Law Students Learn from the Inside

At Lewis & Clark Law School’s Juvenile Justice Seminar, taught by Oregon Youth Authority director Joe O’Leary, law students and incarcerated youth learn side by side.

Above: Three students in Joe O’Leary’s law class, held at MacLaren Youth Correctional Facility, participate in an exercise about people’s different approaches and reactions to situations.

It’s week nine of Lewis & Clark Law School’s juvenile justice class taught by Oregon Youth Authority director Joe O’Leary. The topic: how implicit bias can lead to racial and ethnic disparities in the juvenile justice system.

On the surface, it feels like any other law class. Students type notes on laptops. O’Leary asks questions to get them to think critically. The students engage in group discussions.

But there are two major differences about this seminar: They are meeting inside MacLaren Youth Correctional Facility, and about half of the students are incarcerated.

Undergraduate college classes held in youth facilities and adult prisons, with “inside” and “outside” students learning together, are not uncommon. But O’Leary’s class, informally called “All Rise,” is the first law school course in the country to follow this model.

“If these law students really want to practice juvenile law, not only can they see the environment of the youth correctional facility, but they can meet and get to know young people like the ones they’re going to be representing,” says O’Leary, who earned his J.D. at Lewis & Clark.

“Even if they don’t end up doing juvenile law, they have learned side by side with our kids and see that our kids are like everybody else. Plus, it’s a huge opportunity for our young people at OYA to be able to learn about the laws that have affected them.”

OYA director Joe O'Leary held the class inside MacLaren to help the law students get to know youth in the system.

OYA director Joe O’Leary held the class inside MacLaren to help the law students get to know youth in the system.

This fall was the second time O’Leary taught the course, but the first time he taught it inside MacLaren.

When he moved the class to MacLaren, he had several goals:

  • The OYA students should also get college credit. He arranged this through Chemeketa Community College.
  • The class should be co-ed. Four youth from Oak Creek, OYA’s female facility in Albany, travel to MacLaren for the class each Friday.
  • All students should be able to use Chromebooks in class. The OYA students borrowed the laptops from the Willamette Education Service District.

O’Leary also recruited juvenile justice professionals to do guest presentations, including prosecutors, defense attorneys, and representatives of advocacy groups.

The lesson on implicit bias was led by Stephen Fowler, a former OYA youth who now works for Resolutions Northwest, a nonprofit that provides training and consultation on racial and social justice issues.

Implicit bias refers to unconscious attitudes or stereotypes that can affect people’s understanding, actions, or decisions.

Fowler started with an icebreaker where the students divided into groups based on the way they approach situations and how quickly they process things.

“Acknowledge that there’s difference in the room — in processing, in where folks grew up, different belief systems — and none of these differences are better than the others,” Fowler told them. “We are collective human beings, this is how we are, and whatever experiences we had led us to where we are.”

Stephen Fowler from Resolutions Northwest leads a discussion on bias.

Stephen Fowler from Resolutions Northwest leads a discussion on implicit bias.

Then, Fowler moved into a discussion of how these differences can impact education systems. “Who knows what the school-to-prison pipeline is?” he asked the group.

A common definition of the pipeline revolves around the educational system focusing on strict disciplinary measures that funnel students out of school and into the juvenile justice system, even for minor offenses.

But one of the MacLaren youth had a slightly different take.

“It’s when schools don’t take into account students’ backgrounds or histories, and basically teachers discipline students based on behaviors that they’re having due to the stuff that’s inside them,” he said.

“As the kids grow up, they’re conditioned to think that school is stupid, so they skip class a lot, and get in trouble outside of school because they’re not supervised. Next thing you know, they do something stupid enough that they end up in juvy, or they drop out, become an adult, and commit a crime.”

The youth was speaking from personal experience. That’s a unique perspective that many of the Lewis & Clark students say they have valued in the class.

“I was surprised at how open and blunt the OYA students are, which is really refreshing,” says Jessica Ramirez-Thorpe, a third-year student at the law school. “It’s nice when us privileged law students say something and the other students are like, ‘Actually, that’s not how that works.’ They have no problem shutting us down, and I love that.”

Alissa M., a student from Oak Creek who will be starting her bachelor’s degree at Oregon State University this winter, says she thought at first that she wouldn’t be able to relate to the law students.

“I realized I had stereotypes about them, just like they have stereotypes for us,” she says. “I see them as regular people now. We’re in different parts of our lives, but we all have the same end goal: We want to help people.”

Students engage in a group discussion.

Students engage in a group discussion.

De’Von B.H., one of the MacLaren students working on his associate degree at Chemeketa, was also concerned about what the law students would think of him and his peers.

“I felt like they were going to be nervous, like they were worried about us, like we were criminals and they were gonna get stabbed or something,” he says. “I wanted to make sure they felt comfortable. We’re not bad people. We make mistakes; stuff happens. I think they understand that now.”

As the students participated in small-group discussions, it was difficult to pick out which ones were incarcerated and which were not. They all traded ideas and listened respectfully to each other’s viewpoints.

Near the end, O’Leary asked the class, “How does acknowledging where people came from translate into the work that you’ll do as future lawyers?”

One white, male law student answered: “The legal profession has been predominantly white and male for a long time. In law school, it feels like this is more a time for me to listen and be empathetic and hear what everyone else has to say, so that I can tune into my implicit biases. … Listening and noticing what’s happening inside of me, and trying to counteract that, is my goal as an attorney and as a human being.”

In a classroom where curious students from all walks of life were setting aside their biases to engage and learn together, his response couldn’t have been more perfect.

Thank you to Multnomah Education Service District, Willamette Education Service District, Lewis & Clark Law School, and Chemeketa Community College for their partnership and support that made this class possible.

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