BOWIE – Political figures, students, educators and community leaders from throughout Prince George’s County assembled for a day of in-depth discussion and reflection on a variety of topics related to youth justice reform in State’s Attorney Aisha Braveboy’s first-ever Youth Justice Reform Symposium at Bowie State University’s Student Center on Nov. 15.
Braveboy, County Councilman-At-Large Calvin Hawkins and board of education members led conversations about policies around youth justice reform, ways to end the school-to-prison pipeline, public safety improvement and diversion to achieve better outcomes for youth.
Braveboy has been in her role for almost a year and has built her platform primarily on youth justice reform and advocacy, hence the name change of her office’s Juvenile Unit to the Youth Justice Unit. From the time of her inaugural address in January, Braveboy pledged to make juvenile justice reform a top priority.
“One of my promises that I made when I became state’s attorney was to reform our youth justice system, and part of the reform involves the community and the young people who are impacted. And so I wanted to make sure that as we look at different ways of impacting young people, that we are listening to them,” Braveboy said.
“This symposium is designed to really talk about some of the changes we’re making, and as we develop our program and agenda for the future, we want to make sure that the community to participate and that’s what this symposium is designed to do.”
The reason students were invited was so they would have a voice in the conversation about what youth justice reform looks like to them. Students had opportunities to talk amongst their peers about ways to diminish the school-to-prison pipeline in what was called “breakout sessions,” suggesting crucial resources that are conducive for students like guidance counselors, community centers and specialized programs, among other recommendations.
Braveboy and her colleagues also hope to develop tangible strategies to reduce the number of young people involved in the criminal justice system, she said.
Another empowerment tool for the youth that Braveboy highlighted was a youth ambassador program, a forthcoming initiative that aims to engage students and the community to discover ways to make transformative differences with regards to youth justice reform.
Andrea Mwando, a senior criminal justice major, was one of the several Bowie State University students in attendance to join the discussion and assist with the high schoolers.
“As a criminal justice student, I’ve always taken an interest in juvenile reform,” said Mwando, who is also the president of the Bowie State University Chapter of the National Association of Blacks in Criminal Justice. “We’re always looking for ways in which we can help and make a difference in the system, and we all feel as though the best way the best way to make a difference is to start with the youth.”
Hawkins expressed how elated he was to work with Braveboy in the inaugural symposium.
“I’m so proud and impressed with her courageous position on this and the vision she had for transforming the lives of our young people and preventing many of them going (through) the school-to-prison pipeline,” said Hawkins, an alum of Bowie State.
“As an ex-offender who served five years and nine months in prison, I know how important this is for young people.”
The symposium was organized by State’s Attorney’s Office (SAO) Director of Legislative Affairs LaKeecia Allen, consisted of two panels, and had a turnout of an estimated more than 160 students from six different high schools: College Park Academy, Oxon Hill, Friendly, Crossland, Fairmont Heights and Parkdale.
Following the welcome address by Braveboy, Hawkins and Bowie State University President Aminta H. Breaux, the breakout sessions and the first panel ran concurrently. Students left the Student Center Theater and were divided into five separate classrooms for their hour-long breakout sessions while the first panel participants remained in the theater.
The first panel addressed different aspects of diversion, such as trauma-informed diversion, counseling, mentorship and structuring.
The second panel was called “fireside chat,” which involved everyone. Formatted as more of an intimate discussion between students and panelists Braveboy, Hawkins, Prince George’s County Educators’ Association President Theresa Dudley and Prince George’s County Public Schools (PGCPS) Board of Education Chair Alvin Thornton, the fireside chat required spokespersons from each of the breakout discussions to express questions, concerns and solutions for the myriad of issues facing public school students.
In addition to responding to the students’ remarks, Thornton and Dudley spoke extensively on restorative justice and the Kirwan Commission, an initiative that seeks to develop major funding and policy reforms for the Maryland public education system.
Bowie Mayor-elect Tim Adams attended the symposium momentarily, showing support for an institution he has a well-established connection with.
“I have continuously supported the students here a Bowie State University. I think Bowie State is a true economic engine that we need to utilize even more. I think the students here invest in future leadership,” Adams said.
“When it comes to youth justice reform, I think we need to make sure that we do stop that pipeline. We talk about it figuratively, but it’s actually a problem. We need to encourage our young people, we need to make sure that they understand the potential that’s out there for them. We also need to make sure that we put in place the mechanisms to help make sure that they’re successful.”