By Heidi Unger
Irvington resident and attorney JauNae Hanger remembers Irvington of 2002 as a neighborhood with enormous potential but a struggling business corridor. “We saw mom-and-pop businesses open and close their doors. You couldn’t keep a business open on this street,” she said, reflecting on shared disappointment in business failures on Washington Street, which physically divided an otherwise vibrant neighborhood.
Neighbors did some brainstorming and legwork. JauNae reached out to Rosemary Spalding, Jenny Skehan, John Robertson, and other neighbors and business owners. They met with Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC), began the process of revitalizing the streetscape, and wrote bylaws and articles of incorporation for a much-needed community development organization. (A community development corporation, or CDC, is a nonprofit organization that works to improve the quality of life in a neighborhood, typically focusing on housing and economic development.) They engaged people in the community with a visioning exercise and raised money to pay the streetscape designers.
IDO was born.
Soon after, Huntington Bank and Starbucks opened on Washington Street. On a recent Saturday morning, sipping coffee at a table outside Starbucks, JauNae balks at the suggestion that Starbucks was one of IDO’s first success stories. “The thing is, you really can’t claim it all. It happens because people begin to think that the community is invested in it and all of a sudden it gets attention, and then people make decisions based on the demographic,” she explains. “And so I think that by seeing the streetscape, and the vision, and just knowing the neighborhood, they [business owners] said okay, people are investing. Let’s invest money in it.”
The streetscape project, many years in the making, included new bike racks, lamp posts, public art, signage, and landscaping, and brought improvements to sidewalks and streets. The primary goal was to attract businesses to the area, but also to increase sustainability, create a sense of place, and improve pedestrian safety. JauNae added, “The streetscape was important for beautification, but it was also important for vision.” The neighborhood’s commitment to revitalizing the streetscape amplified a unified voice and showcased the neighborhood’s strong sense of community to potential investors and developers.
Recognizing a shared vision and need for collaborative efforts, IDO’s founders sought to strengthen key partnerships, most especially with Irvington’s existing nonprofit organizations, by creating a seat for each Irvington nonprofit on IDO’s board. As JauNae recalls, the community was (and still is) well-leveraged in resources to strengthen community development, and “by putting them on the board, you gave them a voice.”
And community connections to outside resources helped strengthen Irvington’s relationship with the City of Indianapolis. Also, the federal dollars that the streetscape project brought into the community caught the city’s attention. “The city started supporting us. We had a really good relationship.”
For JauNae, who was experienced in organizing people but had less expertise in community development, the decision to help revitalize the neighborhood was in part motivated by her family’s impending decision about whether to move away from a neighborhood they’d called home for a decade. “We just made the decision to throw it all in,” she explains. “You can tell when you need to jumpstart something. There’s a huge need out there. A lot of people recognized that need, and it’s really just getting the ball rolling, you know, so that you can get some traction and get a lot of people involved.”
JauNae served as IDO’s president for five years and was able to dedicate so much of her time to volunteer work due to her energy and work ethic, but also in part due to a flexible schedule and a very sympathetic partner – her husband and law partner Rich Waples. Their law firm, Waples & Hanger, focuses on civil rights and constitutional liberties. At the same time, JauNae was active with Indiana State Bar Association and chaired the Civil Rights Children’s committee. As momentum with Irvington’s streetscape project began to build, she felt it was a good time to leave that work in the hands of other capable neighbors and focus more of her attention on children’s rights.
Over the next ten years, JauNae joined forces with other attorneys and concerned citizens, and they worked to change the laws that criminalize kids. Eventually, they recognized a need to provide educators with resources that would help keep kids in school and out of the criminal justice system. Research showed that the U.S. incarcerated a staggeringly high percentage of children, much more than any other country. Student suspension and dropout rates, across the nation and in Indiana, were high as well.
A stark reality became clear. “We’re not educating these kids; we’re incarcerating them,” JauNae said.
The impact on families, communities, the workforce, and the economy was obvious. Plus, JauNae points out, “Don’t we want to be a humane society? Isn’t there some value in not being cruel and vengeful?”
Acknowledging the need for changes to discipline and the youthful offender system, JauNae and her colleagues consulted the research, drew from their own experiences with the law, and worked to shrink the juvenile justice system by addressing root causes of child and teen offenses, suspension, and incarceration. Along the way, JauNae founded Children’s Policy and Law Initiative of Indiana (CPLI) – to reform laws, policies, and practices that contribute to the criminalization of children in Indiana – and Positive School Discipline Institute of Indiana (PSDI) – to provide innovative strategies to achieve positive learning environments for all school children to succeed. The organizations rely on a network of volunteers, in-kind support, and multiple fundraising efforts.
It’s important to note that these initiatives advocate for educators and staff in addition to the children they serve. JauNae said, “Every educator I’ve met cares about these kids. It is not a question about that at all. It’s really giving them strategies and options and tools to help them deal with what they have to deal with in their schools on a daily basis. And understanding what the research says about how they can manage their classrooms effectively.”
It’s also about a greater understanding of the juvenile justice system. Research shows that legislation surrounding school discipline ultimately contributed to higher rates of suspensions, dropouts, and incarcerations. Beginning in the 1980s, the U.S. saw a shift toward “Let’s get tough on crime” and “zero-tolerance” sentiments that influenced legislation and discipline related to children. And the violence of Columbine and the mass shootings that followed brought police officers into schools, often without adequate training to adapt their techniques to a population with less executive functioning than the adults they previously interacted with. The student resource officers protected children and staff, but along the way their presence led to increased arrests of children, in support of that zero-tolerance legislation.
JauNae said, “I’ve worked with the state bar association to get legislation passed that would require resource officers to have this kind of training. We’re moving in the right direction, but we’re still not there.”
On the legislative side of this complex issue, laws that criminalized status offenses worked against efforts to keep kids in school. Status offenses are behaviors that kids engage in before the law recognizes they can, and would not be considered criminal acts if adults committed them. So drinking, truancy, and running away from home are examples of status offenses.
Another complicated legislative issue arises when children who have committed crimes are waived into adult courts. “So we’ve really got to be asking the question,” JauNae points out, “is that the public policy we want for our children and their future, to see them go deeper and deeper into systems that undermine our public safety.” Because a child offender incarcerated in the adult population often is later released into civilian life after having been influenced in their formative years by hardened criminals, in place of caring educators, family, and communities.
Research surrounding school suspensions, arrests, and dropout rates have strongly influenced JauNae’s work. Students who have been suspended or arrested are much less likely than other students to graduate. JauNae said, “School is a protective factor against delinquency and crime. You don’t want a kid to drop out. I mean, you can take care of those behaviors in school and keep them engaged in school. So that’s really what we focus on.”
Reducing student discipline problems starts with understanding the issues that troubled students are facing. School discipline happens for many reasons. For instance, JauNae explains, “it can happen because a child needs mental health or behavioral health support and the family doesn’t have the means to provide it. It can happen because there’s kind of a cultural mismatch in the school and you don’t have appropriate training of teachers in how to engage the child and build that relationship which is so important for behavior. It can happen because of trauma in these communities and kids are reacting to the dysfunction in their own homes.”
Mental health experts have identified a set of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), including abuse and neglect, that can negatively impact a student’s ability to stay in school, avoid mental health and substance abuse issues, and stay out of the criminal justice system. Understanding how to educate and discipline students who have experienced trauma is key to reducing suspension and dropout rates.
With increased pressure on schools to perform and a lack of resources to support additional teacher training, it was clear that there was a strong need for a program that would equip educators with the tools to provide positive learning environments using proven strategies. That’s where Positive School Discipline Institute of Indiana comes in. PSDI helps educators learn to de-escalate negative behavior, implement trauma-informed care, provides alternatives such as calm rooms to suspensions, and teach students to problem-solve conflicts.
In August, PSDI launched a summit on trauma-informed care. Educators from across the state – including many from Marion County – participated. The summit included trauma-informed care expert Jim Sporleder, whose extremely successful work was featured in the documentary Paper Tigers (which is available for streaming on Amazon Prime). Within one year of integrating these practices, suspensions at Principal Sporleder’s school dropped 85%, and expulsions dropped 40%.
PSDI’s plan is scheduling additional sessions, engaging resources across the state to support the initiative, jumpstarting teams that are trying to change the paradigm. The institute is building momentum, on track to make a significant impact. But there’s a significant amount of work to be done. They’re monitoring school performance reports and have found that many schools have extremely high suspension rates, some as high as 80%, many with 30% to 40% suspension rates.
Enthusiasm for the program grows as educators share information and success stories with educators in other districts, who then ask how they can get the training. “They’re asking for it,” JauNae says, “and they need to be supported. We’ve come a long way. And we’re really just trying to give teachers some strategies and tools that work for kids and support them. Many schools are doing a lot of good work. This just builds onto that. We’re coming from the approach that it’s not one strategy. You can do restorative justice practices, but if you don’t deal with the culture around a kid, it’s only going to be so effective. It’s kind of like treating the whole child. You’ve really got to engage that child and have a relationship before you can get them to be responsive to you. It’s just like parenting.”