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Healing trauma: Harpur alum, interns work to stop the pipeline between prison and school

Education should lead to opportunity: a proud walk down the aisle during graduation, followed by a job, college or specialized training, and then a rewarding career.

But for young people from disadvantaged backgrounds, school can too often present a narrowing set of options. Problems at home or in their neighborhood can spark behavioral issues in the classroom, and a punitive response by the school can lead to long-term suspension or worse.

The school to prison pipeline, as it’s often called, primarily affects students in low-income communities, but particularly Black and Hispanic children and those with disabilities. Students with high suspension rates are less likely to graduate from high school or join the workforce, and more likely to end up incarcerated, explained Nelson Mar, senior staff attorney at Bronx Legal Services.

A 1994 Binghamton University alumnus with degrees in history and geography, Mar has spent the last two decades of his career advocating for students and families in the South Bronx, working toward policy changes needed to eliminate that pipeline. In June, the agency and community partners unveiled a Community Roadmap to Bring Healing-Centered Schools to the Bronx, which offers an alternative to practices that traumatize or re-traumatize students.

“You first start with an understanding that any child that comes through the school door may have had an adverse experience or even a highly traumatic experience,” Mar said of the road map. “When they act out, it’s because there is something happening to them.”

Binghamton students have played a role in creating the road map over the past few years through their involvement in the Harpur Law Council’s Summer Law Internship program, which gives students interested in legal careers the opportunity to garner experience in the field.

“We’ve been very impressed. I know the type of students that attend Binghamton,” Mar said about the internship program, which the organization has hosted for around eight years. “We have undergraduate students sitting alongside first-, second- or even third-year law students and the quality of their work is on par.”

This summer, Nicole Kaufman — a rising senior majoring in English and philosophy, politics and law — joined the agency remotely, working from Binghamton. Despite the coronavirus pandemic, the internship has required the same level of commitment and work as in previous years, and Kaufman has been working alongside law students to draft record and hearing requests.

Drawing on her experience at Pipe Dream, Binghamton’s student-run newspaper, she also helped proofread the final version of the road map. She plans to become an attorney herself, and the agency was her first choice for the internship.

“I was aware of trauma-informed classrooms and the research surrounding it, and I wanted to be part of advocacy for this issue,” Kaufman said.

‘A tool to reach justice’

According to the road map program, “one in four children in classrooms nationwide has been exposed to some form of childhood trauma.” Adverse childhood experiences can be interpersonal, such as abuse, neglect or parental separation, or systemic, such as poverty, lack of access to food or housing, exposure to racism and other forms of discrimination, and community violence.

The document’s roots of the road map go back 20 years to Mar’s own start at the nonprofit in the education law unit. Lawyers in this unit represent Bronx students involved in the school disciplinary process, trying to keep them out of long-term suspension. Many have disabilities and special education needs.

“It was very clear that there were a lot of things that were not right with what was happening with these students. Oftentimes, the school’s responses and interactions with the students didn’t give students the ability to provide context for their behaviors,” he said.

All too often, situations escalated; a battle of wills between teacher and student could lead to assault, or a trip to the emergency room for children undergoing an emotional or psychological crisis. The underlying roots of students’ behavior — trauma and adverse childhood experience — went unexplored and unresolved.

In 2013, Bronx Legal Services sued the City of New York, the Fire Department of New York and its Department of Education for sending children experiencing emotional, behavioral or psychiatric events to the emergency room. The lawsuit was settled the next year, when city schools agreed to revise their policies.

After the first settlement period, Bronx Legal Services decided to delve into the underlying issues behind disciplinary problems and how schools could improve their response. Creating the road map took two years of work, and collaboration with mental health and social services providers.

Researchers — including recent Harpur alumna Isabel Pierangelo — explored best practices at school districts across the country; the Schenectady City School District in New York state provided an important role model for district transformation.

In turn, the work inspired Pierangelo’s senior thesis in sociology on the connection between sexual abuse, schooling and incarceration. While the school-to-prison pipeline often focuses on boys, Pierangelo wondered about the fate of low-income Black and brown girls who suffered sexual abuse, she said.

While at Bronx Legal Services, she worked on a 2019 federal lawsuit concerning four girls receiving special education services who had been sexually assaulted on school grounds. Two of the victims later received 20-day suspensions after acting out at school.

“If they’re victims of sexual trauma, they act out and get suspended, and they become more likely to get incarcerated. It’s a sexual abuse-to-prison pipeline,” said Pierangelo, who graduated this May as a dual major in sociology and psychology, with a minor in Africana studies.

In her thesis, she explored the pipeline’s roots in capitalism, racism and patriarchy, and the role education plays in maintaining these structures. The thesis lays the ground for future doctoral research, although Pierangelo currently plans to go to law school and fulfill her dream of becoming a public interest attorney, focusing on education and issues pertaining to children, women and girls. Her internship at Bronx Legal Services solidified that decision, she said.

“It’s a tool to reach justice, although it’s not a perfect tool,” she said of her interest in the law.

Implementation of the road map may face delays because of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. The Bronx has seen a high rate of COVID-19 cases, and when and how schools there will reopen is still under question, as it is in much of the nation. Nevertheless, the pandemic represents more of an opportunity than an obstacle, Mar said.

Prior to the coronavirus, trauma was seen as localized — something endemic to particular neighborhoods or individuals. That’s not the case anymore.

“With the impact of COVID, everyone understands that we have been experiencing this collective trauma. It’s easier to get public policy makers to wrap themselves around this issue,” he explained.

Posted in: In the World, Harpur