Opinion

Why Wyoming Is Using After-school Programs to Keep Kids Out of School-to-prison Pipeline

after-school: Smart young tutor holding a big book while explaining the material to the student at laptop. Outside visible through floor-to-ceiling windows.

Dmytro Zinkevych/Shutterstock

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In 2013, the Wyoming Afterschool Alliance (WYAA) became interested in understanding the school-to-prison pipeline based on the alarming statistics that we were seeing in Wyoming and across the nation about incarceration and detention. It was confounding and disturbing to see more and more children and youth entering the system, especially at younger ages. What was going on? And, more importantly — why?

after-school: Linda Barton (headshot), director of Wyoming After-school Alliance, smiling woman with dark hair, necklaces, navy and white top

Linda Barton

There are several factors at play that have impacted the ever-increasing numbers of children and youth at risk of entering the system or already in it. Data show that behavior infractions with these kinds of life-changing consequences are on the rise. This is due, in part, to school resource officers (SROs) not being trained in normal youth development or in how to circumvent incidents. As social and emotional learning becomes more relevant for understanding behaviors, we are starting to see more attention on that subject. We also know that SROs, who are law enforcement professionals, are brought in to many of these behavior incidents, putting them into a difficult situation outside their area of expertise and training.

The question then becomes: How do we put things back into perspective? Are there that many children and youth so destructive that we have to take these steps? Or is there a better way to manage these issues?

We believe there is. It is called after-school. And after-school WORKS! This is one of the best forms of prevention for our youth in today’s world, spanning the K-12 continuum. After-school programs allow our kids to learn and grow and realize their full potential. Teachers across the country report that students in after-school programs show more interest in learning, behave better and complete their homework assignments, according to a 2017 Afterschool Alliance survey. After-school also provides a safe place with supportive mentors who help children make smart choices and avoid risky behaviors online and offline. We are changing the dynamics of juvenile justice reform in Wyoming through this strategy.

Implementation strategy

In 2015-16, WYAA implemented an important initiative titled “Reducing the School to Prison Pipeline: A Strategy to Serve High-Risk Youth,” funded by the Sargent Foundation, a private family foundation in Wyoming. A major part of our work was to understand the Wyoming statistics that would determine our project strategy.

Our research shows that:

  • As of 2015, Wyoming ranked first in the nation for youth committed to residential placement by the courts.
  • Wyoming also ranked fourth in the nation for school referrals to law enforcement.
  • As of 2017, Wyoming ranked first in the nation for suicides among children and youth.
  • Research has shown that formal processing of youth through court systems does not reduce subsequent offending and probably increases the likelihood for reoffending.
  • These statistics are attributed to lack of community-based options and resources due in part to Wyoming’s rural/frontier nature.

Our strategy is two-pronged and meant to help divert Wyoming children and youth from formal juvenile justice systems through after-school programs with the focus on primary prevention and early intervention.

Prevention

  • Develop partnerships with school districts that help identify high-risk children and refer to an after-school program as the first tier of service.
  • Promote the inclusion of after-school programs as part of the school district Individual Education Plan (IEP), Building Intervention Team (BIT) and a partner with Community Juvenile Service Boards.
  • Provide professional development to after-school providers to prepare them to appropriately serve challenging children and youth in their programs.
  • Develop community prevention coalitions comprised of school districts, after-school programs, local and regional prevention services, county attorneys, public defenders and local law enforcement.

Early Intervention

  • Continue to build on key partnerships and relationships with important stakeholders.
  • Create an inventory of what after-school services are available for at-risk youth.
  • Develop a framework and policy recommendations for training, inclusion in critical community partnerships.
  • Strategic guidance on implementation such as training, coaching and implementation of high- quality curricula including social and emotional supports.

Our intended outcomes are to:

  • Reduce juvenile citations
  • Increase school attendance
  • Increase in engagement in learning
  • Improve grade performance
  • Raise graduation rates.

To help accomplish our goals, we held juvenile justice summits in 2017 and 2018, inviting key stakeholders such as county attorneys, public defenders, juvenile justice professionals both in law enforcement and the Department of Family Services, school district administrators and case workers to learn and understand how after-school programs SHOULD be at the table when decisions are made about at-risk students beginning as early as kindergarten.

We are also advocating for the development of strong community-wide prevention coalitions that can be the lead organizations in the design of prevention processes that reflect the health, safety and well-being of all of our children. To provide a context of understanding to our audience, we have developed several tools that can help in transforming communities to address these problems including our juvenile justice ecosystem, which depicts the tiers of service and costs per year per child compared to the cost of an after-school program per year. The difference is startling and should make anyone take notice of the cost-to-benefit analysis.

Key takeaways

We have learned to do our homework. Take the time to research your state’s process and status by looking at the data. Every state handles juvenile justice cases differently and it is important to understand that process. Contact your Department of Family or Social Services to learn as much as you can about juvenile justice in your state.

Additionally, realize that the public does not really understand the true value of after-school programs and how they support positive youth development. It is up to you to make your case with the use of data and key champions. Building relationships is the key to elevating this conversation. Scheduling meetings and listening sessions is a great entrance point.

There are so many benefits to after-school programs, and the list is critical to positive youth development and necessary to reduce the school-to-prison pipeline. Utilize your vast knowledge to advocate on these points about the value of after-school.

We know that after-school programs:

  • Provide expanded learning opportunities for children and youth during high-risk hours between 3 to 6 p.m.
  • Provide activities that support positive youth development
  • Offer least restrictive environments for at-risk youth
  • Employ highly qualified staff who become positive and nurturing adult mentors.

Make yourself available, the expert in your field of youth development by offering resources and support. Remember that change is difficult and a long-term endeavor, but it is worth the time and effort to positively impact children’s lives. We recognize that this is an ongoing process and it should be cultivated as such. We continue to forge ahead and will be holding our third annual summit in spring.

Finally, do not give up. Our work is that important and our efforts can make the difference for our kids, communities, states and the global society. Our tools are available at our website at: www.wyAfter-schoolalliance.org and we are always happy to help.

Linda Barton has been director of the Wyoming Afterschool Alliance, a statewide network dedicated to ensuring that all youth have access to high quality after-school and summer programs in Wyoming, since its 2007 inception and previously was director of the Lights On in Lander after-school program. She is ambassador emeritus of the National Afterschool Alliance.

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