Saint Louis University professor Norman White identifies himself as a “developmental criminologist.”
“I’m interested in how kids get to the point of being involved in the justice system and the factors related to that,” said White, associate dean for community engagement and partnership at SLU’s College for Public Health and Social Justice.
For the past few years, White’s work has focused on the impact of school suspensions.
"Kids are being suspended at a very early age in life and that puts them on the trajectory to later being involved in the justice system,” he said.
In the fall of 2014, White received a grant to help train the teachers and principals at seven elementary St. Louis Public Schools on how race impacts the kind of trauma that their students experience in their lives. Through that work, they have been able to decrease the number of suspensions and implement more “restorative practices” in place of sending students home.
“It’s the light of Michael Brown Jr.,” said White, who is also an associate professor of criminology and criminal justice at SLU’s School of Social Work. “It’s something that his death exposed, and we have to pay attention to. In that light, really good things can come.”
Because of his important work, White has received the Dr. John M. Anderson Excellence in Mental Health Award from the St. Louis County Children’s Service Fund. The fund’s leaders said White’s work truly embodies their vision and mission.
“He is bringing community-driven solutions to localized issues to reduce disparities and to create a new pipeline for all children to succeed,” said Connie J. Cunningham, executive director of St. Louis County Children’s Service Fund.
His award will be given at the St. Louis American Foundation’s Salute to Excellence in Health Care luncheon on April 28.
“He is most deserving of this recognition for his years of unwavering commitment and tireless drive in putting into action our Jesuit call to be in service for and with communities,” said Collins Airhihenbuwa, dean of SLU’s College for Public Health and Social Justice.
In February 2015, the University of California – Los Angeles (UCLA) released a study that found Missouri leads the nation in suspensions of African-American elementary students. It also found that Missouri ranked first for having the largest gap in how its elementary schools suspend black students compared to white students – and it was fourth in the nation at the high-school level.
Following the UCLA report in 2015, about eight more foundations made donations to further White’s work in the schools. And in 2016, the Missouri Foundation for Health gave his team funding to extend the work for three more years.
The work of White and his team touches about 2,500 students. Every week, his “coaches” spend about four to five hours at each SLPS school consulting with teachers and principals on how to respond to certain student behavior. They run through different scenarios together and offer suggestions on restorative responses.
What is really gratifying for White is watching the schools craft their own solutions that fit their school’s culture. “It’s theirs,” he said. “It’s not ours.”
In some schools, they have started healing circles, where teachers and students meet as a group and talk about what their goals and commitments are to each other.
“The kids are committed to each other on a powerful level,” White said.
Some schools have set up calming rooms for the children to go and reflect on their behavior. The goal is to figure out how to get these children back into the classrooms, he said.
There are several things that White would like people to understand about his work.
First, White said, “There are children who don’t get the right to grow up. Their lives are made difficult by decisions of adults who don’t even live in their communities, who make their communities so distressed and contribute to stress and trauma.”
These children live through challenges that “no adult should have to experience,” he said. If we understand this, then we are better equipped to meet the children where they are, “instead of assuming solutions that are not based in any reality,” he said.
He believes that society needs to stop blaming the schools for the failure.
“We need to recognize that we have to take this on as a community, and that we all are failing the children in this community,” White said. “We have to make them the center of our work each and every day. For me, the thing I’m most proud of is that every day when I wake up, that’s what I do.”
In his interview with the St. Louis American, White became overwhelmed with emotion when he explained that one of their students was killed last week.
“We can’t protect them from that, but we can really strive to make this world different so that other kids don’t have that future,” White said.
At SLU, White works hard to get his SLU students to understand this, he said, because they will become the future leaders and administrators.
“They need to begin to understand reality – not the one they assume, but the one that exists for many people,” White said. “We must stop having privileged solutions to the problems of this world. The only solutions that are going to work are the ones that get into the heart of where we are and are respectful of people.”
Tickets for the 17th Annual Salute to Excellence in Health Care Awards Luncheon on Friday, April 28 at the Frontenac Hilton are $750 per table for VIP/Corporate seating and $50 each/$500 table for Individual seating. To order tickets, call 314-533-8000 or visit www.stlamerican.com.