Thank you, Sally, for your kind words, for your outstanding work as United States Attorney for the Northern District of Georgia, and for your unwavering support of the Georgia Appleseed Center for Law and Justice. It is a pleasure to stand with you this evening – and to join with so many of the leaders, partners, and supporters who have helped to extend the reach and impact of Appleseed’s remarkable mission over the years – particularly your Board Chair, Beth Tanis; past Chair, Steve Clay; and my good friend, Joe Loveland, a founding member of Georgia Appleseed and former Board Chair. Thank you for welcoming me to your beautiful city, for including me in tonight’s celebration, and for putting me in such good company – among so many of this state’s legislators, business leaders, community activists, child advocates, and educators. I’m especially glad to see so many distinguished members of the bench and bar, including Chief Justice Hunstein, Justice Nahmias, and Justice Thompson, of the Georgia Supreme Court. It’s an honor to join with you as we recognize this year’s Good Apple Award winners and celebrate the many dedicated professionals who are at the core of this Center’s important work.
For nearly two decades – since 1993, when a group of concerned and frustrated – but ultimately hopeful – Harvard Law School graduates from the Class of 1958 came together around a common goal – to launch a new, national effort that would help establish public interest law centers across the country and rally support for struggling pro bono organizations – the Appleseed Network has been on the front lines of the fight to realize our nation’s founding promise of equal justice under law. Here in Georgia, the Appleseed Center has championed critical legislative and policy reforms. You’ve built a strong network of supporters, and mobilized attorneys from across the public and private sectors to take action in improving the strength and integrity of our justice system. And, through in-depth studies like your recent report, Effective Student Discipline: Keeping Kids in Class, you’ve enhanced our understanding of the most urgent deficiencies and disparities that – together – we must address.
In advancing these efforts, the recipients of tonight’s Good Apple Awards – Dustin Heslep, a senior manager at Ernst & Young, and the law firm, Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough – have emerged not only as excellent examples of pro bono leadership, but as effective and tireless advocates for at-risk young people across Georgia and throughout the country. The generous contributions that Dustin and nearly 30 Nelson Mullins attorneys, paralegals, and staff members made – and the hundreds of hours they logged in conducting research, managing data, and compiling reports related to the Center’s Effective Student Discipline Initiative – have made a tremendous difference in the project’s success. Over the course of 18 months, the awardees we honor tonight assembled invaluable information about some of the most pressing challenges our children face. And they’ve helped shine a light on the “school-to-prison pipeline” that, in far too many places, transforms our schools from doorways to opportunity into gateways to the correctional system. Above all, they’ve helped to signal that – no matter what challenges we face – in this country, we do not – and we will not – give up on our children.
Now, I know they’ve already been recognized this evening – but please join me in another well-deserved round of applause for this year’s Good Apple Award recipients.
Based on their examination of disciplinary practices, we know that there’s wide variation in the application of these practices across Georgia’s 180 school districts. In some places, we’ve seen that out-of-school-suspensions are imposed on more than twenty percent of students every year – and that these suspensions are much more likely to be imposed on black students, poor students, and special education students. Not surprisingly, we’ve observed that school districts with high out-of-school-suspension rates also tend to have lower-than-average graduation rates. And we also know that many of these practices – and the resulting problems – are anything but unique to Georgia.
In fact, another recent report showed that, in Texas school districts, only three percent of disciplinary actions were related to conduct for which state law mandates suspensions or expulsions. The remaining 97 percent were taken at the discretion of school officials. Perhaps that explains why, across the state, the majority of public school students – nearly 6 in 10 – were suspended or expelled between their 7th and 12th grade years. As a result, each faced a dramatically increased chance that they would become involved with the juvenile justice system.
These findings are cause for alarm – but they must also serve as a call to action. Our understanding of the problems before us has never been clearer. And there’s no question that the policies that fuel this destructive cycle – in Georgia, in Texas, and across the country – can and must be revisited. Changing these practices is not merely our professional responsibility – it is a moral imperative. And the work that many of you are doing to bring attention to, and to call for, the systemic reforms that America’s young people need to stay engaged, on track, in school – and out of our criminal justice system – has never been more important.
Of course, bringing about transformative change on such a large scale is not – and never has been – easy. But, here in Georgia – thanks to Appleseed’s work with the JUSTGeorgia coalition, as well as the generosity of so many Appleseed attorneys and partners, and the commitment you’ve shown in standing up for children, the poor, and others who, too often, are marginalized and underserved – you’ve proven that progress is possible.
As the Effective Student Discipline Initiative has found, alternatives to zero-tolerance disciplinary policies – like the innovative “Positive Behavior Support Program” that’s been implemented in 250 Georgia schools – provide promising models for ensuring that educational environments are safe, while keeping students in class. And, in recent weeks, your advocacy for reform has achieved tangible results. These efforts have helped to improve our school systems, expand access to legal services, and safeguard the legal and financial rights of our children.
I know other legislative efforts remain ongoing. But I also recognize, as this organization’s founders did, that – although state and local stakeholders will always be at the heart of this work – no single group will ever be able to tackle these challenges – and protect the children who need our help most – alone.
The national scope of these problems demands that we seek new avenues for cooperation and collaboration. It requires that we dedicate our resources and expertise to this cause – and enlist a wide range of partners – from community leaders to law enforcement officials, educators, policymakers, and parents. And it necessitates that I – along with my fellow Cabinet members across the Administration – continue to engage in meaningful ways.
As the father of three teenagers, protecting the safety – and the potential – of our nation’s young people is both a personal and professional priority. As a former board member of both the Appleseed Foundation and the District of Columbia Appleseed Center for Law and Justice, I share your determination to drive these vital efforts forward. And as Attorney General, I have worked to ensure that the Justice Department’s commitment to this cause is stronger than ever before.
Under this Administration, I am proud to report that the Justice Department has taken unprecedented steps to reform destructive disciplinary practices and disrupt the school-to-prison pipeline. In collaboration with the Department of Education – and thanks to the leadership of my good friend, Secretary Arne Duncan – we’ve established a joint “Supportive School Discipline Initiative” in order to collect relevant data, conduct evaluations, and develop formal guidance for promoting fair and effective disciplinary practices that do not inhibit students’ growth and achievement.
Already, this initiative is helping to foster constructive dialogue – and to build consensus – among key stakeholders at every level. It’s enhancing our ability to gather the information we need to measure progress, assess the effectiveness of alternative policies, and share best practices. And it’s allowing us to make certain that all disciplinary policies remain in full compliance with our nation’s civil rights laws.
As a result, I believe there’s good reason to be proud of the work that’s underway in communities across the country. But I also recognize that this is no time to become complacent.
It’s no exaggeration to say that our nation will be defined – and its future determined – by the support that we provide and the doors we open for our young people. That’s why the Administration is dedicated to addressing, not just the issue of school discipline – but also a wide range of factors that can impact a child’s growth and development. Foremost among these is the threat of violence among, or directed toward, America’s young people – which already has claimed countless lives and stolen too many promising futures.
As a former judge and United States Attorney, I have seen firsthand the devastating effects that violence can have on children and families. Thanks to groundbreaking research supported by the Justice Department’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, we know that a majority of our kids – more than 60 percent, in fact – have been exposed to some type of violence or abuse. We have learned that exposure early in life – as a victim or as a witness – can have long-term consequences – including increased odds for depression, substance abuse, and a consistent display of violent behavior into adulthood. And we’ve seen – just as many of you have – that this exposure can happen virtually anywhere – at home, in the streets, during school, or even on the Internet, where children face serious threats every day.
In response, the Department is moving aggressively to reduce and prevent youth violence. For the first time in history, we’re directing significant resources for the express purpose of addressing this phenomenon and raising awareness of its ramifications. And we’re exploring ways to counter its negative impact.
Through the landmark Defending Childhood Initiative – which I launched in 2010 – we are working with partners in and outside of government to formulate strategies for confronting exposure to violence, and to advance scientific inquiry on its causes and consequences. In the six cities that have been selected to participate in our National Forum on Youth Violence Prevention, we’re putting comprehensive, locally-driven plans into action. And, as I announced in Washington two weeks ago, we’re also making preparations to expand the Forum to four additional cities where the need for such efforts are clear – bringing our total up to 10.
The Department also has established a Federal Interagency Task Force on Drug Endangered Children, which is focusing on ways to intervene when our young people are exposed to illicit drugs and destructive environments. Efforts to train first responders to better identify the approximately 9 million children who are currently at risk are currently underway. And, to better identify and assist young victims, we’re engaging multidisciplinary, multi-jurisdictional teams from eight federal agencies and 21 Department components.
These efforts are critical. And protecting children from the devastating consequences of drug abuse and exploitation – which include an increased risk of physical abuse, sexual victimization, and a 60% higher chance of being arrested – will continue to be a major area of focus for the Justice Department, and the entire Administration.
Now, I am confident that the strategies we’re implementing – both at the national level, and through organizations like this one – will move us toward a new era of engagement, cooperation, and collaboration. And I am encouraged by the successes you’ve helped to bring about – and the progress we’ve gathered to celebrate this evening.
But tonight’s award ceremony is about more than the work that’s already been done, and the well-deserved honors for these exemplary public servants. It’s also an important opportunity to look toward the future, and reaffirm our collective resolve: to protect our nation’s young people in every way we can, to provide them with the opportunities they deserve, and to renew our commitment to the principles that have always defined and distinguished our justice system.
Of course, this work has – in many ways – never been more difficult. We know all too well that resources are scarce, taxpayer dollars are increasingly limited, and the challenges we face are both significant and complex.
But I also know that I am surrounded tonight by passionate advocates who understand exactly what we’re up against. Who care deeply about these issues. And who have proven their dedication to saving the lives – and restoring the futures – that are at stake.
Because of you – and our allies all across the country – we’ve never been in a better position to make meaningful, measurable progress in eradicating youth violence; in restoring fairness and common sense to school disciplinary practices; and – when young people do come into contact with the delinquency system – in safeguarding their rights and ensuring that they have access to legal services.
So, let us keep up our critical efforts – and build on the momentum that you’ve helped to create. On behalf of President Obama and my colleagues across both the Justice Department and the entire Administration, I am proud to pledge our ongoing support for your work.
I look forward to where Georgia Appleseed will take us from here – and I want to thank you, once again, for your leadership, your partnership, and your inspiring example.