General / In The Classroom

Adler Psy.D. Students Ask State Officials to Fix School-to-Prison Pipeline Problems

Juan Barriga is a third-year Adler University Chicago Campus student pursuing a doctor of psychology (Psy.D) degree in clinical psychology with an emphasis on children and adolescents. He was among a group of a dozen students who advocated for a specific cause last month at the Illinois State Board of Education. The effort was part of an advanced child and adolescent psychotherapy course taught by Professor Joshua Wolff, Ph.D., who has a background in policy work.

“He really wanted to encourage (us) to consider looking at social issues that impact the well-being of children, adolescents and their families,” Barriga said. “I really appreciate and admire that because the populations we serve are often impacted by systemic factors. That’s why as clinical psychologists, we can do more than just help our clients and populations directly or individually. We can help them and their communities systemically.”

Each student has his or her own ongoing projects including pushing for after-school program funding, identifying opportunities to provide training for teachers who work with children who have autism, supporting women suffering from postpartum depression, helping improve kids’ health and nutrition, and more.

Barriga’s focus is on issues driving the “school-to-prison pipeline” – the idea that students in certain communities are more likely than others to enter the juvenile or adult criminal justice system after offenses that occur on school properties. Wolff’s class voted on which project to support during their ISBE visit, settling on one by student Taylor Pauken that addresses the needs of trans/non-binary youth. Because his topic has a direct tie to Illinois schools, Barriga was also able to present during the trip.

We asked him to share his experience at the state board, and the driving factors propelling his activism. This feature is the first in a two-part series centered on the students’ ongoing work, and their visit to the ISBE.

What motivated you and your class to advocate for reducing racial bias in disciplinary policies?

As a native Chicagoan, issues surrounding the school-to-prison pipeline are very dear and close to me. The concept was one I become familiar with starting in high school and continued to learn about, in detail, throughout college. … Illinois previously adhered to zero-tolerance policies that included a list of consequences for school offenses, such as suspensions, expulsions, and even school arrests. Those policies at schools did not consider the severity of each student’s circumstances or explore the context behind his or her actions.

Unfortunately, students of color both with and without disabilities were often targeted for problem behaviors at schools. During the 2013-2014 academic year, about 75 percent of tho

About 75 percent of the students arrested on Illinois school grounds during the 2013-2014 academic year were students of color, and Illinois ranks fourth in the country when it comes to its number of school arrests. I find these facts – and that students of color are so much more likely to enter the criminal justice system – incredibly alarming and worrisome. Lack of action by our lawmakers may lead to an even greater likelihood that children face incarceration as they become older.

How did you identify the ideal people and places to discuss these issues with the goal of impacting change?

We were encouraged to reach out and communicate with professionals who were familiar with our topics and then interview them before drafting our proposals. I contacted Equip for Equality, an organization that aims to protect the civil and human rights of those with disabilities. The agency works specifically to assist with self-advocacy, legal services, public policy, monitoring and training. When working at my current therapy practicum site (Advocate Children’s Hospital – Behavioral Health Services), I typically connect families with Equip for Equality for free legal services if their children are denied psychological testing or opportunities to create IEP/504 plans.

I spoke with a supervising attorney who explained that Illinois previously adopted Senate Bill 0100, which officially lifted zero-tolerance policies. But she said schools were continuing to expel or suspend students for minor infractions. House Bill 4208, which would take effect this July, would provide grants for schools to receive mental health services, the attorney said. Adoption of the bill would also include restorative justice programs to give students space to discuss resolution methods for peer conflicts. I found this insight empowering – students deserve to achieve a sense of belonging in their individual academic communities.

I was able to read both bills and was relieved to find that HB4208 acknowledged the school-to-prison pipeline, including its impact on students of color. However, I also noticed that the related grants appeared to provide secondary and tertiary forms of prevention. Many of the outlined interventions would help students at risk of displaying emotional or behavioral concerns, or those who already have them. I shared this observation and the attorney referred me to Dr. Pamela Fenning, a school psychologist, researcher and professor at Loyola University Chicago.

She has worked on improving school-wide discipline policies; conducting research to help remedy school climates and problem behaviors. She shared with me that the racial issues present in the school-to-prison pipeline are driven by teachers who often have implicit biases for their students. It would be helpful to include primary forms of prevention in HB4208 that would consider each school’s unique population. In other words, I want the bill to specify and provide interventions that would help resolve the issues regarding some school teachers’ implicit biases. If race is a primary factor in this issue, then race is something that needs to be addressed among staff members across the state on district-wide scales. I suggested hosting workshops with trained facilitators to mitigate this.

What was your desired outcome from this meeting, or advocating for these issues in general?

My hope was that those at the ISBE would be receptive to my proposal about including intervention strategies to  address school officials’ and districts’ implicit biases. I wanted them to consider possible edits or revisions to HB4208. Because of the racial factors driving this issue, I wanted to start a conversation to shed light on the racial factors driving this issue, and how they can be resolved for the betterment of Illinois’ children and adolescents.

What happened at the meeting? Who did you talk to? How did they respond?

We were able to meet with Jeffrey A. Aranowski, executive director for safe and healthy climate at ISBE, and Hannah Rosenthal, principal consultant for the board’s office of communications. Taylor Pauken and I each had a presentation prepared, and our classmates shared their relevant experiences working with LGBTQ+ youth and/or students of color with or without disabilities. Taylor shared her interest in increasing inclusivity for trans/non-binary youth in Illinois schools. Then, I spoke about the need for preventative efforts that could decrease harsh disciplinary actions at schools that are often a result of implicit biases. I also discussed the importance of holding school staff members and districts accountable for their actions.

Thankfully, Aranowski and Rosenthal were each receptive and responsive to our concerns, and we exchanged contact information to continue the conversation. They told us they were genuinely impressed with our work, investment and knowledge of Illinois’ school policies.

What were you and your classmates thinking and feeling after the meeting?

The meeting provided us a sense of empowerment to continue serving our child and adolescent population. This experience allowed us to see that we can all be part of social, systemic change.

What do you plan to do next with advocating for these issues?

I plan to remain in contact with Aranowski and Rosenthal so we can identify next steps for propelling real change. I really enjoyed meeting them, and I look forward to collaborating in any way possible. As a Chicagoan, I hope to serve state and local populations in the future. Thankfully, I will continue to do so next year while completing my advanced therapy practicum in the Advocate Illinois Masonic Medical Center’s Behavioral Health Services Department.

I’d also like to work on public policy in the future that can better the lives of children, adolescents and families. As clinical psychologists, we can help clients mitigate whatever challenges they may be facing. However, we may be limited if they are on the receiving end of a systemic oversight in school policy, or another mandate that fails to properly address and remedy a problem. I want to collaborate among fellow professionals in different fields and disciplines so that together, we may better serve individuals from marginalized populations.

Anything else you’d like the Adler community to know about your efforts?

I’d like to encourage those in the Adler University community to take an active role in pushing for social change. If you are genuinely passionate about something and wish to fight against any form of injustice, do not feel discouraged! We each have a voice, and it’s stronger than you think. We might feel discouraged at times because we are currently students, but must remember that we have a great team of professors behind us. Each is able to provide us with tools to participate in larger conversations like the one we had at the ISBE. Speak up and share your interests with your professors. It’s never too early, and it’s never too late to start! Just like I learned in community psychology: Small wins lead to bigger wins.