Jill Sharkey works to address racial and ethnic disparities in juvenile justice system

Friday, December 15, 2017
Jill Sharkey's research lab

Jill Sharkey (fourth from left) with her research lab

The Gevirtz School’s Jill Sharkey, lecturer with security of employment in the Department of Counseling, Clinical, and School Psychology, has been at the forefront of policy changes meant to reduce racial and ethnic disparities among youth in the Santa Barbara area. The project at the heart of these changes began when the Santa Barbara County Probation Department received a grant from the California State Board of Community Corrections to work on addressing racial and ethnic disparities in the juvenile justice system in 2014. Having previously worked with Sharkey, members of Santa Barbara County Probation Department invited her to partner with them in applying for and executing this pivotal project.

“Disparities do not start in the justice system; kids come to the juvenile justice system with the experiences they have had in their family, their community, and their schools.  The school systems, mental health systems, and child welfare systems are designed to catch kids early and help them before they get down the path to juvenile justice.” Therefore all of these organizations—and Sharkey—are working together as a Racial and Ethnic Disparities (R.E.D.) Committee on an ambitious four-year project to study and fix disparities that exist within the system.

Their research found two issues in particular that lead to disproportionality within schools in the Santa Barbara County: zero tolerance discipline policies and English language development. The problem is that zero tolerance policies fail to consider why poor behavior occurs and tends to exclude already marginalized and vulnerable youth. Similarly, current approaches to English language development ignore a student’s proficiency in their home language, and fail to help students achieve language proficiency.  These problems intersect; their research found that students who were classified as English Language Learners were much more likely to be expelled than other students. Solutions proposed by the R.E.D. Committee and being followed up on by the school districts include reforming English language development and reclassification procedures, implementing restorative rather than exclusionary discipline practices, and implementing cultural proficiency training with students, parents, and teachers.

Within the mental health system, research revealed various disparities among referrals, diagnoses, treatment, and outcomes. For example, given the same behavior, White youths were significantly more likely to be diagnosed with ADHD, whereas youth of color were more likely to be diagnosed with disruptive behavior disorders. The ramifications of these initial diagnoses then led to significantly different treatment trajectories. Next year colleague Dr. Miya Barnett will be joining Sharkey and Quirk to lend her expertise with implementation of evidence-based practices within a large-scale reform of children’s mental health services.

Sharkey and her group proposed that all mental health system referrals be reviewed. This change would function as a systematic checkpoint to catch potential racial and ethnic imbalance early on. For example, when a youth of color comes in with “disruptive behavioral disorder,” it creates an opportunity to recognize that there is likely something more to it; Sharkey elaborates, “Whether that’s a history of traumatic experiences or ADHD, a more accurate diagnosis leads to a more positive treatment and life trajectory.”

The committee is also implementing sensitivity training to promote “more cultural competency within mental health staff and clinicians,” Sharkey says. The project is even looking into ways to address the “stigma about mental health that comes from the broader society and within different cultural groups”—such as fear from some Latinos that they might be labeled “loco” or crazy if they seek mental health support.

Going into the fourth and final year of the grant, the committee is now “doubling our efforts to try to make some changes,” Sharkey points out, with the effort being evenly split between schools, mental health, and child welfare along with the juvenile justice system. With schools, Jill Sharkey and colleague Dr. Matthew Quirk are “working on a project in the schools connecting kindergarten readiness to elementary school academic performance to high school discipline records to probation to show the entire path of how kids make it down the pipeline to the justice system.”  The committee is also working on ways to monitor the effect of any policy changes in the child welfare and mental health systems to ensure that they are effectively reducing racial and ethnic disparities. Data from the child welfare system, previously siloed, has now been made available, so her team is embarking on identifying and remedying disparities in the system. The goal is to develop efficient data reports that agencies can regularly review to track their progress in the goal of eliminating disparities in services for youths of color. Hopefully this will help sustain these efforts beyond the life of the grant.

The positive influence the project has had on the community extends beyond the committee’s policy changes, as Sharkey’s research has helped bring to light a greater understanding that “we all have implicit biases that can manifest in these disparities, and by changing policies that affect kids disproportionately, we actually create a better overall school climate, mental health system and child welfare system for all youth.”