spring_branch-wideTHE YOUTH FORUM has identified some tough and often depressing challenges facing our kids:  Addiction and overdose.  The school to prison pipeline.  Racial Disparities in the Juvenile Justice system.  The unique challenges facing special needs children.   Corrupt judges jailing kids for profit. But with the onset of Spring, we’ll pause and reflect on a few reasons to be inspired and for guarded optimism.  Through the short history of this blog,  I’ve  been privileged to meet several people who have channeled their personal challenges, and sometimes overwhelming tragedy and grief, into a determined, concerted effort — not just to help others they encounter — but to bring impactful, systematic improvement to their schools and communities, and ultimately save lives.  Allow me to introduce you to just a few:

Meet Mark and Julie Filler from Highland Park, Illinois.  Facing the devastating loss of their amazing son Jordan to heroin addiction, they  established The Jordan Michael Filler Foundation to take Jordan’s fight out from behind closed doors. With the support of a dedicated and admiring family and community, they now work to educate children and their parents, share best practices with  schools, support increased accessibility of medications, and improve policies and laws that can save lives.

Meet Katy Hutchison from Victoria, British Columbia.  After her husband’s murder on New Year’s Eve 1997 Katy waited for five years while the  police worked to prosecute and convict his killers.  As a result of her experience, Katy grew to recognize the critical need to educate and support members of the community and other stakeholders about risks and opportunities for our young people.  She was moved by her own tragedy to devote years pursuing restorative justice advocacy work with youth, communities and the criminal justice system, helping others look at ways to use restorative practices to build and sustain healthier communities

Meet Lorenn Walker.  Lorenn lived on her own when she was 14 years old, dropped out of high school at 15, was adjudicated as a juvenile offender at 16, was a teen parent, and seriously injured in an assault at age 24.  As a result of her own challenges, she devoted herself to becoming an expert and leader in the implementation of restorative justice practices, designing and facilitating effective learning programs, focusing on reentry for incarcerated people, substance abuse, violence prevention, and reconciliation for people harmed by wrongdoing and social injustice, working with schools, courts, prisons, businesses, and the police.  She is a co-editor and contributor of the excellent book,Restorative Justice Today: Practical Applications.

“Restorative Justice” practices  engage those who are harmed, wrongdoers and their affected communities in search of solutions that promote repair, reconciliation and the rebuilding of relationships; building partnerships to reestablish mutual responsibility for constructive responses to wrongdoing. As just one local example, we reported earlier on the remarkable reduction in suspensions in some Chicago High Schools using restorative justice practices awhich, as we’ve seen, reduce suspensions which reduce dropout rates which reduce criminal activity.

Meet 9 year old Kamryn Remfro of Grand Junction Colorado, who successfully challenged the uniform dress and appearance code of Caprock Academy Charter School, by shaving her head to support a friend undergoing chemotherapy treatment.  Kamryn may not be the “at-risk” youth we typically cover, but her simple act of defiance to support a friend in need exemplifies a mindset that is pushing back on zero tolerance policies across the country that have had devastating implications for our most underserved children, fueling the school-to-prison pipeline that has devastated so many (disproportionately minority) for behaviors that can often be addressed more effectively in school.

Meet Terence (whose real identity will remain confidential).  He flipped over a desk in anger in a confrontation with his teacher.  Two years ago he would have been suspended for 3-10 days, and sent out into the streets, angry and frustrated.  But through school-centered RJ staff discovered that Terence’s cousin had been shot and killed two weeks earlier, and he had been bottling up the hurt and anger with nowhere to turn and no ability to process his emotions.  Through UMOJA peace circles, RJ staff helped keep him in school, repair relationships with his teacher and classmates, and implement other steps to prevent future incidents.

Some hopeful trends to consider this spring as well:

*    Juvenile arrest rates for violent crime in the U.S. has dropped by more than 50% from its peak in 1994. 

*   Youth incarceration rates in the United States — while still far higher than in most countries — have also dropped significantly, reflecting a sustained drop in juvenile crime, a shift of thinking obout the best way to handle young people who break the law, a belief that recidivism rates are higher for those detained, and fiscal pressures forcing tough-on-crime politicians to now consider the effectiveness of less costly alternatives.

*   There has been significant progress in the fight against children working in hazardous labor conditions, fueled by stronger political commitments and ratifications of conventions designed that draw attention to and combat the risks of child labor.

*   The United States Center for Disease Control and Prevention announced a sharp decline in childhood obesity for children ages 2-5, a drop attributed to heightened  awareness, healthier diets and commitments of local, state and federal initiatives.

*   There is an emerging and increasingly public Culture of Recovery (exemplified by the filmThe Anonymous People), pushing back against community pressures that once convinced parents to keep the problem of youth addiction a family secret and  providing alternatives to the plague of addiction.

Of course, much work remains.  Just this past week, 36 people in Chicago were shot in the span of just 36 hours, killing at least four, including a 17 year old girl. Our heartfelt sympathies go out to the families of Gakirah Barnes, 17, and the other victims.  In coming posts we’ll turn to the persistent culture of youth violence, the intersection of a mental health care crisis and the juvenile justice system, and many other challenges to be addressed.  But it is spring.  There is progress.  And hope springs eternal.