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NEW ORLEANS — School absences were rare for Lorenzo Elliott, the drum major of the George Washington Carver High School band and an honor roll student with a 96 percent attendance rate.
So a social worker called his home on a December morning in 2015 when he didn’t come to school. His family said that police had picked him up. He was accused of being a getaway driver for two of his cousins, who had robbed someone in New Orleans East. Because he was 17, he was charged as an adult in Louisiana.
Even with his impressive list of accomplishments, Elliott worried that his education would be derailed.
“I see a lot of black kids like me lost to the system,” Elliott said. “But my school had my back.”
Specifically, Lisa María Rhodes, a social worker at Carver at the time, jumped into action.
Early in her teaching career, when she worked as a Spanish language teacher, Rhodes had witnessed how jail pulled promising young people onto a hard-to-reverse path. “Students would be missing from class; I would call home and find that they’d been arrested. It kept happening,” Rhodes said. Because most of her students could not afford even modest bail, they often stayed in jail for months, even years, awaiting trial.
A few hours after Rhodes heard about Elliott’s arrest, she wrote a detailed letter to the magistrate judge, to provide context about the drum major that went far beyond the brief incident summary that the arresting officers had supplied. The following morning, she went to Orleans Parish Criminal District Court to deliver the letter in person.
As Elliott sat with his public defender, Rhodes introduced herself to his lawyer and told Elliott that she was there to advocate for him. Elliott seemed a little scared about what faced him, but he was still focused on school: He told her that he was worried about missing an exam in his Advanced Placement environmental science class.
“He was a responsible kid, eager to learn,” said Rhodes.
Elliott’s arrest was a tipping point for Rhodes: She vowed to commit whatever time was necessary to advocate for the roughly 200 students at Carver — nearly 1 in 4 — who need legal help each year.
While not every arrested student is on the honor roll like Elliott, they all have strengths that Rhodes and her team describe to judges: Some love Harry Potter books; some excel at band or athletics; others have never been issued a behavioral demerit.
It’s a unique effort for a problem that’s difficult to quantify.
Justice experts across the country can name few other school-based projects like this, in which teachers have become outside advocates for students.
“I didn’t see a lot of teachers taking time off from school to go to court. Often, they can’t,” said Robert Schwartz, a visiting scholar at Temple University James E. Beasley School of Law.
Yet there is no shortage of students who need the help. In New Orleans, at the time of Elliott’s arrest, no school consistently supported its students in courts, even though Louisiana’s incarceration rate topped the nation, with 776 prisoners per 100,000 residents (the incarceration rate for black Louisianans was twice as high, making prison time seem much more likely for Elliott).
Related: From prison to dean’s list: How Danielle Metz got an education after incarceration
Rhodes was determined to do something. “Educators can change this,” she said.
School staffers like Rhodes, focused on what’s best for a student, can force courts to shift their focus, said lawyer Anne Lee, the executive director of TeamChild, which has provided free legal advice for Seattle youth for more than 20 years. “Typically, judges and prosecutors look more narrowly, asking if there’s enough evidence for the case before them. But [Rhodes is] asking the judge to consider the child and how detention will have an impact on that child’s education. She’s interrupting what would be the natural course for kids who might not have the resources to get themselves out.”
The day after his arrest, Elliott, shackled for his first appearance in magistrate court, shuffled into the inmate box and sat in a row of men clad in orange jumpsuits. He had been through a lot in his young life, growing up in a public-housing development where he and two of his cousins ran with a crowd that stayed in trouble. “I was supposed to be dead or in jail. That’s what the family used to say,” he said.
Then he saw Rhodes consulting with his public defender. “I saw that they were out there fighting for me,” he said. “It gave me hope.”
The magistrate judge didn’t read Rhodes’ letter. He simply looked at the charge, said it was serious and set a steep bond that Elliott’s family couldn’t afford.
Elliott’s lawyer told him that he could expect to spend the next two months in jail — and out of the classroom — while the district attorney decided whether to accept his case.
hodes began working furiously behind the scenes for the drum major’s release. At the same time, a new set of students arrived at Carver with very different legal issues.
Though Carver’s student body had been nearly 100 percent African American for years, the school — like its sister schools in the Collegiate Academies charter-management organization — was now starting to enroll its first groups of immigrants. Many had migrated alone or with other children, unaccompanied by adults, from Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua, fleeing violence. Immigration officials placed thousands of these children in New Orleans with family members who had been drawn to the area by jobs several years earlier, as the flooded city rebuilt from Hurricane Katrina.
Almost immediately, new students needing help began looking to Rhodes, a fluent Spanish speaker whose mother emigrated from Colombia.
One of Carver’s earliest immigrant arrivals was Monica Zelaya. She enrolled as a freshman, after a grueling, 17-day journey to the United States.
Related: Why a Texas school district is helping immigrants facing deportation
Growing up in Choluteca, in south Honduras, Zelaya was known to be studious. Her cousins ran to play soccer after school, but she’d go home to finish her homework first. “Monica, you’re always thinking about the future,” her cousins would tell her.
When she walked in Carver’s doors, she knew one English sentence: “Hello, I’m Monica.” True to form, she began studying late into the night, repeating phrases and learning new vocabulary from English language recordings she checked out from the library.
At Zelaya’s request, Rhodes connected her with a lawyer who could help her start the long process of applying for residency. Other immigrant students asked Rhodes to accompany them to immigration court, a place where undocumented parents were wary to go. Initially, she mostly provided language interpretation. But Rhodes also saw similarities between criminal and immigration courts. In both, her presence in court calmed fears and provided context to judges hungry for more information.
Or, as juvenile-justice expert Schwartz explains it: “In criminal courts, you’re saying, ‘This isn’t a bad kid, Judge, this is a kid who is developing, growing, and trying to find their way.’ It tells the court, ‘This child is well-supported. You can take a risk with this child.’ ”
Schwartz, who co-founded the Juvenile Law Center in Pennsylvania in 1975, said that the same goes for immigration courts. “Judges also want to know who this child is in front of them,” Schwartz said. “You’re rounding out a portrait of a kid as a human being.”
hodes knew Elliott and his family. She knew his potential. She knew how many arrested students never returned to her classroom. She also knew the neuroscience of adolescence. “We know that the brain doesn’t finish developing until age 25,” Rhodes said.
Though Rhodes didn’t yet know if Elliott’s charges were warranted, she did know that — even if he was guilty — his still-developing brain made him not only more susceptible to peer pressure, but also more amenable to change.
Because of evolving research about neurological development, many judges, from the U.S. Supreme Court on down, have begun reconsidering how the justice system treats young people. Louisiana, like several other states, recently struck laws that allowed teens younger than 18 to be treated as adults, though the change has not yet been fully implemented.
Elliott had made bad choices, as many teenagers do, but he also excelled in school. It was his escape, a place where he dreamt of becoming a mechanical engineer. “Math was my favorite,” he said. “I loved school. I always found a way to make the honor roll.”
That winter, as Elliott sat behind bars, he worried that he wouldn’t be able to catch up and graduate on time. He pictured the band room, where his bandmates were spending long hours in rehearsal getting ready for the city’s Carnival parades without him.
In February 2016, he was brought back to court to be formally arraigned. The district attorney had accepted the charges; Elliott would be prosecuted on three counts of armed robbery. If he was found guilty, he could serve 15 years in prison, the judge advised.
“I didn’t even know who had been robbed,” Elliott said. “But because I was the oldest cousin by a year, the prosecutor was trying hard to give me all the charges.”
Elliott pled not guilty. But this time, the judge assigned to his case read Rhodes’ letter, which included a new paragraph about how Elliott had missed two months of school and was in danger of not graduating.
The judge reduced Elliott’s bail.
Elliott’s family still couldn’t afford it, but members of the surrounding Ninth Ward community helped raise enough money to secure his release a few days after the arraignment.
“Ms. Rhodes played a big part,” Elliott said. “She was really pushing for them to let me out.”
On the day Elliott walked out of jail, the city was decorated in purple, green and gold. It was a week before Mardi Gras 2016. Though he had been replaced as drum major, he played in the band’s percussion section for a few evening parades, twirling the cymbals with a special flair. That week, he also had intense conversations with teachers, as he tried to figure out how to make up for the 60 days he’d missed.
Many others in his place give up: A multiyear study of 1,000 adolescents in Chicago found that arrested teens were 22 percent more likely to quit school. “But I refused to drop out,” Elliott said. “I hit the books hard.”
s spring break passed, then prom, all the college-bound seniors that Rhodes knew were wrapping up their college paperwork. But a Honduran girl who’d had difficulties with her Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, didn’t make it. As Rhodes attempted to resolve the issue, the girl explained that she was undocumented. Without a Social Security number, she could not receive federal financial aid or pay in-state tuition in Louisiana.
Rhodes wondered if the girl’s situation was more commonplace than she’d realized. Though the number of Central American children entering Carver was rising rapidly, she never knew how many of her new students were undocumented. And she couldn’t ask them to disclose their immigration status — doing so would violate federal law.
The intersection of immigration law and education is a murky area that few groups fully understand. “I would say there are maybe five organizations like ours across the country,” said Valeria Do Vale, lead coordinator for the Student Immigration Movement, which was started in Boston in 2005 by immigrant students attending high school with hopes of attending college. To expand their scope, they co-founded an organization called Unafraid Educators to organize teachers and to help students access college.
For her part, Rhodes feared that she and her colleagues had inadvertently misled their first cohort of immigrant students. “We told them, ‘Work hard, keep your grades up, do well on the ACT and you’ll be fine.’ But then they didn’t qualify for FAFSA — we didn’t know.”
Still, as the school year closed, Rhodes saw that her work was also cause for celebration. In May 2016, Elliott walked through Carver’s commencement ceremony with his classmates, feeling a burst of affection for high school and the people he’d met there. “I love my teachers; they made me learn,” Elliott said. “And I love the people that went to Carver. And I love the Rams. I love Carver forever.”
Related: Held back, but not helped
By the time Elliott took his graduation photos, Monica Zelaya was walking Carver’s junior hallway feeling much more confident. Her English had significantly improved, and she was earning straight A’s.
As she started her senior year, Zelaya looked in the mailbox every day for papers granting her permanent residency.
But she had heard nothing by January 2017, when her FAFSA was rejected due to “incomplete information” — because she, too, had no Social Security number.
Her spirits fell. “I felt like I had worked hard for nothing,” she said. Devastated, she visited Rhodes’ office. Zelaya had been dreaming of college forever, she told Rhodes. It felt so unfair.
Rhodes encouraged Zelaya to keep her academic focus, despite her disappointment. In May, at age 17, Zelaya graduated near the top of her class, with a 4.5 grade-point average. But college was not yet possible for her.
ince 2017, Rhodes has gotten a crash course in college financial aid. For a time, she mulled pushing for in-state tuition for Louisiana’s undocumented students. But ultimately, immigration advocates in New Orleans advised her to stick to the basics: Carver’s undocumented students were most likely to make it to college if they became permanent legal residents.
National data shows that legal help is crucial to that process: A 2014 report from the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University found that when juveniles in immigration court were helped by an attorney, the percent that were allowed to stay in the United States jumped from 15 percent to 73 percent.
Timing is key. That’s because students hoping to submit a federal application for residency through what’s called “special immigrant juvenile status” must first petition a state juvenile court while they are still considered minors — a designation that stretches to age 21 in many states but ends at age 18 in some states, including Louisiana.
University of Pennsylvania Law School Professor Amy Wax questioned whether immigrant students’ college attendance should be a focus for any public schools. “Even if we somehow decide they can stay, they need to line up behind our fellow citizens,” Wax said. “There are many worthy American citizens who cannot afford college and deserve our help. … They are our fellow countrymen, our fellow citizens. In a war we would fight alongside them. I would try to help them first.”
Wax’s perspective is part of the struggle that immigrant students face, especially with today’s heightened anti-immigrant rhetoric, said Vale, of the Student Immigration Movement. “Sometimes people ask us, ‘Why aren’t the schools helping?’” she said. “It is a structural issue, because schools don’t have enough guidance counselors, for instance. But we’ve found it’s also a bias issue.”
For Monica Zelaya and other undocumented students still on Rhodes’ watch, Rhodes began forging connections with reputable immigration attorneys who were willing to work pro bono and could file pleas before the students turned 18.
In 2018, after waiting a year, Zelaya finally got her permanent-resident credentials and that all-important Social Security number. She became Carver’s first student to move from undocumented to documented status and to enroll in college.
Zelaya is now in her second year of college courses. She talks about attending law school and becoming a lawyer who can help students navigate the immigration system. “I know what it feels like to be stuck within this process. I want to help people who go through it,” she said.
Zelaya and Rhodes are still in close touch. Within the halls of Carver, word about Rhodes has gotten out. Now, immigrant students regularly come to her for help and volunteer their immigration status.
That level of comfort and trust is unusual, said Lee of TeamChild. “For youth without legal status, it can feel dangerous to come out of the woodwork and ask for help. So, to gain that trust and catch the cases early is huge — life-saving, really,” Lee said.
Rhodes is now looking into the possibility of a special scholarship fund or in-state tuition awards to help undocumented students who are enrolled in college and are working toward legal status. “If Monica [Zelaya] had had that, she wouldn’t have had to sit out for a year,” Rhodes said.
In 2019, Rhodes formed a new nonprofit called Free Alas — which means “wings” in Spanish — to help teachers and social workers in other schools replicate Carver’s legal support. Ultimately, Rhodes hopes, educators at every school can be trained to assist all New Orleans students who face legal challenges, whether in criminal or immigration court.
Elliott’s case was not resolved until nearly two years after his graduation, when he pled guilty to lesser charges and received three years’ probation, rather than jail time. Prosecutors were amenable to the plea deal largely because of the dedication he’d shown to his academics and, after graduation, to his job as a manager at Walmart and to his two young daughters, London and Zoey.
“The idea is not that we help only kids who the court considers innocent,” Rhodes said. “Lorenzo pleaded guilty to his charges. But look what happened when he was given a second chance.”
Elliott has insight into his mistakes. “It was the decisions I was making at the time. That’s what was messing me up. I learned to think for myself, to use my own brain,” he said. He hopes to have completed his coursework for a commercial driver’s license by the time he gets off probation next year. “I’m a whole lot smarter in the things I choose to do.”
Though Rhodes has now helped hundreds of students return to school or apply for permanent residency, Elliott is special. After all, his case helped to launch the efforts that would eventually become Free Alas.
“Getting out and going on with his life helped his case,” Rhodes said. “Now he’s able to work and go to school. And at the end of every day, he comes home and tucks in his two little girls.”
This story about kids in courts was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.
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