Home News Center NJJN Fellow Ashley Sawyer Fights to Include Families in Education Planning for Youth in the Justice System

NJJN Fellow Ashley Sawyer Fights to Include Families in Education Planning for Youth in the Justice System

July 7, 2016
Benjamin Chambers

juvenile-justice-reform_Ashley-SawyerRecently, we spoke with Ashley Sawyer, a member of the National Juvenile Justice Network and Stoneleigh Emerging Leader fellow at Education Law Center. She was a 2015-2016 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.


Can you tell us about your youth justice advocacy work?

My advocacy project for YJLI was to develop a curriculum where juvenile court judges in Pennsylvania, especially Philadelphia, could learn more about the ways their placement decisions impact students, families and communities. (I always refer to youth as “students.” Language is so powerful; I want to make sure that we always think about kids in the juvenile justice system as students – just as we would with kids on the outside.)

When I moved to Philadelphia, I became connected with a group of grandmothers and families of those impacted by the system (Northwest Coalition to Promote Resilient Communities). It’s an outgrowth of a healing group, and they reached out to me to try to figure out what to do and how they wanted to get started. I was looking for something like that, where my policy work could be informed by those who knew, on an intimate level, what it was like to have a family member in the juvenile justice system.

In the juvenile courts, it’s supposed to be a conversation between the judge, the lawyers, the student, and the student’s family about what a young person needs to be successful. The juvenile justice system is supposed to be designed to rehabilitate – and addressing any mental health needs, special education needs, and other education needs is a huge part of that process. In Pennsylvania, when a kid is found guilty for a crime or delinquent act, all those factors are supposed to be taken into account. And who’s more qualified to speak to those factors than the families of the students? If the student’s needs are raised in court, the judge can take that information into account and ask, “Is sending this kid to a facility going to make them better? Do the facilities have the resources needed to adequately support this youth?”

But what happens in practice is that you go into the courtroom, and it looks just like a regular court room: the juvenile court just mirrors the adult system. The power dynamic is so skewed, and the process so fast and harried, that none of the kids’ needs can be raised. The grandmothers I was working with reported that when their grandchildren went through the adjudication process, they felt like they had no say in that process.

The families also reported that representatives from the private, secure facilities in the state are actually in the courtroom when hearings are held. They have these brochures, they’re advertising the services at their facilities to families – and the families are overwhelmed. They don’t have the opportunity to ask questions about what these facilities provide, or to do any research.

In theory, there’s supposed to be a collaborative decision about where a student should be placed. But the process really excludes family members. Students with disabilities make up a huge proportion of youth in the juvenile justice system, and their parents have a right to participate in their education plan even if they’re in the juvenile justice system. So our question was, how can we get judges to make sure that the parents are involved, as is their right? How can we make sure these kids are getting a good education, make sure their credits transfer? And how can we make sure that Pennyslvania facilities report to parents about what’s going on during the 30-day period after a youth is locked up and facility staff are assessing a new student’s needs?

What we decided to do was to develop a training curriculum where the juvenile court judges have an opportunity to learn what this process means to a family, and about best practices. We don’t need to reinvent the wheel— we know that entering a facility decreases a student’s likelihood of ever graduating from high school. And we know there are already best practices around education, placement, mental health for kids in the juvenile justice system.

Of course, judges may well ask, “Okay, so facilities have these negative impacts, but what are my options?” So I mapped the existing community-based placements in Philadelphia specifically: how many slots they have, what services they offer, and how many allow students to stay in the school district of Philadelphia. This really rounded out the presentation, so we can offer tools for judges to use in lieu of sending kids far away to placement.

The question was how to share the presentation with judges. The juvenile court judges of Pennsylvania have a conference here every year, and parents and families have never played a critical role in that conference. So we applied to present at that conference. We haven’t heard back yet, but I think the process of creating the curriculum has given us a road map for future reform work. 

Learn more about our YJLI Fellows here

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