Restoring Hope: The Juvenile Court as a Partner in Reform

Sheila Calloway is Nashville-Davidson County’s Juvenile Court judge.

Working in the juvenile justice system for many years, I have seen a number of minority children coming in and out of the system. As a public defender in Juvenile Court, I represented a large number of Black children, boys especially, who were coming from the school system. Later, as a Juvenile Court magistrate, the trend did not change. In fact, there seemed to be more and more cases involving Black youth generated from schools.

Many times, as an advocate, I felt there was nothing I could do. As a public defender, I was stuck just trying to defend against a system of injustice the best way that I could. As a magistrate, I was stuck making decisions about guilt and innocence in cases that I felt had no reason to be in court. For many years, there was a feeling of hopelessness. That hopelessness was shared with the children who I defended and/or adjudicated. That hopelessness was felt in the families of the children who came to court. That hopelessness was felt from school authorities. There was a general sense of hopelessness about the fairness of the Juvenile Court system as a whole.

When I was elected as the Juvenile Court judge in September 2014, I was on a mission to bring a sense of fairness and hope back into the system. It sounded like an overwhelming task. Fortunately, the timing was perfect. Finally, the Metropolitan Nashville Public School system was ready to face reality. They were willing to be open and honest about the disparity in discipline practices throughout the district. They were willing to sit at the table with all those involved in the system to figure out a better way to educate students and maintain safe schools while not unfairly punishing a class of students. They were willing to work to bring back that hope in the school system and the justice system.

Together, we are working on making the necessary changes to the system. Together, we are working on changing the disciplinary rules. Together, we are training the school resource officers and the principals and teachers to understand the role of each entity. Together, we are training school resource officers and principals and court staff about which cases are inappropriate to bring to the juvenile justice system. Together, we are defining the role of the court system versus the role of the school system.

As we continue to work together on these efforts, I am confident that the discipline disparities in the school system will be eliminated. I am confident that the Juvenile Court system will only be used when there is a true compromise of safety within the school system. I am confident that the number of cases referred to the Juvenile Court system by the school system will be drastically decreased. I am confident that students will have an opportunity to continue learning within the walls of the school, and not in the juvenile detention center. I am confident that we together will restore hope in both the school system and the juvenile justice system.