In the midst of local school board election season, Kansans are considering how to get the best outcomes in the classrooms. On the heels of recent youth justice reforms, candidates should demonstrate an understanding of how their work in the schools can reflect the values that led recent youth justice reforms. The leadership and practices of our schools decided in elections like this will make a big difference in the trajectory of a child’s life — and the resulting community safety in the short and long term.
All children matter, and schools play a vital role in creating a local continuum of accountability for youth who have exhibited delinquent behaviors. School should be a place where they can get the support they need to thrive. Instead of jumping straight to the most extreme measures, we should target the issues behind children’s negative behaviors, enlist the support of families and community partners to provide accountability and mentorship, and do everything possible to keep kids in the classroom and out of the system. Schools can provide an avenue for the moral development of young people and host restorative justice programs, provide opportunities for community service and involve parents in disciplinary decisions.
The Kansas Legislature took a major step toward developmentally appropriate punishments for young people with SB 367, a landmark legislation package that reduces incarceration of youth and reinvests millions of dollars each year into community programs that will better support kids and families. Research has shown that removing youth from homes, schools and communities can increase their chances of committing another offense. This puts the safety of the public at risk. If we can hold young people accountable through community-based programs that help them take responsibility for their actions while anchoring them to positive influences like mentors, we all benefit.
When young boys and girls stay connected to their schools, they are significantly more likely to graduate from high school than if they are placed in juvenile correctional facilities. Close to home, they can access a more robust range of community-based services now being developed, including therapy to help families resolve disputes and strengthen bonds. Judges and prosecutors will have a broader range of tools to help address the roots of criminal behavior and lay the foundation of a productive future. In the long term, this strategy will keep communities safer by reducing juvenile recidivism and lead to restored futures for young people who can still be guided into lives of purpose and productivity.
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It’s the perfect time to build a robust system to help transform the lives of young people — before it’s too late. Communities should seize the opportunity to provide additional support that helps keep kids in school and out of the criminal justice system. Together we can give every student a chance to live up to his or her full potential.
Craig DeRoche is the senior vice president of advocacy and public policy at Prison Fellowship, the nation’s largest Christian non-profit serving prisoners, former prisoners and their families.