NOLA Public Schools district officials kicked off Juvenile Justice Week Oct. 21, 2019 with an entertaining yet sincere lecture from Council of Chief State School Officers’ National Teacher of the Year Rodney Robinson. NOLA Public Schools’ Director of Juvenile Justice Kristina Kent also pictured. Credit: Marta Jewson / The Lens

NOLA Public Schools district officials kicked off Juvenile Justice Week Monday morning with an entertaining yet sincere lecture from Council of Chief State School Officers’ National Teacher of the Year Rodney Robinson. 

Robinson is a social studies and history teacher at the Virgie Binford Education Center in Richmond, Virginia. The 60-student school is located inside the Richmond Juvenile Detention Center.

“Each student is different and a good teacher gives them what they need, not what is equal,” Robinson said, noting his mother inspired him to become a teacher. 

Robinson told heartfelt stories while peppering in advice on working with students to help keep them out of the juvenile justice system and how to support them if they arrive there. He’s an advocate of trauma-informed education and adapting to individual students’ needs. 

His lecture came during a year in which the topic of violent juvenile crime in New Orleans has at times dominated public conversation. Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro said in April that “violent juvenile offenders pose the greatest crime problem New Orleans faces in 2019.” City leaders called for strict curfew enforcement this summer after a string of car burglaries. 

Mayor LaToya Cantrell and New Orleans City Council have disagreed on how to handle detained juvenile offenders. Cantrell has received criticism after calling for some of them to be transferred from the city’s juvenile lockup to the Orleans Justice Center, where adult offenders are housed. 

Robinson also said schools must ensure students have a culturally informed staff, recounting an educator who may have altered the course of his life. 

“Making sure our students have teachers who look like them, who value their culture and appreciate them,” he said. “I’m not spilling a secret when I talk about how half of our students in the United States are students of color and 80 percent of teachers are white. It’s important we try to balance that number out.”

Robinson, who’s black, said he only had two black educators during his primary and secondary education. Both men left a huge impact on him, he said. His high school assistant principal in particular, he said, helped steer him to a college education. That happened after being sent to the principal’s office one day. Instead of sending him home, Robinson said, he was given five days of in-school suspension and the assistant principal spent those days helping him apply to Virginia State University, write entry essays and fill out financial aid paperwork. 

“He changed my life,” Robinson said. “He told me how the HBCU molded him from a confused teenager to a confident young man.”

According to a NOLA Public Schools report, the city has a higher percentage of black teachers than the national average. Data collected during the 2017-18 school year showed 53 percent of teachers in New Orleans are black. Prior to Hurricane Katrina, more than 70 percent of the city’s teachers were black. 

Now, Robinson works to do that for his students at Virgie Binford Education Center.

“The school to prison pipeline is real,” Robinson said. “It is real. A lot of people are in denial but it is real. The main reason I know it’s real is I’m in it.”

Robinson said one instance that particularly hit home came when he arrived at his new job.

“I remember my first day at the juvenile jail. My students walked in and one was a student I had just failed at my comprehensive high school. I failed him, he’s in jail,” Robinson recalled. “That’s a direct correlation here. So that made me reexamine everything I do from grading practices to attendance policies to making sure I knew my kids. It changed my whole philosophy seeing that young man.”

That’s the work NOLA Public Schools’ Director of Juvenile Justice Kristina Kent aims to accomplish. During Juvenile Justice Week, she works to promote her office’s work to charter school leaders and the public at large. The week runs in conjunction with National Youth Justice Awareness Month.

“That’s why a week like this week is important,” Kent said after Robinson spoke Monday. “We know schools can have a massive impact on the trajectory of a child’s life and we want that to be positive.”

Juvenile justice system

At last week’s school board meeting, district officials said that last year the district reported the fewest number of school-based arrests since they began tracking them. That may be due in part to a city ordinance called Policing Alternatives for Youth, or PAY, that went into effect last year, Kent said. 

The law allows police officers to issue summonses to juveniles for certain minor crimes, instead of arresting them, Kent said. “We didn’t have that ability as a district before that ordinance was passed.”

Robinson spoke at the Mahalia Jackson Elementary School complex Monday. While its elementary school closed last spring, the building houses a Head Start program and an intervention center for the PAY ordinance. Expulsion hearings are also held at the building. 

Kent said she knows there will be some circumstances where police must be called to a school, but she hopes it’s on rare occasions.

“We want schools to understand it’s extremely detrimental to a student’s life to ever have that interaction,” she said. “They’re more likely to have it again once they’ve had it.”

“We have a tremendous amount of work to do in this city to prevent kids from going into the juvenile justice system and prevent them from returning,” she said.

Kent said her office tries to serve as a resource for schools. They offer counseling services and mental health services. “We want schools to understand, let’s do everything prior to (calling the police) to make sure that doesn’t happen.”

“Once a child touches the juvenile justice system in New Orleans, and actually goes into detention, they are four times more likely to enter it again,” Kent said, referencing a University of New Orleans study. 

Robinson now focuses his work on preparing his students to advocate for themselves and successfully return to society. In one instance he noted that meant helping his students at the detention center successfully organize for two “snack times” each day, which he says improved their concentration. 

He takes his students on college visits, or if they’re not allowed to leave the facility, he brings college representatives to the detention center. Recently he was able to secure a one-day pass so one of his students could graduate with his classmates from his home school. 

Another concern of Robinson’s is the “foster care-to-prison pipeline.” Students aging out of the foster care system are particularly vulnerable because they lose many supports all at once. Robinson said he works on transitional housing for his students.

In recent years, Louisiana has expanded foster care support services to include 18-21 year olds.

School-level discipline

Kristina Kent said the district has initiatives to try and reduce expulsion and suspension in the city’s charter schools. 

“We have one of the lowest expulsion rates anywhere in the country,” Kent said. “Less than one percent of our students are subject to an expulsion every year. I think we have to continue that conversation into other forms of discipline and suspensions comes to mind first and foremost.”

Last year, 475 students were referred to the district for an expulsion hearing, according to data provided by the district. Of those referrals, 156 students, or about one-third, were expelled. When a student in Orleans Parish is expelled, high school students can enroll in an alternative high school, middle school students can attend a new program that opened this fall, and elementary school students are sent to a different elementary school.

While expulsions systemwide may be low, three high schools account for nearly one-third of referred expulsion hearings. 

Sophie B. Wright Charter School, with student population of about 600, accounted for 12 percent of expulsion referrals. Landry-Walker High School and Warren Easton Charter High School, which both enroll roughly 1,000 students, each accounted for nine percent of referrals. 

“In a charter district, schools have that autonomy,” Kent said, speculating on how to help them. 

Kent, like Robinson, believes in a trauma-informed approach to education. 

“We have to approach our children through a trauma lens,” Kent said.

“Sad, not bad. We’ve got to start supporting the trauma that our kids have,” Kent said. “That’s only going to improve academic outcomes. No one loses in this conversation and I think that’s the conversation we have to have with schools.”

Marta Jewson

Marta Jewson covers education in New Orleans for The Lens. She began her reporting career covering charter schools for The Lens and helped found the hyperlocal news site Mid-City Messenger. Jewson returned...