The Oklahoma Institute for Child Advocacy (OICA) has had the opportunity over the past few months to work with state lawmakers on various issues covered in legislative interim studies.  If you are not familiar with these, state senators and representatives can request from the presiding officer of their respective chambers the opportunity to delve into a topic about an issue of importance.  Prior to the deadline for the filing period, we reached out to several lawmakers to request topics which would focus on important issues for Oklahoma children and families.
 
The first study in which we played a part was the Oklahoma Senate study reviewing the topic of Adverse Childhood Experiences and Trauma Informed Care.  This was a follow-up study to the one held last year in the House of Representatives by Rep. Pat Ownbey, R-Ardmore.  Senator AJ Griffin filed this study prior to her departure from the Legislature, and we were pleased to continue that work with Sen. Kay Floyd, D-Oklahoma City and Sen. Greg McCortney, R-Ada.  The study assembled some of the best and brightest minds in Oklahoma regarding this topic and the seven lawmakers who were present asked very relevant questions.  I am certain this effort will lead to great work by the Trauma Informed Care Task Force authored by Sen. Griffin and Rep. Carol Bush, R-Tulsa in Senate Bill 1517 this past session.  In fact, there will be follow-up legislation to expand the membership and scope of the study to include greater regional representation for a statewide presence.
 
The next study in which OICA participated was one requested by Senator Allison Ikley-Freeman, D-Tulsa, which reviewed school suspension policy in Oklahoma.  The assembled presenters discussed the issues impacting students who face either in-school or out-of-school suspension in our state.  There has been legislation the past two years to modify how suspensions are treated for students who commit assault on a teacher or another student. 
 
Violence in the classroom is an extremely serious issue and something that absolutely must be dealt with. However, OICA continues to encourage policymakers not to simply back new laws that increase punishments for children who act out. Often, those outbursts are fueled by deeply troubled circumstances at home or triggered by some other unfortunate incident. We believe that, instead of simply passing judgement, it is important for a counselor to first sit down with the student to determine what caused the outburst and if there are deeper issues at hand. That evaluation is especially important given the very lengthy suspension periods that are handed out: the current law establishes that students who are found to be guilty of assault will be suspended for the current semester and the entire next semester, and this would apply to students in sixth grade or older. Moving forward, we will encourage lawmakers to implement a proper system that balances safety concerns with a sense of greater compassion for children in difficult situations.
 
Finally, a third study OICA participated in looked into educational programs for women who are incarcerated.  We worked to shed light on the available opportunities for those in our prison system to earn their high school diploma through a GED, or to achieve a business certification through a CareerTech class to help find employment once arriving at a release date.  Oklahoma incarcerates the highest amount of women in the industrialized world, but our recidivism rates are relatively low, due in part to assisting women find job skills upon parole.  We are hoping this will grow and efforts will also be successful to assist the Department of Corrections with better funding for treatment programs for drugs and mental illness. OICA is involved with this because children of people incarcerated are six to seven times more likely to go to jail themselves, so we want to help provide a preventative focus in this area.
 
OICA will continue to work on these issues and the many others coming from the Oklahoma State Capitol.  If you would like to join in our effort, follow oica.org for updates.