Girls in Juvenile Detention Teach Westminster Students Invaluable Lessons
Service-learning project connects psychology students with at-risk girls.
SALT LAKE CITY – Giggles fill the room as a group of teenage girls rip pictures of prom dresses, celebrity hair styles and designer purses out of fashion magazines. This isn’t a junior high lunch room, it’s locked detention, jail for juveniles. Locked detention is where young people are temporarily held after arrest while their next step is determined. Some are here for running away, repeat truancy or family fights that turn physical. Others are in detention for more serious crimes, including felony charges related to drugs, theft, and assault. Many of the youth are not even old enough to have a driver’s license but have already experienced hardships like homelessness, where selling drugs or themselves is an act of survival.
While clipping images from the magazines, one of the girls bluntly states, “I’m always trying to look like these women, but I don’t.”
It was a revelation to the troubled teen and turned the giggling into a conversation about body image led by psychology students from Westminster College. Each semester, Westminster students enrolled in Dr. Cassie Power’s Psychology of Women class participate in a service-learning project with Utah’s Juvenile Justice System (JJS).
In 2010, JJS temporarily housed more than 10,000 youth, ages 12 to 18, in locked detention. Of the 10,000, 23 percent were female. What landed the girls behind bars? Bad decisions, yes. But Westminster students are asking what social inequities put the teenagers at risk. The crime a girl is accused of is irrelevant to the students, in fact, they don’t ever know the charges.
Westminster associate professor of psychology Dr. Cassie Power implemented the service- learning project in her Psychology of Women course in 2007. Westminster students are required to create and teach lessons to girls in the juvenile justice system once a week for eight weeks.
“While Westminster students are more diverse than ever, most of my students have never experienced the circumstances many of the JJS girls have,” said Dr. Power. “So I consciously strive to introduce voices of women who are underrepresented to work toward positive social change for girls in our community.”
Lessons from sexism to friendship
When Brady Arnold, a senior at Westminster, first crossed the threshold from freedom into locked detention, he says his expectations were shattered. Arnold was nervous about meeting who he thought would be hard, bullish delinquents that fit the stereotypical ‘bad girl’ label.
“I also thought the girls in juvenile detention might not be that intelligent,” said Arnold. “But they have so much knowledge about complex social issues, especially at such young ages. At 15 years, they understood more about sexism and oppression than I did my freshman year in college.”
The college students work in pairs, teaching groups of detained teenage girls about a variety of topics from what to do if sexually harassed to issues of classism and gender. Lessons on friendship and girl fighting get a big response.
“Girl fighting is often about one girl feeling the need to show dominance and strength over another,” said Dr. Power. “But in the service-learning project, the girls learn that fighting removes power from both of them. They don’t have to be best friends but can be empowered by working together.”
Maria Ponce, Juvenile Justice Services volunteer coordinator, has watched the jailed teens respond to outsiders in a way they never have with paid JJS staff. Ponce says the psychology students bring new ideas to the JJS gender-specific programs that benefit employees and the girls.
“It gets the girls curious about college and volunteering their own time,” said Ponce. “I think because the students are only a few years older, the girls really listen.”
It’s a learning experience for the girls in detention and the volunteer students from Westminster. Dr. Power has found her psychology students realize that they have much to learn from women who are different from themselves.
“My students and the girls in JJS begin to develop authentic relationships that acknowledge difference as a source for learning,” reflected Power. “My students often remark on how intelligent the justice system girls are saying things like, “The girls are so smart. They know so much more about the issues we discussed than I ever did at their age, and maybe even more than I knew coming into this class.”
As the only male in the latest batch of volunteer students, Brady Arnold says his experiences inside juvenile detention were more eye-opening than any textbook lesson. Arnold believes the service-learning project expanded his understanding of women’s psychology to a level he can implement in his future career as a teacher.
“I think about the girls in detention, how they’re also dealing with obstacles at home, in school, with friends and how we’ve all been conditioned to treat them a certain way,” said Arnold. “I learned so much about what I can do to change that.”
Service-learning earns professor national award
Implementing the Juvenile Justice Service-learning project into her curriculum recently won Dr. Power the Mary Roth Walsh Teaching of Psychology of Women award. She received the prestigious national recognition during the American Psychological Association's annual convention held in Washington D.C. in early August. The award honors distinguished professors and teachers who demonstrate innovation in teaching and who have devised a creative approach for increasing diversity in teaching the psychology of gender.
Students enrolled this fall and spring in Dr. Power’s Psychology of Women class at Westminster will also have the opportunity to teach and learn with girls in Utah’s Juvenile Justice System, empowering the teens to break their ‘bad girl’ rap.
Media Contacts: Krista DeAngelis and Arikka Von (801) 832-2682
August 26, 2011
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