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January 29, 2008

Professor Forman, Jr.’s Dream: Less Incarceration, More Education

By Austin Rice-Stitt

Supreme Court clerk, Georgetown Law professor, co-founder of the See Forever Foundation and the Maya Angelou School in Washington, D.C., and former MLaw visiting professor James Forman, Jr. delivered the keynote address on MLK Day to a packed house in 250 Hutchins.

Professor Forman, Jr.’s talk, “Race, Crime, and Schools: A Civil Rights Struggle for this Generation,” was a story about his life and the American criminal justice system told through stories of Forman’s interactions with three individuals.

The first story was about a conversation that Forman had with Justice Sandra Day O’Connor when he was clerking for her in 1993-94. The topic of the conversation was his future. Over Justice O’Connor’s objections that public defenders have no power, and that Forman could be more influential doing traditional civil rights work, Forman explained that he was drawn to work as a P.D. because he feels like criminal work is the “civil rights work of his generation.” While the last decades have produced new opportunities for black Americans, Forman pointed out that the government is also locking up more black citizens than ever before. According to Forman, when Brown v. Board was decided in 1954, 30% of those incarcerated in America were black. That number now stands at 50%, though black people compose only 13% of the total population in America. O’Connor told Forman to “do his best,” and he went on to work for the Public Defender Service for the District of Columbia from 1994-2000.

Forman’s second story was about Eddie, a troubled 16-year-old, Washington, D.C. resident who became Forman’s client after stealing a T.V. Eddie was not in school at the time, and his reading skills were that of an elementary school student. Forman recalled that Eddie simply “wanted to go home.” Charged with finding a suitable program for Eddie, Forman was struck by the lack of options. The State’s solution was to send kids like Eddie to juvenile prison, which costs taxpayers $50,000 a year and yet has proven largely ineffective at rehabilitating. It seemed odd to Forman that the government, though unwilling to fund adequate schools or provide other services for kids like Eddie before they get in trouble, was willing to spend whatever it took to prosecute and incarcerate Eddie. Eddie pled guilty and was locked up, and Forman recalled thinking that Eddie likely would be victimized while in prison, and that he was likely to commit further crimes and possibly harm people upon his release.

Eddie’s fate was fresh on Forman’s mind when his friend David Domenici told him that he wanted to create a school for troubled youths. Domenici and Forman’s conversations led them to found in 1997 the Maya Angelou School in Washington, D.C. Initially funded entirely from private donations, the Angelou School, billed as a place “where all students, particularly those who have not succeeded in traditional schools, can reach their potential,” became a charter school a year after its formation.

When they were setting up the school, Forman and Domenici began by talking to both kids and parents, who said that they wanted a school with small classes and a relevant, rigorous curriculum. Along with Rigor and Relevance, Forman stressed a third R: Relationships. Remembering his own feelings of inadequacy at the Boy’s Club, Forman explained how many youngsters feel vulnerable and out of place at school. He said that such kids can gradually come to feel comfortable in the classroom with the proper attention and support from educators. “We know what to do,” Forman said.

The success of the Maya Angelou School is proof of the effectiveness of its methods. In 1997 four teachers taught 20 students; today, the organization is responsible for educating over 300 students in two high schools. The student body is roughly 50% special needs, while 40% have come through the juvenile court system. Notwithstanding the problems that the kids bring to the classroom, a higher percentage of students are graduating and going to college from the Angelou School than the national average. Nearly 80% are the first in their family to go college. In 2007, the Angelou School took over operation of the Oak Hill Academy, located inside a juvenile prison in Maryland. Also in 2007 the first Angelou middle school opened up with an enrollment of 75 students.

The subject of Forman’s third story readily acknowledges her debt to the support provided by the Angelou School. After spending a year in a half locked up at Oak Hill on an accessory to murder charge, Samantha became one of the first graduates of the Angelou School. Samantha told Forman that “the thing about See Forever was the support. Knowing I had that support kept me going.” She told Forman that the school helped her learn to think about the consequences of her actions and instilled in her a good work ethic. Samantha now works at the Oak Hill Academy and is the first president of the Maya Angelou Alumni Group.

In closing, Forman compared the juvenile justice systems of Texas and Missouri. Texas’ system, which relies mostly on punitive measures, has a 50% recidivism rate, while Missouri, which has a more therapeutic approach to dealing with troubled youths, has a recidivism rate of only 8%. “We know what to do,” Forman said again.