Recently, we spoke with Rodd Monts, Field Director at the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan (ACLU-MI). Rodd is a fellow in NJJN's Youth Justice Leadership Institute (YJLI), 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-prepared advocates and organizers who reflect the communities most affected by juvenile justice system practices and policies.
Fellows in the Institute are expected to complete a yearlong advocacy project. Can you tell me about your project?
My project is focused on zero tolerance reform and the goals are to get the present zero tolerance law changed and to see a reduction in suspensions and expulsions as a result of that. There have been hearings on separate bipartisan packages of school discipline bills in both the state House and Senate that address truancy and chronic absenteeism, require alternatives to suspension as well as a consideration of causal factors before suspending youth for 180 days. This will give school districts greater discretion on how to respond to youth behavior. We’ve been working at the state level to get education officials and legislators educated about zero tolerance and its impact on educational outcomes. I’ve talked to the Department of Education and the State Board of Education, the Department of Health and Human Services, and anyone else who will listen, really, to shop our proposed amendments to the state zero tolerance policy.
At the grassroots level, I’ve been working with American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) members and supporters: people around the state who are passionate about working on the school-to-prison-pipeline issue. We’ve held “know your rights” trainings and arranged and spoken at events to talk about the negative consequences of the school-to-prison-pipeline, and to encourage people to raise their concerns to their school districts and legislators.
We’re also intervening in situations of extensive or egregious zero tolerance-related issues in certain districts. We get complaints about those cases and we approach school officials, request data, and talk to them about why their school suspension, expulsion or arrest rates are excessive or disproportionate. We’ve represented individual students when we could, which allows us to draw attention to how a particular district needs to change its policies and practices.
H.B. 5618 and its companion legislation are currently being considered for a vote in the House. I am looking forward to seeing these bills move this summer. It would be great to have it done before next school year.
What motivates you to work in youth justice reform?
I have an interest in helping people, and I am especially interested in trying to help young people be better. And as a result of that, I think I have developed a passion for addressing those things that prevent young people from being their best.
I have also felt led to this particular work because of the injustice that my father endured as a teenager. My family is from Little Rock, Arkansas. My grandparents’ home sits across the street from Central High School, but I didn’t know until recently that my father had a connection to the Little Rock Nine. It was probably seven or eight years ago when a book was published that tells the story of a woman named Carlotta Walls LaNier, who was a good friend of my father’s growing up, and the youngest member of the Little Rock Nine. After the schools were shut down and those nine students had already suffered all sorts of hatred and hardship, Carlotta’s home was firebombed, and my father tried to help by sharing info on what he saw that evening with investigators. He ended up being accused of that crime by the FBI. He was coerced by the FBI into confessing to that crime and was imprisoned for two years until my grandparents convinced them to free him.
Carlotta wrote the book in part to tell her story—about making what she thought was an innocent choice to be in this group, and later realizing that it would have huge consequences for her family and friends, including my father. She admired how this experience didn’t embitter him; he moved on with his life. When I asked him why he never told me this story, he just said that everyone knew he didn’t do it. They knew the segregationists had done it, so he went on with his life. It’s hard not to be inspired by a story like that. And I believe that today, because of institutional bias and flawed laws that too many youths – particularly those of color -- get pushed needlessly into the justice system or are trapped there for far too long.
Why do you think the Youth Justice Leadership Institute is important? On a personal level? On a movement level?
There is tremendous value in being able to network with peers who understand issues you’re working on in ways that many others don’t. There’s tremendous benefit in hearing about various challenges that folks are having in their own states when working on issues similar to what you’re working on. You pick up subject matter knowledge that you may not have otherwise learned because you had this opportunity to work with people who are encountering these cases and challenges that you may not face. It helps you to be more creative. I have found that to be the case. It’s also been helpful, as a person who works on a higher policy or systemic level, to have the perspectives of my colleagues who work more closely and directly with the people affected.
The question about movement came up toward the end of our time in Tennessee [at the Institute’s second in-person meeting]. I don’t really think any of us spent a lot of time thinking about the absence of a movement. I know my cohort has questioned whether there truly is a cohesive movement, and thought about how we might contribute to bringing folks together in a way that we might be able to build one. We need to be more united in order to demonstrate that there is in fact a movement. I understand that with any issue work there’ll be some people working more collaboratively than others. Having had conversations with a number of people working on youth justice issues, I believe the issue may be that people perceive themselves to be more united than they are. I think raising that consciousness amongst the various Institute cohorts going forward will result in fellows being more intentional about how they view the youth justice movement. Hopefully, this will help future fellows -- and us alumni as well -- work to unite folks in the youth justice community so we are working more intentionally toward a shared set of goals.
I hope that people will continue to support the Institute. I hope people will be motivated to pursue the opportunity. I think it’s great for leadership development. And I also believe it is tremendously valuable both in terms of personal development and relationship building. You really get an opportunity to interact with smart, talented people from all over the country, to form relationships that you wouldn’t have otherwise.
What do you do when you’re not advocating for youth justice reform?
When I’m not working on youth justice, I’m working on other civil rights and civil liberties issues. Here at the ACLU of Michigan I’m involved in a lot of education-related work, mass incarceration, police practices, our LGBT work, and other stuff. We opened an office in Flint, so I’ve been spending more time there trying to help residents get the long-term resources they need to deal with a crisis caused, essentially, as a result of the state stripping citizens of their democratic rights. Outside of work, I am into running and cycling, and have spent a lot of time coaching youth sports. I am always trying to find more time for golf, which is kinda like hiking for me, as I seem to spend considerable time looking for lost golf balls.