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Lisa H. Thurau

Founder and Executive Director, Strategies for Youth

“People can influence their own communities in myriad ways. They can lobby state legislators. They can press their cities to invest in under-resourced communities."

So many teens get caught up in the juvenile justice system because their interaction with an officer escalates to the point where the cuffs come out. This is especially true for young people of color. Strategies for Youth offers training for both police and kids to increase understanding and reduce unnecessary use of force and arrests.

The problem I’m trying to solve

Some 40 percent of young people who are arrested face minor offenses like contempt of cop or obstructing justice (or even not walking on the sidewalk in a town that doesn’t have any), where there is no underlying crime. They are charged because neither the officer nor, frequently, the youth knew how to ratchet down fear and tension during their encounter. African American youth are especially at risk, being arrested and detained more than twice as frequently as whites. Sadly, severe consequences result when a youth enters the system, affecting everything from the ability to get a job or a driver’s license to college acceptance, plus court fees can devastate a low-income family. Our evidence-based, city-specific trainings include Policing the Teen Brain for officers and our fun Juvenile Justice Jeopardy game to educate youth how to navigate interactions with authority figures. As police reform has become a prominent issue, demand for our services has grown.

The moment that sparked my passion

When I worked at the Juvenile Justice Center in Boston’s Suffolk University Law School, we learned that a change in policy by the city’s transit police had sparked a major increase in arrests of youths of color. There were no standards or trainings to help officers grasp how young brains work, especially in traumatic situations. But it was also clear that young people had a poor understanding of ways to interface with officers to avoid such arrests. We implemented a series of training programs for all transit officers presented by an adolescent psychiatrist, and youth arrests plummeted. In 2009, I left the university to form a nonprofit to expand our reach. Over the years, we’ve worked in 20 different states with more than 250 communities.

What I wish other people knew

To truly address systemic issues, you have to tackle both sides. Sometimes, predatory policing, especially in communities of color, is based on officers’ mistaken belief that intimidating youth is the best way to get compliance. And many kids have their own misperceptions about their rights and the consequences of their actions as a juvenile. Educating both parties (as well as parents, so they grasp when it’s best not to involve law enforcement in family concerns) is key. And the beneficiaries include the greater society, because we’re no longer spending money on ineffective approaches or, importantly, quashing human potential.

Advice to others who want to make a difference

People can influence their own communities in myriad ways. They can lobby state legislators to ban tasers, tear gas, hog-tying and other excessive use of force on youth. They can press their cities to invest in under-resourced communities and better fund youth organizations. They can tell their school districts to banish school resource officers, whose presence boosts the odds that children of color and those with disabilities will be arrested for minor offenses. They can even volunteer to be an emergency foster care provider for kids in need.

Why my approach is unique

We’re the only group in the U.S. with a tested, effective, multipronged strategy grounded in scientific research on the adolescent brain. All of our materials are customized for each jurisdiction, based on their laws and the community issues they face. Over the years, we have instructed thousands of law enforcement officers and even more kids. In one Indiana county, felony arrests of young people for minor offenses dropped more than 36 percent in the years after we began working with them; in Virginia Beach, Virginia, patrol-based arrests of youth fell more than 24 percent. But I won’t rest until not a single youth is unnecessarily put through the justice system, giving them the best chance of getting out of poverty and leading full and productive lives.