Chesterfield County’s top prosecutor gathered with criminal justice reform advocates at a Chesterfield public library on Saturday to brainstorm ideas to keep the students of today from being the inmates of tomorrow.

About 60 people attended the discussion at the Central Library on Lucy Corr Boulevard sponsored by the American Civil Liberties Union, Black Voters Matter Va. and RISE for Youth, a nonprofit that supports alternatives to youth incarceration.

Organizers said public education has been underfunded and that authorities have been too quick to refer simple disciplinary matters to the criminal justice system. They called for more funding for counselors as well as “restorative justice,” where students who have a conflict sit down and discuss their issues with each other rather than having the police handling it.

Emma Clark, a teacher at Falling Creek Middle School in Chesterfield, recalled how students at her former job as a teacher in a Richmond middle school went through metal detectors and had their bags searched before walking the hallways past security guards. That type of environment, Clark said, leaves students with the message that they are not trusted, which in turns leads them to doubt themselves.

“What my kids come into the classroom with is a belief that is ingrained in them because of structural racism. Because of our narratives about people from low-income families, they are already coming in with a sense of insecurity about whether the world believes in them and whether or not they deserve to be believed in,” Clark said.

Scott Miles, the Chesterfield commonwealth’s attorney, said one of the frustrations of his job is that juveniles are ending up in the criminal justice system for relatively low-level offenses.

“We want kids not to get any further into the [criminal justice] system than we can help,” Miles said.

Kemba Smith Pradia, state advocacy campaigns director at the American Civil Liberties Union, pointed to a 2018 report from the ACLU that examined the number of academic days lost as a result of school disciplinary actions.

That report states that in the 2015-16 school year, white students lost 14 days of instruction per 100 students due to school discipline, while black students lost 66 instructional days per 100 students.

Pradia said some discipline issues that in the past would have simply been dealt with at the school or parent level nowadays make their way into the courts.

“There were ways to resolve those situations, but now today with where we are it seems like some of those simple behaviors that got in-school suspension back in the day or detention, people are being criminalized for it,” Pradia said.

James Braxton, strategic engagement coordinator with RISE for Youth, said one problem is that school systems rely too much on labeling some students with learning and behavioral disabilities instead of identifying the learning style that works best for individual students.

“[Just because] your teaching style or your classroom or curriculum isn’t conducive to their learning style, it doesn’t mean they need medicine. It doesn’t mean they have ADHD [attention deficit hyperactivity disorder] and all that,” Braxton said.

Braxton said he has seen racism among students in Chesterfield schools, adding that is something those pupils have learned either at home or in their community.

“They learn that behavior, so they can unlearn it,” Braxton said. “The school system can see that opportunity and see the potential in doing racial justice education and cultural competency training.”

Miles said he would like to see the Chesterfield court system have a mental health docket that focuses on issues facing defendants struggling with mental illness. He said the court system would need authority from state legislators to make that happen.

“There’s a pattern in a lot of the cases that we see in court, you can look into the history of the offender,” Miles said. “There are lots of missed opportunities for intervention in that person’s past, and often those missed opportunities have to do with mental health support services.”

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