Attorney General Harris believes that “being smart on crime begins with investing in children and preventing them from ever becoming involved with the justice system as victims or perpetrators of crime.” The same is true for being smart on education. Crime prevention and education came together at the Stakeholder Convening held in Los Angeles last month by the California Department of Justice to brief the public on its new Bureau of Children’s Justice and obtain stakeholder input.
The Bureau’s stated mission “is to protect the rights of children and focus the attention and resources of law enforcement and policymakers on the importance of safeguarding every child so that they can meet their full potential.” The Bureau’s statewide foci will include foster youth, discrimination and inequity in education, elementary school truancy, human trafficking of vulnerable youth, and childhood trauma and exposure to violence
I was struck at the Convening by how often the stakeholders that worked to address these focal areas and DOJ staff emphasized the importance of fostering more positive, safe, and supportive school climates that avoided punitive approaches to discipline and engaged all youth in learning. School climate improvement was seen as key to prevention, to reducing truancy and dropping out of school, and to providing youth that experience trauma violence, and other risk factors with supports that foster resilience and mitigate the negative effects of these experiences.
This was manna to my ears, reinforcing the message we have been disseminating for twenty years and the California Department of Education made central to the framework of its Safe and Supportive Schools Project.
There is a growing, broad-based consensus that in today’s world schools need to take a more active role in providing youth with the supports they need to thrive beyond doing well on standardized tests. Research confirms that doing this is, in fact, a necessity for schools to improve academic achievement in high poverty, vulnerable communities. But the rationale extends beyond this. We have a societal commitment to our children to provide them the supports they need to succeed in life, and schools are the primary institute outside the family to provide them. Of course, they can’t do it alone. The Attorney General should be commended for her leadership in showing how prevention and education are linked and the importance of all public agencies to work together to ensure youth thrive.
A second common theme at the Convening was the importance of having data to guide this work and better enable stakeholders to identify best prevention practices. Here I was struck about how grateful the state should be to past Attorneys General Van de Kamp, Lungren, and Lockyer for the leadership they showed in funding the California Student Survey beginning in 1985 and teaming with the California Department of Education and other state agencies to foster coordinated, data-driven prevention efforts. Today, as an outgrowth of this work, the California Healthy Kids Survey exists to provide this Bureau of Children’s Justice, and the state’s schools and communities, with the data they need to inform decisions and leadership actions to ensure this mission succeeds.
I am hopeful that the long-term work of the Bureau will transcend Harris’ tenure. For fifteen years I worked closely with the Department of Justice’s Crime and Violence Prevention Center only to see it dismantled in 2008. The mission and approach of the Prevention Center was very similar to that of the new Bureau, if not as focused on the same specific areas. I hope the new Bureau will be sufficiently institutionalized within the Department of Justice that it can lead the hard work necessary to achieve its important goals from administration to administration.