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Lausanne Alumni Work To Create Change In Juvenile Justice System

The core values found in The Lausanne Way are instilled in students daily, whether it be through teachers, coaches, curriculum or their everyday experiences on campus.

However, these aren't just ideas for students to practice in the classroom. When a student graduates from Lausanne, we hope they carry these traits with them and use them to help create a better future for our community, our country and the rest of the world. 

For Lee Silberberg '13 and Gregory Hanissian '13, these values have been incorporated into their personal lives and have helped steer them toward specific career paths. When Lee reflects on his time at Lausanne, he credits his experience as shaping who he is today and can even remember specific teachers and moments that helped him along the way.

"Teachers like Mrs. Brenda Robinette, the late Mr. Barry Gilmore, Mr. Russ Williams, Dr. Rocio Rodriguez Del Rio and Dr. Lisa Bailey made a huge impact on me," Lee said. "They taught me the skills that I needed to not only critically assess problems presented to me but to creatively judge where previous attempts may not have fully hit the mark. My Upper School teachers shaped my development as a student, as a thinker and as a leader." 

Lee recalls Mrs. Buddenbohm and her work in the library as being a huge influence on him, because of a time in ninth grade when she recommended checking out "The Republic" by Plato.

"Without Mrs. Buddenbohm's help, I would have never found that book in the library and begun studying philosophy, my college major, and a primary reason for my choice to enroll in law school," Lee said. "Her work and the Lausanne Upper School Library's volumes had an enormous impact on shaping who I have become."

Lee headed to Rhodes after Lausanne and upon college graduation, he started working at the Community Legal Center (CLC), a legal non-profit law firm in town, where he learned about the importance and the limits of pro-bono work in the Memphis community and started understanding the complications and processes that go into the background of all charitable work.

When Lee's internship with the CLC wrapped up, he began working as a Shelby County Defender's Juvenile Office, where his interest in working with the youth in the system began. 

"While I was there I was mentored by wonderful attorneys," Lee said. "I was able to watch them advocate zealously for their clients both inside and outside of the courtroom, but I also spent a significant amount of time after work speaking at length with the juvenile magistrates about their jurisprudence and background in their chambers."

Lee wanted to know as much about the different views that went into the judicial decisions that held so much power over a minor's life.  Over time he started to understand the different legal philosophies of lawyers and magistrates he met, and he noticed a fairly consistent trend: juvenile law should be about rehabilitation, but often the systems put in place fail that mission.

"The attorneys and judges can only deal with the issues in front of them, they can't follow the child along in life and help them make better choices - and so children may re-enter the system, eventually ending them in a similar position as adults," Lee said. "At that point, I knew the issue that needed to be addressed, but I didn't have the faintest idea of how to address the issue."

As Lee was going through cases that were either incompletely logged or not yet logged within the Public Defender's case management software he had his first "ah-ha" moment.

"As I was logging the cases, I would look through the case to correctly document what had occurred, the Lausanne alumnus said.  "This meant reading through the background material regarding why the case was brought before the court and the tasks our client might have been asked to complete if they were found guilty."

After reading through more than 70 cases, both in real life and online, Lee began to see a common reoccurrence and would soon learn that it had long been discussed within the legal and activist community. Many of the children that were found guilty were asked to write apology letters to their victims. There seemed to be a direct correlation between the number of times the author had been in the juvenile justice system and their writing proficiency. 

"I was shocked by how stark the trend was," Lee said. "I knew immediately that the key to the question continuously posed by the attorneys and magistrates was improving literacy for the kids in juvenile detention, but I didn't know how yet."

Photo Credits: Dany Beleyrian

 

Lee moved to be an intern in the chambers of a criminal court judge in Memphis after his time with the Public Defender and while he was there he was able to conduct legal research but was also able to watch another area of the justice system at work extensively. 

"I saw that at every level the justice system grinds people up - even for minor offenses - and saps them of their spirit," Lee said. "What I saw in the adult system backed up what I saw when I was watching the children respond to what was transpiring in the juvenile courtrooms. You could see it on the children's faces. It was like watching the hope get sapped from their bodies."

For Lee, this was his second 'ah-ha' moment. He knew that to help juveniles from returning to the system, not only would literacy rates among incarcerated youth need to be improved, but each child would have to have their hope rekindled. He brought on his friend and Lausanne alum Gregory to help him achieve his goal. The team began looking into book donation efforts for those behind bars and found that while there were efforts aimed toward juveniles in other states, Memphis did not yet have an organization specifically dedicated to donating books to youth in the system.

"I also noticed that though many of the other book donation programs do incredible work, the sheer size of the incarcerated adult population makes it difficult to pick and choose books to donate and the organizations involved often must donate as many prison-compliant books as they have," Lee said. "However, because the population of incarcerated juveniles is smaller, Greg and I decided that the best method would be to donate a personally selected batch of books that would fit the tastes of the kids in juvenile detention. In essence, we have created a mini-modular library that is built up each month, and is guided by feedback from the detention officials noted the kids were interested in or enjoyed reading. Now when the kids see the books come in, they have something to be excited about, something that sparks hope."

As for the future of 901 Booked, Lee and Greg are working on expanding their resource bank so he and his partner can increase the number of books donated as well as continue to improve the tailoring system. The team's goal is to ensure that every child has the opportunity to read a book that will captivate them and eventually expand to other types of media such as comic books. 

"I hope that 901 Booked can be an integral reason why many children who have stepped foot in 616 Adams (Juvenile Court) never step foot in it again," Lee said. "This is the kind of issue that an entire village has to tackle to be successful, and we are just two people among many wonderful community members who are working towards the same goals as many community members have been for decades. We are indebted to their work and we hope that our work contributes to their efforts as well." 

Posted by Shayne Dotson at 12:26