Part 1: New Juvenile Justice and Transformative Youth Engagement

Juvenile justice and youth voice by Adam Fletcher for The Freechild Project
Juvenile justice and youth voice

Theft, vandalism, violence and other crimes plague communities across the United States today. Low-income neighborhoods, communities of color, rural towns and other areas around the nation are disproportionately affected by these realities. The young people who are needed to restore, replenish, reinvigorate and reimagine these places are sometimes the perpetrators. Without educational, social, cultural and empowering activities in their lives, they are driven to crime for entertainment, money, opportunity and a sense of progress in life. Once they’re in the juvenile justice system, these same youth experience oblique outcomes, hurtful punishments, and life-defining stereotyping that is punitive, predictable and prejudice.

In the last several years, the U.S. Supreme Court has agreed with this. Through a series of rulings, courts across the country have been compelled to foster more nuanced approach to juvenile justice.

In 2001, I began consulting youth-serving organizations, including K-12 schools, nonprofits and government agencies, specifically on youth engagement. In 2018, I’m expanding my scope to include the field of juvenile justice, especially in regard to the work already underway.

In the next few days, I’m posting a series of blogs that are an exploration of what I’ve found so far in the “new” juvenile justice, which I call transformative youth engagement.


This Series Includes…

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Leelah’s Murder Is OUR Fault

Leelah Alcorn’s death was practically a murder. It shows how America’s legal system, which enshrines parental rights above children’s rights, has killed another young person.

More importantly though, we need to see that Leelah’s murder is our fault. We have not done enough, taught enough, said enough, or worked hard enough to stop this horror from happening. And it is a horror, and it was preventable.

Discrimination Against Youth

Leelah’s story shows us- yet again- the discrimination against youth that seems inherent in our society. The horribly preventable circumstance that led to Leelah’s death are unfortunately the norm for every single American youth today, regardless of how they identify. The fact that Leelah identified as trans exacerbated that reality for her. Follow me: Every single American youth today is targeted in the most malicious ways throughout society simply for being young. This is the case whether they are cis, straight or queer; wealthy, poor or working class; academically gifted, creatively driven or athletically poised. Youth are singularly denied their rights, oppressed for their identities, conscripted for their abilities, and completely downtrodden because of their because of their ages and our society. And its merely and entirely about their age.

Add distinguishing factors to their age such as race, gender identity, socio-economic class, and academic ability, and youth move from being “merely” enslaved to entirely oppressed. The enslaving factory of this adultocracy is so deeply entrenched that parents, teachers, youth workers and many many people who call themselves youth allies merely perpetuate it without ever knowing it. My book focuses on helping these individuals see beyond their own lenses and aspire to be something greater.

Personal Action

The most effective piece of this article focuses on you. Its what David Bond from The Trevor Project said at the end of the piece:

However, Bond told me, even just one supportive adult in a LGBT teen’s life decreases suicidal ideation. “Be consistent in that person’s life and check in in a genuine way – and don’t be afraid to ask if they’re thinking of killing themselves,” Bond advised would-be allies.

“There’s a misconception that if you ask the question you’re going to put the idea in someone’s head. But it’s more often a helpful question than a harmful one.”

Whatever the answer – and I believe more states banning so-called conversion therapy and easier legal and financial avenues for emancipation, especially for older teens, should be a big part of that – we need more action now.

“A year feels like forever when you’re young,” PFLAG’s Sanchez told me. It’s no longer good enough to remind LGBT kids that “it gets better”. We need to figure out more legal, safe alternatives for those who can’t wait that long.


Everyone of us can take action and do something about this, but we have to face the reality that everyone of us is responsible for Leelah’s death (and the unnoted deaths of so many other American youth) first, and then work from that place. THAT is the work to do, no matter who we are.

And none of that is meant to take away, minimize or otherwise continue the oppression of trans, cis, or anyone who identifies as “other” throughout society. Its meant to highlight the compounding factors that are attempting to decimate peoples’ senses of ability, possibility and hope. We can do better than mere survival, and Leelah’s story demonstrates another way that can happen. Each of us can take action.

Legal Action

America’s legal system must act to do several things:

  • Stop allowing abusive parents to kill youth;
  • Stop devious judges from profiteering off youth imprisonment;
  • Stop racist and classist educators from reinforcing the school-to-prison pipeline;
  • Stop social workers from placing youth in harms way;
  • Stop police from arbitrarily enforcing laws against youth;
  • Change laws to allow all youth everywhere to choose their living situations;
  • Develop a guaranteed income for all youth, everywhere;
  • Prevent youth oppression by acknowledging the full personhood of children and youth from birth.

When these things happen, horrific and preventable deaths like what happened to Leelah Alcorn will not happen again. But not before then. If you really want to change the situation, join the struggle to end discrimination against young people.

Thanks, Kate, for calling me to write about this.

Federal Law and Student Involvement

Following are two juicy nuggets of law I’ve poached from this report regarding federal law and student involvement.

  • 20 U.S.C. §6314(b)(2)(B)(ii) – Provides for appropriate student involvement in development of the Title I program plan in secondary schools, though with none of the specificity applicable to parents. 
  • Provisions of the Perkins Act require local plan description of how students, as well as parents and others, are involved in development, implementation, and evaluation of programs assisted under the Act and how they are effectively informed about, and assisted in understanding the requirements of the Act. States are required to involve students and others in development of the state plan and for developing effective activities and procedures, including access to information needed to use them, to allow students and others to participate in State and local decisions that relate to State plan development.

Enjoy, and learn more at www.SoundOut.org!

Written by Adam Fletcher, this article was originally posted to http://commonaction.blogspot.com. Learn more at adamfletcher.net!