Loyola Students Trade Halls of High School for Halls of Justice

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During Loyal High School's annual Juvenile Justice Week students take an up-close look at youth incarceration with featured speakers including The Hangover producer Scott Budnick.

Student members of Loyola High School's Peace and Justice Coalition are gearing up for their third annual Juvenile Justice Week of Faith and Healing, set to take place March 4th thru the 8th. Under the direction of teacher Mr. Tom Portman, students hope to create awareness about issues of social justice within the juvenile justice system and raise support for re-sentencing legislation CA bill SB-260.

Students active in the Peace and Justice Coalition recently marked a victory with the passing of re-sentencing legislation SB-9, a bill they lobbied for in past years, and, according to Portman, they hope to continue the momentum this year with another successful week of education and activism.

    Students have organized a wide range of events to educate their community about the situation of incarcerated youth in California. As one part of their efforts, organizers have constructed a cell the size of an actual juvenile hall cell to help their peers empathize with those behind bars. Students sit inside the cell and do journal writing about how they would feel if they were sentenced to life in prison. According to Mr. Portman, one of the key goals of Juvenile Justice Week is to get rid of stereotypes that portray incarcerated juveniles as monsters. "Instead, we want to emphasize that these incarcerated youth are part of our family of God."

    The week's events will also include speakers like Rev. Mike Kennedy, renowned author and director of The Jesuit Restorative Justice Initiative. Fr. Mike has been a force for social justice at Loyola and in the greater Los Angeles community for many years, and Mr. Portman credits him for Loyola's high levels of participation in social justice activism. "Some students never forget the experience of going with Fr. Mike to spend the day with teenagers their same age who have received life sentences. They returned to Loyola High to tell other students how these locked-up youth were so much like themselves." Junior Tyler Griffin remembers how he was moved by the connections he felt with juvenile offenders. "Many of the kids that have been incarcerated were not as fortunate as we are and did not grow up in a stable home. It is sad to see people imprisoned for their entire lives because of poor decisions they made as kids."

    Also speaking will be Scott Budnick, Hollywood film producer best known for his work on The Hangover and a fierce champion for children in need. For his work with youth in the criminal justice system, Governor Jerry Brown named Budnick California’s Volunteer of the Year for 2012. Budnick currently is launching The Anti-Recidivism Coalition (ARC), an organization of very high-achieving formerly incarcerated young adults who work to support one another, while attempting to stop the flow of men and woman into the criminal justice system.

    Much of the activity at Loyola, though, will center around the letter-writing campaigns and in-person lobbying that have already proved so effective in getting SB-9 passed. Students plan on once again traveling to Sacramento to speak to CA state representatives in person and lobby for SB-260 which grants further opportunities for sentencing review to inmates incarcerated as minors. Junior Justin Hopkins remembers his surprise at the reception they received the first time they went to lobby in Sacramento. "Going into the trip, I figured our chances of changing any politicians’ minds on the matter was slim to none; surprisingly, however, all of the various legislators and aides we met with were moved by the touching images we showed and stories we told. In general, meeting with the politicians illustrated to me how influential the voices of a few high school teenagers could be."

    This year, students have also decided to organize a book drive to help build up the library collection at Juvenile Hall to provide better educational opportunities for the inmates. Senior Xander Swain, who spearheaded the initiative, sees education as the critical force that can help turn things around for those already on the wrong side of the law. "After all, the only freedom these kids have is their imagination. The only way to truly empower them to succeed in society is to give them the gift of education." Swain sees a big future for the relationship between the Loyola community and the juvenile justice system. “This is just a start. I hope that Loyola High School will be at the forefront of innovative educational opportunities for incarcerated youth." Swain believes that by sharing the resources that Loyola already provides its students, it can get double the returns by helping others. "I would really like to see an educational partnership with Loyola High School where these kids could benefit from podcasts and hear live discussions of everything from literature to science.”

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Veronica Perez
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