Patrick Keenan-Devlin: Restoring Hope for Youth in Our Community

July 8, 2016

"Violence and poverty are linked. Poverty is a result of deliberate racist policies at the federal, state, and local levels. In order to achieve racial and socioeconomic equity, we need a revolution - an overhaul of how our nation is structured." 

 

Patrick Keenan-Devlin, former Deputy Director of the James B. Moran Center for Youth Advocacy, was just named Executive Director of the organization. He replaces Kathy Lyons, who recently retired. As Executive Director, Patrick continues to represent Evanston’s youth in juvenile delinquency proceedings.

 

The Moran Center provides free legal representation and comprehensive social-work services to youth and their families, as well as legal resources and trainings to community partners. The Moran Center’s goal is to disrupt the school-to-prison pipeline and provide kids justice in the courtroom, access to the classroom and support in our community.

 

 

Q: What was your path to the Moran Center?

A: I’m from a small suburb of New York City. I came to Evanston to attend Northwestern. The moment that changed my geographic trajectory was when Cheryl Wollin, whom I met at church, asked me to help with her campaign for alderman. I didn’t know anything about local politics. Through Cheryl’s campaign, I got to know Evanstonians who worked on issues ranging from housing to economic justice issues, and I fell in love with them. Cheryl then inspired me to run for Student Body President at Northwestern. I won, and then serving as Student Body President I became even more involved within the Evanston community.

 

When I was graduating, I did not know what I wanted to do or where I wanted to live. My father gave me some great advice, “Grow where you are rooted.” I was rooted in Evanston, so I stayed. I became a policy aid at the Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law, which is based in Chicago. After that, I worked as the Legislative Director for Citizen Action/Illinois – the state’s largest public interest organization. While working at Citizen Action, our Director, Lynda DeLaforgue told me, “You need to go to law school.” So I did. I clerked at the Moran Center during law school, which led to being hired four years ago. I’m so glad to be doing something meaningful and to work in my community.  

 

Q: How do families find out about your legal services?

A: For cases involving juvenile delinquency and adult (ages 18-21) criminal charges, the Moran Center attorneys are appointed by the court to represent indigent youth within the Evanston community. In terms of the Moran Center’s special education/school discipline advocacy program, we started that program eight years ago. It began because the agency recognized that 90 percent or more of the children we represent in juvenile or adult court had special education needs or needs that had not been identified. It didn’t take long for families to find out about our special education/school discipline practice. We also attend community meetings in Evanston to educate guardians about their legal rights within schools.

 

Q: Do you like living and working in Evanston?

A: Yes, I do. I’m like a country bumpkin lawyer. I live here, I work here, I go to church here. When I go to Jewel, I’ll see a child with whom I work. Or I'll see a teacher who went to extraordinary lengths to help one of my kids. Now, I always tell my clients and families, I will never say hello to you to maintain confidentiality—but if you say hello to me, that’s absolutely fine. They often say hello, and they’ll try to talk about their cases in the Jewel checkout line.

 

Q: Do a lot of students get expelled in District 65 and ETHS?

A: ETHS and D65 would say they don’t expel students, and that’s accurate, because expulsion under the Illinois School Code means that the school board or an independent hearing officer has determined that a child can’t be educated anywhere from 11 days to two years within a public school in Illinois. However, ETHS and D65 have other tools they use to exclude children they deem to be a risk to themselves or the school community.

 

To avoid expulsion, ETHS and D65 offer general education students the opportunity to attend a “safe school”—North Cook Academy in Des Plaines. This is when a child, who has grossly violated the school code, can be outplaced for up to two years. After a student has served their time at North Cook Academy, the student may come back to ETHS. Disproportionately, minority children are disciplined by both school districts.

 

Q: So how do you advocate for these students?

A: Our response to this kind of outplacement for students in the general education population is to ask the school whether they’ve conducted a special education evaluation to find out if the child is eligible for special education services. If they haven’t done so, we would argue that it’s possible that the child may have an undiagnosed issue that led to their behavior. Children with disabilities, with few exceptions, cannot be expelled by schools.

 

If a child with special needs has accumulated 10 out-of-school suspensions in the course of a school year, either consecutively or collectively, the district has to hold a Manifestation Determination Review hearing to determine whether a pattern of behavior or a specific behavior is a manifestation of the child’s disability. The questions the school district must answer at the hearing are: 1. was the behavior a manifestation of the child’s disability, and 2. did the district fail to deliver supports and services to that child?

 

If they answer either question in the affirmative, it takes further discipline of the child off the table. Regardless of the outcome of the Manifestation Determination Review hearing, schools may still outplace a child with special needs to a therapeutic day school, if the child’s behaviors warrant such a restrictive setting. There’s a small subset of therapeutic day schools to which students are out-placed if they are a danger to themselves or others; if they have aggressive, violent or erratic behaviors within the school setting. They are also primarily students of color.

 

Q: It’s been a difficult few months in Evanston for young people, with shootings, deaths, and an unloaded gun found in a student’s backpack. Do you think ETHS should install metal detectors?

A: That’s a really complicated question. I obviously want all Evanston children to be safe. I sincerely care about the kids in the community. I’m a father, my child will eventually go to ETHS, and I want her and her classmates to be safe, as well. Having said that, whenever I go to ETHS, I am very sensitive to what the students have to go through just to BE in that building: flashing IDs, passing by school resource officers in uniform, seeing peers being arrested, safety officers patrolling the halls. I imagine all of that has to be traumatizing—it has to be. Maybe they’re desensitized to it, but even if it’s their norm, it doesn’t mean they’re not traumatized by it. I think metal detectors would add to that trauma, but I have the luxury of saying that because I’m not Principal Marcus Campbell or Superintendent Eric Witherspoon. They have the toughest jobs in Evanston.

 

Q: How do we stop the violence in Evanston?  

A: I have lots of answers to that question. Some of them are actionable here within our community. Some are solutions that would require state and national action.

 

Violence and poverty are linked. Poverty is a result of deliberate racist policies at the federal, state, and local levels. In order to achieve racial and socioeconomic equity, we need a revolution - an overhaul of how our nation is structured.  

 

Locally, I believe there are small things we can do. If you ask great teachers, they will tell you that their number one job is to teach children social-emotional skills more than the three Rs. There’s so much power in peace circles, learning circles, and restorative justice work. If we start doing this work in Kindergarten, which we have begun to do in Evanston, I strongly believe that will make a difference and we’ll see the impact of this work down the line with our community’s youngest generation.

 

Another thing I would love is to double, or triple, the number of social workers in our schools. Presently, school social workers’ caseloads are unmanageable, and as a result they’re unable to go deep with our kids. Many of our kids are traumatized and suffering. I see the power of social work every day at the Moran Center. Lawyers are just Band-Aids, but social workers have the power to make meaningful impact and meaningful change in kids’ lives. With more social workers in the schools, I believe we might see a decrease in more expensive, institutionalized care for our children. Of course, it shouldn’t be about money, but it helps to make the economic argument too.

 

Q: What about gun control?

I hate guns. However, if you had told me a few years that there was a proposal in Springfield to double or triple the sentence of men and women caught with a weapon in our schools, in churches, or libraries, I’d have said, yes, absolutely, let’s pass it. I’ve shifted from that. I still hate guns, but if a child has a gun in a school, locking them up doesn’t make us safer and it doesn’t make us better as a community. I think the better thing is to ask: why did the child feel compelled to have a gun at school in the first place? What can we do to make him feel safe, because obviously he doesn’t feel safe and that’s our failure not his; he’s just a child.

 

Q: How would you work with a student who was found to have an unloaded weapon in his backpack at school?

A: If a student is charged with a crime, we would represent that student in the courts and in the parallel track within the school setting. That’s how the Moran Center is unique in its integrative services: we’re not only criminal defense lawyers but also school-based attorneys. If our objective is to end the school-to-prison pipeline, we need to have lawyers on both ends of the pipeline. We need lawyers advocating in the schools to keep children in school, and on the other end, we need lawyers advocating for rehabilitative and restorative services at home, in the community and not in institutions.  

 

Q: You work with young people with the potential to be violent. Are you ever afraid?

No. Absolutely not.

 

I represent children. I never refer to the kids as the “defendant” or “minor respondent” or “the student.” I only refer to them as the “child.” I do that for myself and for the listener. I want to constantly remind school administrators, judges, prosecutors —that we are dealing with children. At the Moran Center, we adamantly believe that no child is bad, all children want to please, and all children want to do and be well.

 

Do I represent kids in gangs? Yes. Do I think that makes them bad? No. Do I think they should be judged for it? No. I don’t think so. I think it’s so easy to say, that kid in a gang got shot, but my kid’s not in a gang therefore my kid’s not going to get shot. All kids are deserving of our concern. It’s not okay to think, not my kid, not my concern.

 

I’ve never for a moment been scared. Maybe that will change over the course of my career, but I respect all of my kids and I think they know that. I hope they know that.

 

Q: What’s your hope?

A: I was invited to the Evanston Youth Citizen’s Police Academy two summers ago, along with the local juvenile Assistant State’s Attorney. She stood up in front of the kids and said, “My job is to keep the community and the children who come to court charged with a crime safe. My job is to ensure also that the child, if sentenced, is rehabilitated.” I looked at her and thought, “Wow. That’s where we just totally disagree.”

 

I turned to the kids and I said, “My job is to keep children out of the system, because I don’t believe the system has the capacity to rehabilitate children, or people generally. I believe only communities, families, neighborhoods can do that, not courts. We have to help each other here at home. So, although I’m all for rehabilitation and restoration, I don’t believe it can be accomplished by the courts."

 

Ultimately my goals is to restore hope for youth in our community. One of my personal hero’s is civil rights attorney, Bryan Stevenson. One of my favorite quotes is, “I think hopelessness is the enemy of justice.” So we must seek justice by providing hope. — with Patrick Keenan-Devlin.

 

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