'These systems are connected': MCU calls for change in school discipline, juvenile courts | St. Louis Public Radio

'These systems are connected': MCU calls for change in school discipline, juvenile courts

May 14, 2016

Metropolitan Congregations United is calling for police, school and juvenile court reform in St. Louis to reduce the disproportionate number of black children suspended from school and placed in juvenile detention. 

The social justice advocacy group held workshops Saturday as part of a campaign to break what’s called the “school-to-prison pipeline.”

“We know that these systems are connected in terms of how they push kids through the system and really into what we call our mass incarceration problem,” said MCU’s Dietra Wise Baker, who works as a chaplain in St. Louis and St. Louis County’s juvenile justice systems.

The concept of the school-to-prison pipeline is that children who are suspended at an early age can get a reputation for being troublemakers that can have a snowball effect, increasing the odds of future brushes with the law.

“A kid that was doing well, might have made a mistake and just needed some support is now vulnerable in the community and at risk of not graduating from school,” said Wise Baker.

MCU has advocated for police reform since the death of Michael Brown, and has concentrated on school suspensions for at least a year but, Wise Baker said, this weekend was the public launch of the three-pronged coordinated approach to reform, and a statement that MCU remains committed to seeing change take place.

About 75 people attended MCU's Break the Pipeline teach-in on Saturday, May 14, 2016.
Credit Camille Phillips | St. Louis Public Radio

“We’ve got a long road ahead but we’ve already seen some signs of hope. So we’re excited to move forward with the community and prayerfully with these institutions that are in power. That they will hear the voice of the community and be amenable,” said Wise Baker. “Already we’ve had some wins.”  

One win: Last month St. Louis Public Schools Superintendent Kelvin Adams announced that next school year his school district will no longer give out-of-school suspensions in grades K-3.

MCU would like all schools in Missouri ban out-of-school suspensions in all grades, and instead adopt restorative discipline that focuses on dialogue and accountability.

Wise Baker said MCU has also had some conversations with the St. Louis County Family Court.

“They are definitely concerned about the racial and ethnic disparities in the court and they promised to involve us as community stakeholders in their process (of rewriting their disparity plan),” said Wise Baker.

MCU wants the St. Louis County Family Court to hire as many defense attorneys as there are prosecutors on its payroll, and it wants the court to stop the practice of officers serving dual roles as child advocates and arms of the prosecution.

Washington University law professor Mae Quinn led an MCU workshop Saturday, May 14, 2016 on the DOJ's findings on the St. Louis Family Court.
Credit Camille Phillips | St. Louis Public Radio

“That officer in our courts is both in essence a staff member of the court, the judge that it appears before, and is actually according to some of the prosecutors in these courts the plaintiff in the case,” said Mae Quinn, who teaches law at Washington University and led an MCU workshop Saturday on a 2015 Justice Department report that said the court system led to discrimination against black children.

Quinn said she thought people who work at the family court have good intentions and shouldn’t take reform efforts personally.

“People don’t do this work because they’re out to get kids. People do this work because they care about kids. But if a culture has been created that is not aware of its outlying structure, of its unusual structure, those practices will continue,” Quinn said.

In addition to education and juvenile court reform, MCU is also calling for more positive interactions between police and youth of color through bias training and an evaluation of the school resource officer system.

Follow Camille Phillips on Twitter: @cmpcamille.