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Indy agency continues student advocacy work to eliminate school-to-prison pipeline

INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) — More children are ending up in the juvenile and adult judicial system when child advocates say counseling could be the better option.

The Children’s Policy and Law Initiative of Indiana has a variety of programs aimed at minimizing the school-to-prison pipeline. Agency president JauNae Hanger said in addition to working to change laws, the agency is taking special training into area schools to help teachers learn how to respond to disruptive children, but also understand the roots of some bad behavior.

Becoming a teacher comes with a lot of responsibilities. Helping build young people’s minds and giving them direction. But doing that job while working with children from varied, sometimes traumatic backgrounds, isn’t always easy.

“A lot of behavior is driven by trauma and particularly in certain communities because there are a lot of stressors,” Hanger said. “And if we ignore the trauma and what the child is feeling at the time you’re going to turn into escalate behavior.”

About eight years ago, Hanger and four other colleagues developed this agency. She said she noticed a growing number of young people entering the juvenile and adult justice system; and in many cases unnecessarily.

“We’re actually trying to shrink that system and look back into our communities to see what kinds of policies and practices are actually pursuing to increase the odds that a child will be arrested or they will enter into the juvenile justice system,” said Hanger.

Referrals that were basic school disciplinary issues, became police issues. She said the trend started happening as more schools added more police officers.

CPLI has already taken steps by training 50 area schools on ways to respond and understand why a child is behaving badly.

“We basically saw racial disparities across all systems in child welfare and juvenile justice,” said Hanger.

She said a lot of the children who find themselves facing stiffer penalties are children with traumatic home lives. Maybe they didn’t eat, maybe they don’t have electricity or running water. The stressors compound and sometimes come out in the form of bad behavior.

“I think there is a growing understanding of how important it is to step outside of our shoes and really try to be empathetic and understand perspectives of others in their experiences. And I think that’s at the root of this. The heart of it,” Hanger said.

She says this work also includes holding children accountable. But as adults she says it’s our job to regulate ourselves to better respond.