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December 8, 2014 Published in Schools, Top Stories

Attorney General And Secretary Of Education Hold Roundtable At Northern Virginia Juvenile Detention Center School

(courtesy photo)

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and Attorney General Eric Holder visit Northern Virginia Juvenile Detention Center School (courtesy photo)

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan held a roundtable with students at the Northern Virginia Juvenile Detention Center School in Alexandria today as part of President Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper Initiative.

The Attorney General and Secretary Duncan sat for an hour with six students enrolled in the state operated educational program run by Alexandria City Public Schools at the at the Detention Center discussing topics as wide ranging as the afterschool programs, yoga and the impossibility of getting a job without a high school diploma.

During the visit, Secretary Duncan and Attorney General Holder announced a Correctional Education Guidance Package aimed at helping states and local agencies strengthen the quality of education services provided to America’s estimated 60,000 young people in confinement every day. The Attorney General told the students that the only way to make this program better is to start at the top.

“As a nation, we cannot let our young people fall through the cracks. These young people cannot be like the President’s father, who was not there for him,” Attorney General Holder said.

He told the students that President Barack Obama felt that he had several second, third and fourth chances growing up in Hawaii, but that it had been a forgiving place and he had been allowed to learn from his mistakes. He told the students that the President made bad choices and had grown up angry, but that education had helped turn him around.

“If you don’t graduate from high school, how many good jobs are available to you? Chase your dreams and passions, but always pursue that education. It is education which opens doors and which will keep you off the streets,” Secretary Duncan said.

Attorney General Eric Holder and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan at NVJDC Roundtable (courtesy photo)

Attorney General Eric Holder and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan at NVJDC Roundtable (courtesy photo)

ACPS Executive Director of Alternative Programs and Equity, Julie Crawford, reminded the group that statistically the majority of young males of color who spend time in detention center facilities in their youth and do not graduate from high school end up reoffending and being locked up again as adults.

“I used to see a lot of young people come before me as a judge in court in D.C. back when it was called the murder capital of the U.S. But none of those typically black young men included anyone who had a high school diploma,” Attorney General Holder said.

Michael Smith, special assistant to the president and senior director of cabinet affairs for My Brother’s Keeper, also at the roundtable, told students that statistically, he should not be in his role in the administration. His mom was 16 when she had him and he lost a brother to gang violence.

“But the President realizes that not all your errors should stay with you all your life. In this, the White House has your back,” Smith said.

Both Attorney General Holder and Secretary Duncan told the Detention Center students at the roundtable that they could relate their own childhood experiences to some of the experiences that the students have gone through in their lives.

The Attorney General told the students that he grew up in a poor neighborhood in Queens, New York, with a father who had not completed high school but a mother who had. Duncan said he grew up in Chicago where he saw groups of friends killed before they could grow up. Yet none of his friends who graduated from high school were in that group of friends who died young.

“Sometimes education is the difference between whether you live or don’t,” he told the six students.

The Detention Center students, some of whom are waiting to go to court and some of whom have already been sentenced, told the Attorney General and Secretary Duncan that they want more sports opportunities and more opportunities to practice yoga. Yoga helps them relax and feel calmer about the world around them.

“Yoga gave me a new perspective on things. I love it. It makes me feel relaxed. Physically it makes my head feel clearer,” one student told the roundtable.

“There is a discipline in sports, being at practice at a certain time, training. I think sports are something we should all be involved in,” Attorney General Holder said.

“It teaches leadership, teamwork, being unselfish. Sports reveal character. In sports, you cannot hide who you really are,” Secretary Duncan added.

They also talked about the New Beginnings program, a six-month post disposition program at NVJDC, which helps them develop a better attitude toward the world around them; be mindful of their environment, choices and peer pressure; and prepares them for release.

“When I get released, I’m not going to have friends because they are all locked up. But in the future, I’m not going to hang out with people unless they are doing something positive. I’m going to keep myself really busy playing sports and get a part-time job. That way, I will be too busy to hang out on the streets and get in trouble,” another student said.

The students also shared the importance of having supportive teachers at the Detention Center who care about how they felt and are understanding of their difficulties. They said that having teachers who care passionately about their welfare and give them individualized attention makes all the difference.

At the end of the hour, Attorney General Holder and Secretary Duncan left saying they knew that every one of the six students who had shared their thoughts and problems with them at the roundtable can and should be a success in the future.

Elias talks with Secretary Duncan and Attorney General Holder (courtesy photo)

Elias talks with Secretary Duncan and Attorney General Holder (courtesy photo)

As part of the tour of the Detention Center,  the Attorney General, Secretary of Education Duncan and special assistant Smith were shown around the a math classroom by an alumnus. Elias, 18, explained how teachers helped him get his high school diploma last year. He is now working full time and looking to study at Northern Virginia Community College in the future.

"How did it feel to earn that diploma?" Secretary Duncan asked.

Elias said he had a couple teachers who "worked on him really hard" and he even found himself wanting more work to do during his time away from the classroom. He said he thought that teachers at the detention center could spend more one-on-one time with students because the classrooms are smaller than classrooms at a traditional high school.

"If it hadn't been for this school, I wouldn't have made it," Elias said. “Before entering the detention center, I was struggling. I had too much free time on my hands.”

His experience at the detention center left him with long hours to contemplate his experience and his decisions on the outside.

"It really makes you reflect on what you did to get in. If there's something I got out of here, it is to value what you have and make the best out of your situation,” he said.

The Correctional Education Guidance Package announced during the visit builds on recommendations in the My Brother’s Keeper Task Force report released in May to “reform the juvenile and criminal justice systems to reduce unnecessary interactions for youth and to enforce the rights of incarcerated youth to a quality education.” The guidance package is a roadmap that states and local agencies can use to improve the quality of educational services for confined youth.

“Students in juvenile justice facilities need a world-class education and rigorous coursework to help them successfully transition out of facilities and back into the classroom or the workforce, becoming productive members of society. Young people should not fall off-track for life just because they come into contact with the justice system,” Duncan said.

"In this great country, all children deserve equal access to a high-quality public education – and this is no less true for children in the juvenile justice system," said Attorney General Holder.  "At the Department of Justice, we are working tirelessly to ensure that every young person who’s involved in the system retains access to the quality education they need to rebuild their lives and reclaim their futures. We hope and expect this guidance will offer a roadmap for enhancing these young people's academic and social skills, and reducing the likelihood of recidivism."


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