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Advocates Size Up Kids Issues In 2015 Session

Jim Grey

Legislative leaders and the governor entered the 2015 Indiana General Assembly, declaring it an “education session” and saying there was work to be done addressing worrisome topics such as infant mortality rates.

Many of the education issues got buried under the political sparring between GOP leaders and Democratic state superintendent Glenda Ritz. And most other legislation missed out on coverage because of debate over the state’s so-called “religious freedom” bill.

But a few priorities did make their way into the next two-year state budget, including a program aimed at reducing infant mortality rates.

“We only have one direction to move and that’s up," says Indiana Youth Institute President Bill Stanczykiewicz, who notes Indiana lags most other states due to poor prenatal care and high smoking rates. But the Safety PIN program – PIN stands for Protecting Indiana’s Newborns – gives grant money to the Indiana Department of Health to offer to programs that aim to reduce child mortality rates.

Still, says Marion County Commission on Youth director of public policy Mindi Goodpaster, the money still needs to be better targeted.

“It doesn’t necessarily require that the funding go to research-based or evidence-based programs," she says. "And there are a number of programs out there that have been shown to be very effective – highly effective – that work over time. And we really need to be concentrating more resources into those programs and expanding those programs as well to really make a difference in the levels across the state.”

That idea of generating data kept coming up in all the interviews done for this story.

Stanczykiewicz says he’d like lawmakers to take a closer look at statistics which show high school guidance counselors handle 500-600 kids per person – which he thinks may be more than is realistic to give good advice to kids on how to prepare themselves for the working world.

“Maybe the classroom teacher is enough. Maybe the current number of counselors is enough. Or maybe we need more partnerships with youth serving agencies, religious congregations, mentors, businesses and so forth," he says. "That’s a big issue – to make sure kids have the information they need and can act on the information they need to take advantage of the economic opportunities that are out there.”

Children’s Policy and Law Initiative of Indiana President Jaunae Hanger says she’s glad lawmakers passed a bill which will track school discipline. She hopes it’ll shed light on why some practices – such as the disproportionate discipline of young black men – have come to be.

“When you start to understand where the referrals are coming from, then you can start to understand who’s doing the decision-making," Hanger says. "And you can start to address that decision-making and also the practices within a school to reform those practices.”

Hanger says she’s not sure if it’ll lead to discipline of the teachers or administrators who’ve traditionally disciplined black men 4-1 over their white colleagues. Speaking of discipline, Both Goodpaster and Hanger say a bill which puts more restrictions on sending juvenile offenders to adult criminal proceedings is a step in the right direction. Goodpaster says the state is beginning to focus more on forming a young mind, rather than locking it up and throwing away the key.

“Both Marion County, where our offices are located and Tippecanoe County have a juvenile detentions alternative initiative where they’re trying to address these issues with these kids – keep them out of detention, keep them out of the system and get them the treatment that they need. And they’ve actually been very, very successful" she says.

And Hanger says she hopes the move leads to future talks…and, eventually, changes.

“And I think that this is really important so that we can begin to have a much broader policy discussion about who are these children that are being waived into the adult court and for what types of offenses are they waived,” Hanger says.

Stanczykiewicz also hailed a bill from Rep. Randy Truitt (R-West Lafayette) which allows adolescents to fight a prostitution charge by telling law enforcement they’re part of a sex trafficking ring. Stanczykiewicz says it’ll shine a light on a larger issue – the poor home environment that leads many young women onto the streets in the first place.

“Minors who are involved in prostitution, 100-percent of the time – thus far, every single young lady – has been a CHINS case – a child in need of services. A kid who’s been abused or neglected at home and now is out on the streets,” Stanczykiewicz says.

As with the budget itself, much of the talk eventually came back around to education. Goodpaster criticized the new school funding formula, both for spreading already scarce dollars out to even more charter and private schools through vouchers and for appealing more to growing suburban districts than to suffering urban ones.

“If we’re looking at making the funding more equitable, I don’t think that it’s fair to take away from high need school corporations in order to make that equity more apparent,” Goodpaster says.

Watchers agree more the legislation passed generally goes more good than harm, but as Hanger says: “I think that every session is a mixed session.”