can go to school and he said, but why not? Today I miss my friends. So he doesn't understand what is happening but he does know that he's being kept away from something that he enjoys.”
Bell says it doesn’t benefit the student to send a kid that age home.
“All we do is contribute to the bad behavior as far as I’m concerned. I think schools need to meet their obligation, and their obligation is to provide high quality education for every child. And they need to find a way to set up alternative learning placements.”
Both bills will come up in full committee next week. Democratic Senator Jennifer McClellan has also introduced a budget amendment to remove a recession-era cap on school support staff who could help those like Doss’s son.
“These are the very people who would help students when they first started exhibiting behavior that could lead to them being suspended or expelled.”
Additionally - Democratic Delegate Jeff Bourne has a bill aiming to cap the length of long-term suspensions at 45 days – instead of the currently allowed 364 days.
“We cannot keep using access – or a lack thereof – to education as a punishment and continue to expect positive results. We will never be able to close the achievement gap if we continue down this path of disparate expulsion and long-term suspensions and disciplinary practices.”
Bourne’s bill is expected to come up for a vote on the House floor today (2/6).