Sunday, October 27, 2013

The Link between Truancy and the Local Bus System

With a weekly local bus ridership of 241,071, the MTA public bus system plays an oversized role in the daily lives of many Baltimore citizens1. It’s no exaggeration to say that our students’ success is dependent on the smooth running of the MTA local bus system. Without a private bus system to provide transportation to school, the students in the CFCC Truancy Court Program are at the mercy of their local bus. Perhaps this wouldn’t be such a destructive issue if these same students didn’t also face other major barriers in their lives, all of which operate to prevent them from achieving consistent school success.

At our first orientation meeting at National Academy Foundation, one student expressed her frustration with the bus system. She identified the bus as being a major hurdle in getting to school on time, rattling off reasons: sometimes the bus is so full that it drives past her, it doesn’t get there on time, she has to walk six blocks each way to catch the only bus that brings her to NAF. These are not novel concerns, and she is hardly the first student to express irritation about the bus system when getting to and from school. In fact, the difficulties with the buses are a recurring theme at the TCP table and have been for many years.

Not heeding the wisdom of this ninth grader, I naively thought that my experience with the local bus would be different. The week following orientation I committed to take public transportation to the Truancy Court Program at NAF on Tuesdays from the Midtown area near University of Baltimore.

I was, of course, nervous about relying on the public bus system, especially given my lack of experience with public transportation. I didn’t have an easy time figuring out the schedule from the MTA website, so I mostly relied on Google directions and the kindness of strangers to help me find my way. There was, however, some optimism in me that I could make it work.

Imagine my excitement when, a few days after I committed to start taking public transportation, I successfully arrived at an internship placement using the #21 bus. Of course, that was a fail-proof attempt, as it didn’t much matter what time I showed up. Nonetheless, It was a huge relief to discover on that trip that the #21 bus passed NAF on its route. I had found a direct trip to NAF without having to change bus lines. How serendipitous, I thought! Plus, the entire experience was fairly pleasant and enjoyable. The day before I was scheduled to return to NAF for the Truancy Court Program, I tried the route again on my way to the internship placement. I picked up the #21 bus at the corner of Biddle and Calvert at 8:36am, boarding along with another passenger, who was standing with me.

The Tuesday morning when I was scheduled to be at NAF by 8:45am, I was at the same bus stop at the same time (8:25am) as I had been the day before. On this day, however, not only did the #21 bus not show up at the same time, it didn’t even stop. It drove right past me, even as I signaled to the driver. All I could think was that this is how our student felt when she, too, had been left at the bus stop while trying to get to school.

At this point, I knew I would be late getting to NAF, but I counted on the fact that another bus would come in 20-30 minutes. I felt confident that because it was peak hours, I would wait no more than 30 minutes for the next #21 to arrive. At 9:15am, there was no bus in sight. Even another 15 minutes of waiting didn’t help; after a total of forty-five minutes, I gave up. It was 9:30am and I knew that whenever the bus did come, I would not get to NAF in time to participate in the TCP.

Besides the embarrassment of this experience, I felt an overwhelming sense of helplessness: I relied so brazenly on the public transportation system. Just as our students do every single day. I was confident that based on the previous day’s experience, I would be fine to expect a similar result the very next day. Sadly, the public transportation system in Baltimore is not a reliable mode of transportation, especially when there is an expectation of arriving at a specified time. How can our students possibly be expected to arrive to school every day on time when their means of transportation is inconsistent and unreliable? What can we tell them when they have no other means of getting to school?

To make the task of getting to and from school such a difficult challenge is to send the wrong message to our Baltimore City students. If public transportation isn’t a reliable, predictable means for them to get to elementary/middle/high school, then it won’t be a reliable means when they need it for post-secondary school, training courses, or employment opportunities. Our message through the work of the Truancy Court Program is that education is important, that it will lead to greater opportunities in life. We strive to enforce this message through our work, yet the issues with the public transportation system implicitly reinforce those insurmountable challenges that are part of the student’s macrosystem environment. Transportation is an unnecessary barrier to their success; making it better for all of Baltimore city’s citizens will mean a better future for our students, schools, and the city itself.

1 “MTA Facts and Figures.” Maryland Transit Administration. Retrieved from Last visited October 23, 2013.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Problem-Solving Courts: A Look Into Maryland’s Drug Treatment Courts

This semester our CFCC Student Fellows Program class has learned a lot about different problem-solving courts, how they work, and what methods they use. Gray Barton, Executive Director for the Maryland Office of Problem-Solving Courts, spoke to us about different problem-solving courts that the state has implemented. He spoke specifically about drug treatment court and really explained how these courts are helping criminal defendants with addiction issues. Substance abuse is a serious problem in the United States, and Mr. Barton told us that 59.6% of the prison population are people who have been convicted of drug offenses.

After listening to Mr. Barton’s presentation, and doing a group project specifically on Family Drug Treatment Courts, I realized how important this type of problem-solving court is. Substance abuse is very complex and very difficult to deal with. It is a lifelong battle, and the addict must constantly work toward recovery. Addiction can make people do unimaginable things, such as steal, rob, and even physically harm another human being. With Maryland’s drug treatment courts, the main focus is to keep the person convicted of the crime under frequent supervision. The participant must come to regularly scheduled court reviews to monitor progress, and during the session the individual meets with a judge to discuss goals and treatment.

Along with these scheduled court reviews, there are home checks, frequent/random drug tests, and employment/education verifications. Maryland’s drug courts try to use non-adversarial methods to really help address the root of the problem behavior and give the participant the best chance at recovery. There are many different people who are a part of the participant’s team to ensure support and to provide a variety of perspectives. The focus is not simply punishment but rehabilitation.

I was very impressed with the way that Maryland is dealing with criminal defendants who have substance abuse problems. Without a specialized court, many times these people are referred to treatment centers, do not go through the necessary steps to recover, and commit the same crimes repeatedly. I think that serious intervention is needed in a lot of these cases, and it is important for there to be almost constant supervision at the beginning. Maryland drug treatment courts seem to hold the participant accountable and really work with that individual to recover and understand addiction.

This week our CFCC Student Fellows Program class is taking a field trip to observe a drug court in Baltimore City. I am really looking forward to seeing how this type of problem-solving court works in action. Being in law school, our learning is truly focused on the adversarial process. Learning about these alternative problem-solving approaches has really changed my thinking, and I believe that Maryland’s drug treatment courts will keep people from making the same mistake twice. What do you think about drug treatment courts? Or other problem-solving courts in general? Do you think that problem-solving courts are too “easy” on criminal defendants, or do you see these courts as helpful?

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Incarceration Isn’t Always the Answer

The United States has the highest incarceration rates of any country in the world. According to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (“NAACP”), 1 in every 31 adults or 3.2 percent of the population is under some form of correctional control. To me these numbers are upsetting. With these rates, one could reasonably think that the threat of incarceration would deter criminal activity or at least produce a deep reduction in crime. Unfortunately this is not the case. So how do we begin to fix this problem?

As a Student Fellow with the Sayra and Neil Meyerhoff Center for Families, Children and the Courts (“CFCC”) at the University of Baltimore School of Law, I’ve become acquainted with a specialized tribunal called problem-solving courts. Despite being in my final year of law school, prior to this law school course, I had never heard about problem-solving courts. Unlike traditional courts, where prison sentences are used as a means to have criminals pay for their crimes, problem-solving courts focus on the underlying issues causing the crime. So for example, in a case where a defendant has committed a theft as a result of a drug addiction, in a problem- solving court the focus would be on how to restore this person through drug treatment. Whether the issue is substance abuse or mental illness, problem-solving courts use an integration of treatment services, close monitoring of the defendant, and collaboration with the community and other organizations to restore the defendant and strengthen the community.

While problem-solving courts are not a cure all, I believe that problem-solving courts are a step in the right direction. It is a form of therapeutic justice that should be utilized more frequently. Irrespective of our individual ideas on how to change the criminal justice system, I think we can all agree that something needs to change and soon. This sentiment is also reflected through the comprehensive review of the criminal justice system by the Department of Justice, commenced at the direction of the Attorney General earlier this year. The current rates of incarceration affect us all, and it’s an issue we should all be educated about. High incarceration rates hurt taxpayers,  affect the economy as imprisoned non-violent offenders who could be working are unable to, and  separate families. I'm not saying criminals should not be punished for their crimes, but let’s face it, the current system isn't working. If we are to begin moving forward as a community and as a nation we need to address the underlying issues surrounding crime. I encourage us all to start the discussion. How do you think we should begin to change and improve the criminal justice system?

Monday, October 7, 2013

Reflections on the Truancy Court Program

Only two sessions into the Truancy Court Program (“TCP”), I have already noticed a dramatic change in students’ attendance. While it is still early in the year, the students seem as though they want to make a genuine effort to attend school, be on time, and do well in their classes. However, one of the main goals of the TCP is to address the root causes of truant behavior. While we attempt to investigate what those causes are with each student who comes into the TCP sessions, sometimes it can be quite a challenge when the parents don’t attend sessions or don’t take an active role in their children’s’ day-to-day lives. Many parents are often oblivious to what their children are doing, especially in regard to their education. 

Upon reflection on the past two sessions at Elmer A. Henderson Elementary School’s TCP, I couldn’t help but wonder if there was more we could do. Even with limited resources, how can we expand this program? I noticed that many parents don’t know how to discipline their children by setting rules and guidelines for them to follow. Some parents are simply too busy working multiple jobs to try to provide for their children. However, other parents just don’t have the basic parenting skills that can help their children succeed. One parent admitted that her children were late to school on numerous occasions, not because the children could not wake up in the morning, but because she had a difficult time waking up in the morning.

Even though our sessions are geared primarily toward the students and encouraging them to want to attend school, to set dreams and goals for themselves, I strongly believe that these are things that should begin at home. If the parents don’t encourage their children, don’t take school seriously, don’t set rules for the children, then why should the children be expected to do well? I believe we should hold sessions with only the parents. If many parents can’t take time off on Friday mornings to come to this school’s TCP session, we can discuss what other time may work to avoid scheduling conflicts. Is it reasonable to have even one session a month focused solely on the parents and geared toward assisting them to develop their parenting skills? I would like to give tips to the parents such as sample schedules they can set for their children from the time they come home from school to the time they should go to sleep. Sometimes parents leave all of their tasks for the morning, which makes the students late, so even tips such as making their lunches for the next day the night before or setting their clothes out the night before could be helpful. I believe that the root cause of most truant behavior begins with problems at home and if we can attempt to change or improve some of the parents’ behaviors, helping the students will be far simpler. 

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Two-Generation Approach for Workshops

How can we expect a child to succeed when the parent or caregiver is unequipped to assist the child? Children not only need assistance with homework and school projects, but also with social and emotional development.

Parents or caregivers who struggle with their own emotional, financial and/or mental problems often encounter challenges in addressing the needs of their children.  Children need a stable home and caregivers who are equipped with the skills necessary to be successful parents.   In order for children to reach their potential, it is useful to adopt a two-generation approach that focuses on a parent’s needs as well as those of the child.  By addressing  issues that affect parents, such as language barriers, financial problems, and educational need, we also help the child.

After all, how can we expect parents to help their children with homework, for instance, if they themselves cannot read?  Assisting a child without assessing the parents’ or caregivers’ needs is like putting a cast on a broken leg without resetting the bone. Eventually, the leg may heal, but it will never heal correctly.  The child’s needs  will be met best by involving his/her caregiver, as well.

So what do we do? How can we best help parents or caregivers? A two-generation focus looks at each situation separately to determine the needs of the child and caregiver.   The Sayra and Neil Meyerhoff Center for Families, Children and the Courts (CFCC) understands the importance of parents and caregivers in the child’s life. CFCC Student Fellows are developing a parents’ workshop this fall to offer information to parents about student disabilities and where parents/caregivers can go for help within both the legal and education communities.  

What other workshop topics do you think would be helpful? Is it helpful to consider parents’ needs when addressing a child’s problems in school?