Hometown: McMurray, PA
Majors: Environmental Studies and Biology
Off-campus experiences: Not really "off-campus", but I've done research on local water quality for the past two years (including summer internships) through the Biology department as a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Fellow.
Why did you apply for this particular internship? I applied to the Shepherd Alliance because I am interested in becoming an environmental lawyer, and "sustainability" encompasses economic and social as well as environmental sustainability. I am very interested in the connections between social and environmental justice, and I hoped that this summer would give me hands-on insight into poverty that I could use to guide my career decisions. Since I've spent the last two years doing biology and environmental science research, I wanted to get the social justice experience this summer.
What was the most unexpected aspect of your Shepherd Alliance experience? The most unexpected aspect has been how difficult it is to work with the disorder in Chester. I expected that the schools would be bad, but I had no idea how bad. Talking with the students in Youth Court training has been a real eye-opener; most of them have gone elsewhere (PA Cyber or the next school district over) for school because they value their education. With such a dysfunctional education system, non-profits and work like the Youth Courts cannot function as well because they don't have the resources or institutional support that they need.
Post-graduation plans: Hopefully law school, maybe with a dual degree.
Favorite W&L memory: All of RA training, every year
Favorite class: Definitely the Spring Term Biology class in Yellowstone National Park. There is nothing better than spending two weeks in that beauty. Getting to do research there to understand the park ecosystem was an added bonus.
What professor has inspired you? Almost all of my professors have impacted me in one way or another - that's one of the great things about W&L. Of those, though, three professors have consistently inspired and shaped me through my time at W&L. Dr. Bill Hamilton has been an absolutely incredible mentor and research advisor. Dr. Robert Humston, another incredible mentor, has been a wonderful supporter and pushed me to dream bigger. Finally, Dr. Shane Lynch has been a phenomenal choir director, somehow connecting with all his students and inspiring us to put our souls into the music even after a long day of work (which, for me, is usually with Dr. Humston or Dr. Hamilton).
When my supervisor, Gregory Volz, trained his first group of students to run a Youth Court in Chester, Pa., he asked them "What is the law?" as a simple introductory question. After a long silence, one student hesitatingly raised a hand and said, "The law is... when they indict you for something that you did not do." Gregg cites this quote in a law review article on Youth Courts. Personally, I think this story is a prime example of both the poor educational system in Chester and the tainted relationship between many community members (especially youth) and the legal system.
Youth Courts are alternative disciplinary systems (functioning in schools or the juvenile justice system) that use restorative, rather than punitive justice. They are run entirely by students (who assume the roles of judge, bailiff, youth advocate/"defense attorney," jury foreman and jurors) trained to hear disciplinary hearings and deliberate on an appropriate disposition. Instead of punishment (harming the student offender for harm caused to others), Youth Courts focus on repairing the harm that was done and giving the respondent the tools to avoid future misbehavior. Positive peer pressure is used to overcome negative. Peer disapproval can be more poignant than lectures from adults, but peers are also better able to empathize with the triggers and mediating factors behind the incident, particularly if it occurred in a challenging school environment.
Typical dispositions include serving on the Youth Court jury, writing apology letters, researching and writing essays on relevant topics, community service or different types of counseling. Restorative justice blunts the school-to-prison pipeline caused by zero-tolerance discipline, where students are suspended or expelled for a minor first offense. They end up on the streets, likely to commit more serious offenses and become prisoners. Youth Courts, on the other hand, foster positive disciplinary interactions, keep students in school, and reform behaviors by encouraging personal development and reflection on past decisions.
One of my most encouraging workdays included sitting in on a Philadelphia City Council hearing on Youth Courts. My co-workers and I helped prepare two Chester Youth Court graduates to testify on a panel with Gregg. The first young man, headed to college in the fall, had served as a talented judge when a few Council members came to observe the Chester Youth Court. The Councilman who chaired the Committee--present during that observation--was very impressed with both students, and kept referring to the former judge as "Your Honor." The second young man, also an experienced and impressive Youth Court member, testified that he "was once a troubled youth who became a leader" through his involvement in Youth Court. He is now entering his second year at the Art Institute of Philadelphia.
In his testimony, the first student ("Your Honor") talked about Youth Court "bringing out the activist" in him and enabling him to make changes to the Chester school environment, which is notoriously chaotic and unstructured--and experiencing more budget cuts and layoffs each year. This same young man helped lead student walk-outs from the schools to protest the poor learning environment. Astutely, he described how Youth Court allowed students like him to actively transform school environments by working with the administration, rather than opposing it. He also described how he was seen as a role model in the disordered schools. Instead of being scorned for his disciplinarian role, younger students would watch him as a judge and say, "I want to be him when I grow up". According to his experiences, Youth Court was not only a disciplinary strategy that reduced recidivism, but also a respected group that empowered members to be activists in a school with serious challenges.
At Washington and Lee, we rely fully on student self-governance. While we tend to lean toward zero-tolerance (an Honor Violation will get you removed from the University), our student body is made of young adults who, for the most part, understand the significance of a violation, are able to think through behaviors before acting, wish to remain at W&L and generally respect authority and disciplinary systems. In a high school or middle school, where students are younger, more impulsive, and more inclined to push boundaries, student governance should be primarily restorative. In a low-income community like Chester, where students are negatively predisposed toward authority and discipline; where suspension or expulsion feels like a holiday; where getting a good education is difficult even if students stay in school; and where more and more students are falling into the school-to-prison pipeline; restorative peer-to-peer discipline is even more critical.
While training a group of high-achieving Chester students to run Youth Courts this summer, we asked about the challenges in their schools, intending for them to discuss common triggers for misbehavior and how a disposition can help overcome these. Instead, the response we got was, "Everyone expects us to fail." This attitude--in teachers, parents, other students, even the broader world--keeps students from engaging in their community, holding each other accountable and getting the most out of their education.
Part of the recipe for change has to be student activism and leadership toward a positive learning environment and better opportunities. Youth Courts not only help reform young offenders, they also give members a hands-on education in the legal system and the confidence and power to speak for themselves and lead others. This summer has taught me a tremendous amount about the interconnectedness of the legal and education systems. Depending on the quality of and relationship between these two structures, a community can either become empowered to overcome poverty or further trapped in a cycle of hopelessness. Youth Courts fill gaps in both systems while revitalizing the relationship between them. Although they are certainly not a panacea for poverty or even juvenile offenders, I do hope that they continue to be adopted as a mechanism for students to transform their own communities, especially in low-income areas.