By Hadassah Greta Bauerle, CFCC Student Fellow 2019-2020
I have always been a dreamer. I frequently sit and imagine possibilities that can shape the world for the better. As a result, I am often ridiculed for my innocent yet sincere belief that the world can change if we all work together to make it happen. I went to law school just for this purpose — to change the world. I enrolled in the University of Baltimore School of Law Center for and Families, Children and the Courts (CFCC) Student Fellows Program for the simple goal of finding a way to improve Baltimore.
In class, I have the unique opportunity to engage in fascinating discussions with professors and fellow law students who are dedicated to shaping Baltimore for the better. We have been discussing the concept of therapeutic jurisprudence and preventive law. These theories are a unique, holistic, and empowering approach to law where professionals of all types work together to address an individual’s or family’s situation. Psychologists, social workers, child development experts, and addiction specialists, are just as valued in this process as lawyers and judges, if not more so. This approach seeks to understand the possible causes of a problem and to empower the individual to grow and become the person he or she can be. The driving force behind this radical approach is a focus on therapeutic rather than anti-therapeutic effects. It is inspiring for me to interact with other passionate individuals who are committed to helping our local community thrive.
Baltimore has a lot of unique struggles that its citizens face every day. Systemic racism has kept African-American families trapped in a vicious cycle of poverty, substance use disorders, and crime. Beyond systemic constraints, many families experience troubling events such as divorce, incarceration, food insecurity, premature deaths from gun violence or overdose, and other traumatic experiences. Recent studies have shown that African-American children growing up in Baltimore City have been exposed to high levels of trauma. Scientists have also found that repeated exposure to trauma can impact the brain’s development. Therefore, children growing up in traumatic environments may not reach their full potential because their brains may shut down in response to repeated trauma.
Often, for these children, school is their only chance to achieve a better life. School can provide a temporary safe space with caring teachers, food to eat, and positive encounters.
However, not every child has a positive school experience. An undiagnosed disability may prevent the child from understanding the material; or the child might be getting bullied. Maybe the long bus rides on public transportation are overwhelming. Repeated exposure to trauma can lead to ADHD-like symptoms, which could impact learning and the desire to be in class. For various reasons, many students fail to see the benefit of going to school and choose to skip school instead. If they miss enough days of school, they may be labeled “truant.”
For some states, truancy can result in a formal court proceeding where the parents are responsible for their child’s actions. The parent may be compelled to appear in court and explain to a judge why their child is not going to school. The court might order the parent to find a way to improve the child’s attendance. If the parent is unable to do so, the parent could be fined or even jailed for the misdemeanor offense of allowing their child to become truant.
CFCC’s Truancy Court Program (TCP) chooses to approach the problem differently. The professionals in this program see the student as a whole person with a complicated and challenging background. They are each trained in techniques intended to empower the individual. Following the therapeutic and rehabilitative approach to law, these professionals are lawyers, social workers, and judges who believe in changing lives through the process of allowing the students to feel heard and valued, rather than punishing their behavior.
As a CFCC Student Fellow participating in the TCP, I have a unique look into the process. Some Student Fellows will participate in restorative justice circles, while other Student Fellows will clerk for the judges making decisions on how to handle the truancy cases. In a few weeks, I will begin as a law clerk to Judge Lynae Polk at Mt. Royal Elementary/Middle School. For the past week, I have been researching the neighborhood and the school’s demographics in order to understand more fully the dynamics of the school. As is typical with a lot of Baltimore City Public Schools, the majority of the students are African American. Also, more than 95% of the students qualify as Title 1 students. Title 1 is a basic grant providing funds to local educational agencies where a high percentage of students come from low-income families. Many of the students at Mt. Royal do not have internet in their homes or their parents may not own a vehicle. Their parents may experience high levels of unemployment and may be high school dropouts. These students are experiencing poverty that I have only ever read about. This is their reality, and this is the context in which they are attending school. Everyone has something they are struggling with, and for many students, these struggles are so much more than I, as a middle-class white woman, can comprehend.
Although I do not fully know what to expect in this upcoming year, I do know that I have a unique opportunity to help shape Baltimore City students’ lives for the better. I am excited to have a chance to actively do something to help my community, rather than sit back and wish for things to change. But I am also a little anxious about what I will encounter. The judges making decisions for these students have the ability to shape a student’s trajectory and outlook on how others perceive the student. As a law clerk to the judge, it will be up to me to observe and assist with this process, as needed. It is a great responsibility, but this is a responsibility for which I am ready.