“At first my experience with law enforcement was negative. I thought they were just picking on us kids, but now I have a better understanding of the role that everyone plays.”
That was what one student at Evander Childs High School said during her participation in a summer program conducted in partnership between Evander Childs and Bronx Community Solutions.
The project's immediate goal was to provide students with the structure, support and extra school credits they needed to graduate on-time. But we had another goal in mind as well: seeking to include the views of young people in the debate about criminal justice, particularly on issues that directly affect young people.
It’s based on the Youth Justice Board, a project of the Center for Court Innovation that trains New York City high school students to research and investigate issues related to criminal justice and public safety that are of particular concern to young people, then work to include a credible youth voice in policy making on those issues. At Evander Childs, the students focused on examining the Criminal Court and Family Court systems, their response to youthful offenders and the impact of those responses on the community, youth and their families.
Students used a fact-finding, hands-on approach. They conducted site visits to courthouses, interviewed judges, defense attorneys and prosecutors and hosted guest speakers.
Often when speaking to court personnel, the students were surprised to find out that they had more in common than they expected. When the students heard from a judge who himself grew up in the Bronx, attended local schools, and shared the same challenges and experiences that the students themselves faced, it changed their perspective in a big way.
“It’s clear that the students acquired an appreciation for the work performed by those who toil in the courts. On the court side it was clear that the judges and other court personnel were excited to have the chance to see kids in a different context, one where the focus was on education rather than litigation,” said Alfred Siegel, the Deputy Director of the Center for Court Innovation.
Many of the students said that the program had changed how they thought of themselves as students. They said they felt they had matured over the past six weeks, and learned how to interact with adults in a new and positive way. When asked what they would share with other teens from their experience, one student said; “I would talk to them about how actions have consequences, and that teens should know what those are before doing something stupid.” This lesson led the members of the program to recommend an enhanced preventative youth justice component for the curriculum of New York City High School students.