The California Endowment works to improve access to health care for all Californians, but when its president and CEO, Robert Ross, saw that California’s boys and young men of color were struggling, he took a break.
That is, if three months of interviews and research into the mass incarceration of that demographic can be considered a break.
“It was something that had been building in me as a pediatrician and an African-American parent,” Ross said. “I had come across a statistic that said if you are an African-American male in the state of California and you drop out of school, you have nearly an 80 percent chance of ending up in prison. I found that to be unacceptable. More than 50 years after the Civil Rights Act and Brown v. Board of Education, it struck me as unacceptable that our nation should tolerate that.”
Ross will discuss his research and work on this topic at 2 p.m. today in the Hall of Philosophy. His lecture is titled “Our Boys: Love, Data and Radar.”
“It’s pretty clear that as it relates to the incarceration pipeline, which some call the school-to-prison pipeline, there are moments of opportunity for intervention early in the lives of these boys,” Ross said. “These moments of intervention have a very strong correlation to science and research, which is predictive of failure in school and dropout.”
Ross said some of these predictive factors include third-grade reading proficiency, which holds strong correlations to future academic success and suspension or expulsion from school.
“There is data that shows that, if you’re suspended from school, at any grade, even once, you have more than twice the likelihood of academic failure and a nearly three times likelihood of being involved with the juvenile justice system,” Ross said.
Through improved knowledge and understanding of these warning signs, Ross said teachers and caregivers can develop a “radar” that will allow them to recognize when boys and young men are in trouble. This will allow for intervention earlier in their lives, which in turn may help to prevent those boys and young men from eventually going to prison.
To Ross, this point of intervention is where love comes into play.
“Love provides a sense of hope, a sense of optimism a sense of well being,” Ross said. “If a kid misbehaves in school, the first option in our nation appears to be discipline through suspension, but there are alternative approaches.”
The alternative approach that Ross advocates is called “restorative justice,” which holds children accountable for their actions but also provides support and compassion without removal from the classroom.
“The worst thing you can do to a young person who appears to be troubled is to suspend or expel from school and send them into the streets,” Ross said.
Though Ross’ suggestions are backed by research and statistics, he said widespread improvement will require systemic changes and a sense of urgency in the public sector.
“You’ll have a shooting in Ferguson or the Trayvon Martin shooting, and it’ll be front page news for a week, and then the nation kind of reverts to business as usual,” he said. “We need a sustained level of urgency over time.”
Despite this large task, Ross remains optimistic.
“We have a president of the United States that has called this out as an important issue, and there are certainly more scholars in the research community that are coming together, along with community leaders and philanthropists,” he said. “I’ve seen a lot of mobilization on this issue in the last 24 months that we had not had previously. So I’m optimistic that we’ll see some movement in the future.”