This post originally appeared as an op-ed in the Courier Journal on October 7, 2021.

By Dr. Terry Brooks

Knee jerk and wrong-headed proposals. Courageous young people giving voice to the issues at hand in the middle of a school board meeting. Bold leadership from our Superintendent. And a puzzling mix of regressive and promising policy proposals from Metro Council leadership.

Thus is the landscape of Louisville as we grieve the tragic murder of Tyree Smith.

And as we reflect upon the Louisville landscape, it is a collective imperative that we take a hard-eyed look at solutions to honor Tyree and to prioritize all the boys and girls in our city.

It’s disheartening to hear our city’s leaders deeply misguided prioritization of a police presence in schools and longing for easier processing of youth into the juvenile justice system in response to the attack on the lives of Louisville’s children. Is that the best we’ve got for our kids?

Kentucky Youth Advocates analyzed data from the Administrative Office of the Courts and found that, in 2019, while Black youth represented 27 percent of Jefferson County’s population of youth ages 10-17, they accounted for more than 70 percent of public offense complaints that were school-related. And law enforcement was the source for 98 percent of the school-related public offense complaints filed against youth of all races. Additional data from JCPS showed that across racial groups, students with disabilities were much more likely than their non-disabled peers to be involved in an incident with a School Resource Officer. The disproportionality was highest among Black students.

Research shows that even when students of different races commit the same infractions, they are not disciplined in the same way.

Are we willing to ignore decades of data showing the deleterious effects of policing our kids? Or, do we believe the best approach is to double down on failed strategies?

In order to move forward, we have to acknowledge that we have not invested enough in our kids and their families—especially in Black and Brown communities. The finger pointing is counterproductive. There has been failure at every turn in addressing adverse childhood experiences and the disinvested communities where kids grow up–particularly in Louisville’s West End.

These issues must be addressed. Throughout history, communities that lack resources to basic needs like health and mental health care, social supports, economic development, transportation, and education suffer from the impact of poverty, mental illness, violence, and incarceration. This goes without question–regardless of race, be they urban or rural.

While reviewing data from the Department of Juvenile Justice a couple of years ago, we found that though only 10 percent of Jefferson County youth (ages 10-17) lived in zip codes 40210, 40211, and 40212 – West End neighborhoods where the majority of children are Black – those zip codes accounted for approximately 30 percent of Jefferson County youth sentenced to DJJ commitment, confinement, or probation. This reflects the impact of historical and ongoing systemic factors exacerbated by racial segregation in Louisville.

Scripture reminds us, “Therefore whatever you have said in the dark shall be heard in the light.”  The sins of redlining and intentional disinvestment in Louisville’s predominantly Black neighborhoods have been exposed for years. Now what?

Will we come together and pool our resources to do the bold and right things for kids? Or, will we ignore the clarion call to deliberate action and repeat the failed steps that have hindered so many for so long in our community?

Let’s reject the insanity of repeating the past and expecting different results. The brazen political move towards law enforcement in schools would waste resources on an idea that just doesn’t work, exacerbate disparities among students of color and those from under-resourced zip codes with intensity, and would consistently increase the challenges that our students with special needs face. It is a notion that makes political leaders sound “tough on crime” when, in fact, it is detrimental to youth and to community safety.

Let’s embrace the upstream approach that focuses on building strong families and communities so all children can thrive. Let’s follow child development science and understand that the rational part of the teenage brain has yet to mature. Let’s understand the clear connection between trauma and behavior management. As such, let’s no longer accept ineffective practices like detaining more youth in juvenile detention centers.

Instead, we can invest in developing youth within their respective communities with connections to positive adults and opportunities–a successful strategy buttressed by years of research.

Criminalizing children who have ongoing traumatic stress is not the answer, and it has never been the answer. There are parents and families all over this city hoping for real investments in youth–inside and outside of schools. Such strategies require a level of intentionality that shuns thinking we can police our way out of the turbulent circumstances we created or allowed.

It is encouraging to note that school suspensions have been reduced in JCPS as a result of staff tackling the tough job of inventing a culture of personalization and trauma-informed practice, with a focus on behavioral health supports. Despite reports of school fights at the start of the school year, in the first 30 days of the current school year, fighting referrals were down by 46 percent and out-of-school suspensions down by 24 percent, compared to the same time period in SY 2019-2020, before the pandemic began.

No one – most significantly the Superintendent himself – is suggesting that JCPS has “arrived” particularly in the arenas of economic and racial disparities, but Dr. Pollio and our community’s educators are taking bold steps to ensure that every child is a learner and that every child is safe, supported and valued. And those efforts to keep students safe should be recognized and applauded.

However, given the magnitude of unaddressed ills plaguing our community, we need more than only the schools to lead. We need the whole city of Louisville to step up. That means pediatricians and preachers and police officers. It means business leaders and grandparents. It means nonprofits and neighborhoods. It means YOU!

It means that if you have been watching from afar, this is your invitation to get involved: advocate, mentor, support, create, teach, invest, fund, and, most importantly, listen to our youth.

Terry Brooks is the executive director of Kentucky Youth Advocates.