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Every year, more than 1 million teenagers, including high schoolers, are arrested in the U.S. Students who go to jail are at risk of going down a hard-to-reverse path. Lisa María Rhodes, a social worker in New Orleans, wants to spring that trap. Her nonprofit helps young people in legal trouble and trains teachers to support students so that they can get out of jail and back in school. It’s an unusual mission that puts teachers in courtrooms, asking judges to consider the education of young suspects.
At the high school where Ms. Rhodes used to work, roughly 200 students – nearly 1 in 4 – need legal help each year. “Students would be missing from class. I would call home and find that they’d been arrested,” she says. “It kept happening.”
Her nonprofit also works with unauthorized immigrants who need help to continue their education. Whether she’s in a criminal court or an immigration court, Ms. Rhodes asks judges to weigh the future potential of a young life when deciding their fate.
“Judges also want to know who this child is in front of them,” says Robert Schwartz, a legal scholar at Temple University. “You’re rounding out a portrait of a kid as a human being.”
School absences were rare for Lorenzo Elliott, the drum major of the George Washington Carver High School band here in New Orleans and an honor roll student with a 96% attendance rate. So when he didn’t come to school one December morning in 2015, a social worker called his home.
His family said that police had picked him up. He was accused of being a getaway driver for two of his cousins, who had been arrested for robbing someone in eastern New Orleans. Because he was 17, Lorenzo was charged as an adult in Louisiana. Despite his accomplishments, he worried that his education would be derailed.
“I see a lot of black kids like me lost to the system,” Lorenzo says. “But my school had my back.”
Specifically, Lisa María Rhodes, a social worker at Carver at the time, jumped into action. Early in her career, when she worked as a Spanish-language teacher, Ms. Rhodes had witnessed how jail sent promising young people down a hard-to-reverse path. “Students would be missing from class. I would call home and find that they’d been arrested,” Ms. Rhodes says. “It kept happening.”
Because most of her students could not afford even modest bail, they often stayed in jail for months – sometimes years – awaiting trial.
A few hours after Ms. Rhodes heard about Lorenzo’s arrest, she wrote a detailed letter to the magistrate judge, to provide context about the drum major that went far beyond the brief incident summary that the arresting officers had supplied. The following morning, she went to Orleans Parish Criminal District Court to deliver the letter in person.
Lorenzo’s arrest turned out to be a tipping point for Ms. Rhodes: She vowed to commit whatever time was necessary to advocate for the roughly 200 students at Carver – nearly 1 in 4 – who need legal help each year.
Today she runs a project that is one of the only of its kind in the country. She and a handful of cohorts help young people who have become entangled with the law and all too often fall through the cracks in the American education system. They also train teachers to provide similar assistance. The idea is to support students in a way their parents often can’t and keep them from becoming another dropout statistic – or worse.
Justice experts across the country can name few other school-based projects like Ms. Rhodes’ in which teachers have become outside advocates for students.
“I didn’t see a lot of teachers taking time off from school to go to court,” says Robert Schwartz, a visiting scholar at Temple University’s James Beasley School of Law in Philadelphia. “Often, they can’t.”
Yet there is no shortage of students who need the help. More than 1.6 million youth up to age 20 were arrested around the country in 2018, according to Department of Justice data. The number was 2 million the year Lorenzo was arrested.
In Texas, a study published in 2011 that combed through more than 900,000 school records found that 1 in 7 students had contact with the juvenile justice system during middle or high school years. It didn’t include those who ended up in adult courts.
At the time of Lorenzo’s arrest, no school in New Orleans consistently supported its students in courts, even though Louisiana’s incarceration rate topped the nation, with 776 prisoners per 100,000 residents. Yet Ms. Rhodes was determined to do something. “Educators can change this,” she says.
School staffers like Ms. Rhodes, focused on what’s best for a student, can influence courts to shift their focus.
“Typically, judges and prosecutors look more narrowly, asking if there’s enough evidence for the case before them,” says Anne Lee, executive director of TeamChild, which has provided free legal advice for Seattle youth for more than 20 years. “But [Ms. Rhodes is] asking the judge to consider the child and how detention will have an impact on that child’s education. She’s interrupting what would be the natural course for kids who might not have the resources to get themselves out.”
The day after his arrest, Lorenzo, shackled for his first appearance in magistrate court, shuffled into the inmate box and sat in a row of men clad in orange jumpsuits. He had been through a lot in his young life, growing up in a public-housing development where he and two of his cousins ran with a crowd that often strayed into trouble. “I was supposed to be dead or in jail,” he says. “That’s what the family used to say.”
Then he saw Ms. Rhodes consulting with his public defender. “I saw that they were out there fighting for me,” he says. “It gave me hope.”
The magistrate judge didn’t read Ms. Rhodes’ letter. He simply looked at the charge, said it was serious, and set a steep bond that Lorenzo’s family couldn’t afford.
Lorenzo’s lawyer told him that while the district attorney decided whether to accept his case, he could expect to spend the next two months in jail – and out of the classroom.
Ms. Rhodes began working furiously behind the scenes for the drum major’s release. At the same time, a new set of students arrived at Carver with very different legal issues.
Though Carver’s student body had been nearly 100% African American for years, the school – like its sister schools in New Orleans in the Collegiate Academies charter-management organization – was now starting to enroll its first groups of unauthorized immigrants. Many had migrated alone or with other children, unaccompanied by adults, from Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Nicaragua, fleeing violence. Immigration officials placed thousands of these children in New Orleans with family members who had been drawn to the area by jobs several years earlier, as the flooded city rebuilt from Hurricane Katrina.
Almost immediately, new students needing help began looking to Ms. Rhodes, a fluent Spanish speaker whose mother emigrated from Colombia. One of Carver’s earliest immigrant arrivals was Monica Zelaya, who enrolled as a freshman after a grueling 17-day journey to the United States.
Growing up in Choluteca, in south Honduras, Monica was known to be studious. While her cousins would run off to play soccer after school, she’d go home to finish her homework. “Monica, you’re always thinking about the future,” her cousins would tell her.
When she walked in Carver’s doors, she knew one English sentence: “Hello, I’m Monica.” True to form, she began studying late into the night, repeating phrases and learning new vocabulary from English-language recordings she checked out from the library.
At Monica’s request, Ms. Rhodes connected her with a lawyer who could help her start the long process of applying for residency. Other immigrant students asked Ms. Rhodes to accompany them to immigration court, a place where parents who were living in the country illegally were wary of going. Initially, she mostly provided language interpretation. But Ms. Rhodes also saw similarities between criminal and immigration courts. In both, her presence in the courtrooms calmed fears and provided context to judges hungry for more information.
“In criminal courts, you’re saying, ‘This isn’t a bad kid, judge. This is a kid who is developing, growing, and trying to find their way,’” says Mr. Schwartz. “It tells the court, ‘This child is well supported. You can take a risk with this child.’”
Mr. Schwartz, who co-founded the Juvenile Law Center in Pennsylvania in 1975, says the same goes for immigration courts. “Judges also want to know who this child is in front of them,” he adds. “You’re rounding out a portrait of a kid as a human being.”
Ms. Rhodes knew Lorenzo and his family. She knew his potential and how many arrested students never return to the classroom.
Though Ms. Rhodes didn’t know yet if Lorenzo’s charges were warranted, she was aware that – even if he was guilty – there is research showing that young people’s still-developing brains make them more susceptible to peer pressure and more amenable to change.
Because of an evolving understanding of neurological development, many judges from the U.S. Supreme Court on down have begun reconsidering how the justice system treats young people. In Louisiana, as in several other states, the legislature recently revised laws that had allowed teens younger than 18 to be treated as adults, though the change has not yet been fully implemented.
Lorenzo had made bad choices, as many teenagers do, but he also excelled in school. It was his escape, a place where he harbored dreams of becoming a mechanical engineer. “Math was my favorite,” he says. “I loved school. I always found a way to make the honor roll.”
That winter, as Lorenzo sat behind bars, he worried that he wouldn’t be able to catch up and graduate on time. He pictured the band room, where his fellow musicians were spending long hours in rehearsal getting ready for the city’s Carnival parades without him.
In February 2016, he was brought back to court to be formally arraigned. The district attorney had accepted the charges: Lorenzo would be prosecuted on three counts of armed robbery. If he was found guilty, he could serve 15 years in prison, the judge noted.
“I didn’t even know who had been robbed,” Lorenzo says. “But because I was the oldest cousin by a year, the prosecutor was trying hard to give me all the charges.”
Lorenzo pleaded not guilty. But this time, the judge read Ms. Rhodes’ letter, which included a new paragraph about how Lorenzo had missed two months of school and was in danger of not graduating.
The judge reduced Lorenzo’s bail.
Lorenzo’s family still couldn’t afford it, but members of the surrounding 9th Ward community helped raise enough money to secure his release a few days after the arraignment.
“Ms. Rhodes played a big part,” Lorenzo says. “She was really pushing for them to let me out.”
On the day Lorenzo walked out of jail, the city was decorated in purple, green, and gold. It was a week before Mardi Gras, in 2016. Though he had been replaced as drum major, he played in the band’s percussion section for a few evening parades, twirling the cymbals with a special flair. That week, he also had intense conversations with teachers, trying to figure out how to make up for the 60 days he’d missed.
Many others in his position simply give up: A multiyear study of 1,000 adolescents in Chicago found that arrested teens were 22% more likely to quit school. Not Lorenzo. “I hit the books hard,” he says.
As spring break passed, then prom, all the college-bound seniors that Ms. Rhodes knew were wrapping up their college paperwork. But a Honduran girl who’d had difficulties with her Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, couldn’t complete the process. As Ms. Rhodes attempted to resolve the issue, the girl explained that she didn’t have any legal documents. Without a Social Security number, she could not receive federal financial aid or pay in-state tuition in Louisiana.
Ms. Rhodes wondered if the girl’s situation was more commonplace than she’d realized. Though the number of Central American children entering Carver was rising rapidly, she never knew how many of her new students were living in the country illegally. And she couldn’t ask them to disclose their immigration status – doing so would violate federal law.
The intersection of immigration law and education is a murky area that few groups fully understand. “I would say there are maybe five organizations like ours across the country,” says Valeria Do Vale, lead coordinator for the Student Immigration Movement, which was started in Boston in 2005 by immigrant students attending high school with hopes of attending college. To expand their scope, the advocates co-founded an organization called Unafraid Educators to organize teachers and help students gain access to college.
For her part, Ms. Rhodes worried that she and her colleagues had inadvertently misled the first immigrant students with whom they had worked. “We told them, ‘Work hard, keep your grades up, do well on the ACT, and you’ll be fine.’ But then they didn’t qualify for FAFSA. We didn’t know.”
Still, as the school year closed, Ms. Rhodes saw that her work was also cause for celebration. In May 2016, Lorenzo walked through Carver’s commencement ceremony with his classmates, feeling a burst of pride and affection for high school and the people he’d met there. “I love my teachers; they made me learn,” Lorenzo says. “And I love the people that went to Carver. And I love the Rams. I love Carver forever.”
By the time Lorenzo sat for his graduation photos, Monica was walking Carver’s hallways as a junior feeling much more confident. Her English had significantly improved, and she was earning straight A’s.
As she started her senior year, Monica looked in the mailbox every day for papers granting her permanent residency. But she had heard nothing by January 2017, when her FAFSA was rejected due to “incomplete information” – because she, too, had no Social Security number.
Devastated, she visited Ms. Rhodes’ office, telling her she had been dreaming of college forever. “I felt like I had worked hard for nothing,” she says.
Ms. Rhodes encouraged Monica to keep her academic focus. In May of that year, Monica graduated near the top of her class, with a 4.5 grade-point average. But college was not yet possible for her.
Since 2017, Ms. Rhodes has gotten a crash course in college financial aid. For a time, she mulled pushing for in-state tuition for Louisiana’s students who were living in the country illegally. But ultimately, immigration advocates in New Orleans advised her to stick to the basics: Carver’s immigrant students were most likely to make it to college if they became permanent legal residents.
National data shows that legal help is crucial to that process: A 2014 report from the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University found that when juveniles in immigration court were helped by a lawyer, the percentage that were allowed to stay in the U.S. jumped from 15% to 73%. In 2018, after waiting a year, Monica got her permanent resident credentials and an all-important Social Security number. She became Carver’s first student to move from unauthorized to documented status and to enroll in college.
Monica is now in her second year of college courses. She talks about attending law school and becoming a lawyer who can help students navigate the immigration system. “I know what it feels like to be stuck within this process,” she says. “I want to help people who go through it.”
Within the halls of Carver, word about Ms. Rhodes has gotten out. Now, immigrant students regularly come to her for help and volunteer their immigration status. That level of comfort and trust is unusual.
“For youth without legal status, it can feel dangerous to come out of the woodwork and ask for help,” says Ms. Lee of TeamChild. “So, to gain that trust and catch the cases early is huge – lifesaving, really.”
Ms. Rhodes is now looking into the possibility of creating a special scholarship fund or in-state tuition awards to help unauthorized immigrants who are enrolled in college and are working toward legal status. In 2019, she formed a new nonprofit called Free Alas to help teachers and social workers in other schools replicate Carver’s legal support.
Yet Ms. Rhodes’ work isn’t without controversy. Critics question whether schools should be in the business of helping unauthorized immigrants become legal. They argue that it will only encourage more illegal immigration and takes valuable time and resources away from other students.
“Look, if they have a basis to be in the country – if they are refugees or are granted asylum, then, of course, they should be able to get federal school loans and in-state tuition,” says Hans von Spakovsky, a senior legal fellow at the Heritage Foundation in Washington. Without that basis, he says that the school’s approach to these students is ill-advised. “You’re not going to be able to stop the problem of putting minors in this situation if you keep rewarding those who put them there to begin with.”
Lorenzo’s case was not resolved until nearly two years after his graduation, when he pleaded guilty to lesser charges and received three years’ probation, rather than jail time. Prosecutors were amenable to the plea deal largely because of the dedication he’d shown to his academics and, after graduation, to his job as a manager at Walmart and to his two young daughters, London and Zoey.
“The idea is not that we help only kids who the court considers innocent,” Ms. Rhodes says. “Lorenzo pleaded guilty to his charges. But look what happened when he was given a second chance.”
Lorenzo has insight into his mistakes. “It was the decisions I was making at the time. That’s what was messing me up. I learned to think for myself, to use my own brain,” he says. He hopes to have completed his coursework for a commercial driver’s license by the time he gets off probation next year. “I’m a whole lot smarter in the things I choose to do.”
Though Ms. Rhodes has now helped hundreds of students return to school or apply for permanent residency, Lorenzo is special. After all, his case helped to launch the efforts that would eventually become Free Alas.
“Getting out and going on with his life helped his case,” Ms. Rhodes says. “Now he’s able to work and go to school. And at the end of every day, he comes home and tucks in his two little girls.”
This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education.