Learn what you can do to help our youth get off the Track to Prison
Following Judge Steven Teske’s efforts in Clayton County, Georgia, Judge Brian Huff, along with advocacy and legal support from the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), has successfully developed a “School Offense Protocol” for Jefferson County Family Court in Alabama that was implemented in Fall 2009.
As a family court judge, Judge Huff repeatedly observed how local schools were constantly feeding students into the court system. After collecting data from the 2007-08 school year, he noticed that 80% of school referrals to his court came from one school system. Within that system, misdemeanors and violations comprised well over 90% of all student referrals. Racial disparities also ran rampant – African-American students made up 99% of all school referrals from Birmingham, and significantly more African-American youth in comparison to White youth were being held in the county's youth detention center. With this stark data in front of him, Judge Huff felt the need to do something to change the system.
In order to determine the best avenue for reform, Judge Huff initiated a series of informal individual conversations with various stakeholders and power players in the community, organized community forums, and participated in a variety of speaking events to understand multiple perspectives and gain allies. Judge Huff focused on developing relationships with school officials and the police, but also met regularly with other stakeholders, such as the local child welfare agency and advocacy groups. After about six months of informal discussions, the Birmingham City Schools Collaborative held its first meeting, which included the school superintendent, police chief, and representatives from the Department of Human Resources and the county’s district attorney’s office. The group reviewed data on school referrals and began brainstorming what they could do. Lawyers from SPLC served as crucial staff to the Collaborative, working alongside them to help implement an alternative approach that would capture their common vision to change the tide in Birmingham.
The Collaborative spent time discussing the myriad of complicating factors affecting the city’s youth in order to better understand root causes and researching best practices in reversing the school to prison pipeline. The Collaborative also continued conversations with members of the entire community, including community-based organizations like the NAACP.
Ultimately, the Collaborative developed a set of graduated consequences for certain offenses so that youth would not automatically be arrested and referred to court. Under the protocol, a first offense should result in a warning, a second offense may require the student and a parent to attend a school offense workshop, and a third offense may be referred to court. The offenses included in this new protocol were specifically affrays (fighting), disorderly conduct, harassment, and misdemeanor assault and criminal trespass. The protocol also added more frequent and detailed reporting requirements so that data can be easily and readily analyzed to determine the protocol’s effectiveness.
Before the protocol was even officially adopted, advocacy efforts had already led to a decrease in family court referrals by about 50%. These results are promising for the future success of the youth in Jefferson County.
For more information, contact:
Judge Brian Huff
Presiding Judge, Jefferson Family Court
120 2nd Court North
Birmingham, Alabama 35204
Director, Juvenile Justice Policy Group
Southern Poverty Law Center
400 Washington Ave.
Montgomery, AL 36104