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Meet the Fellows: Christy Sampson-Kelly

April 8, 2015
Zoe Schein

Recently, we spoke with Christy Sampson-Kelly, Director of Practitioner Support at the Center for Educational Excellence in Alternative Settings. Christy is a fellow in NJJN's Youth Justice Leadership Institute, a year-long program that aims to create a more effective foundation for the juvenile justice reform movement by developing a strong base of well-trained and well-prepared advocates and organizers who reflect the communities most affected by juvenile justice system practices and policies.

juvenile-justice-reform_Christy-Sampson-KellyWhat motivates you to work in youth justice reform?

My motivation starts with my work as a classroom teacher. That was my first career, and one of the things that happened while I was teaching was that I realized I was having trouble reaching all of my students. Really what was happening was that I was losing kids to the juvenile justice system. I’d have them for part of the school year, and then they’d kind of leave, maybe come back, or not at all. But my thought as a special educator at the time was that placement in these settings was not helpful to the young people, and it was not creating the type of change that was deemed necessary. 

Fellows in the Institute are expected to complete a yearlong advocacy project. Can you tell me about your project?

My advocacy project focuses on young people with special needs who are incarcerated within our juvenile justice system. Young people with special needs are seriously overrepresented there, and when you add that to the fact that young people of color are already overrepresented in the word of special education, well the problem is just compounded.

The goal of my project is to increase awareness and provide strategies related to interacting with youth with special education needs inside juvenile justice facilities. The numbers are so high; in some states, 60-70 percent of kids in long-term, secure placements have identified special education needs. On top of the overrepresentation inside the facilities, these young people are overrepresented in isolation and segregated units. Every time I visit a facility, an insanely high proportion of kids in isolation are kids with disabilities. At the same time, the people tasked with caring for these young people in a setting that should be therapeutic just don’t have a comprehensive idea of how to work with kids with disabilities.

juvenile-justice-reform_special-educationSo, the first part of my project is to develop learning modules that would become part of the mandatory training for secure care personnel. The idea is to inform their practice, so they can interact with young people in a way that promotes healthy relationships and focuses on the young peoples’ strengths, instead of this misguided idea of fixing inherent areas of challenge. This is heavy and requires embracing a real shift in correctional mindsets.

The other part has to do with parents. Looking at special education throughout history, parents have been the most consistent advocates for their kids, especially in terms of making sure they’re treated well and have access to school. My goal is to make parents aware of what’s happening with youth with disabilities inside juvenile facilities and of their continued rights as parents. Those rights just don’t completely disappear because your child is incarcerated.

Why do you think the Youth Justice Leadership Institute is important?

When I think about the Institute and how it fits into the idea of reform, I think about a day when juvenile justice reform efforts actually become a movement of the people—that’s something I hope to see. I don’t think we’re there yet. Reform efforts are definitely underway, but they’re disconnected. They hold this potential, but they don’t make up a movement. I think the Institute is helping to lay a critical piece of the foundation for one, though. In order for a movement for justice to be effective it requires a diversity of voices, and that’s a role that the Institute is playing. It helps to ensure that the social hierarchies that structure our society are not replicated within the space of a juvenile justice movement.

What about on a personal level?

For me, personally, it’s the place I hold in this space. I’m one of those people who has made a career of operating in the space of juvenile justice. This is what I do. It’s my job. So for me, it helps me to think of the larger idea of a more unified movement and where I might fit. Being that I work with state agencies choosing to improve the educational reality for young people inside facilities, it’s been eye-opening just to meet so many different people [in the Institute] who work around different aspects of this machine that calls itself a juvenile justice system: from families and communities impacted by it to people who work for the actual agencies themselves. It’s broadened my perspective, and it helps to make me a better piece of the puzzle. I have so many people I can go to who can answer questions, or give me different perspectives, so I’m less boxed into my own experience.

I think it’s given me confidence, too, just knowing that there are other people who are invested in this work and who are passionate and excited. It can be lonely work, and being able to call those people friends and colleagues is amazing for me.

What do you do when you’re not advocating for youth justice reform?

My family is an incredible part of who I am. I have four kids; they keep me smiling and ensure that I don’t get lost in the work. I have a true partner in my husband, who supports me in my wanderings and in continually becoming who I am. My parents, too -- they just instilled this idea early on that my voice matters. So I have people behind me who keep me energized. And I write, am always writing, and trying to re-vision this world of ours one word at a time.


  • The Center for Educational Excellence in Alternative Settings has launched this year's Words Unlocked competition, a month-long initiative to encourage literary exploration for young people in secure facilities. Words Unlocked, led by Christy Sampson-Kelly, will culminate in a poetry competition. Educational tools, including daily lesson plans and teacher-ready classroom materials, are available at the Words Unlocked website


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