Volume II, No. 1; September 14, 2004
The Community Based Learning “Click” i
domestic violence all too often involves repeat offenses. Try as
it might, the justice system frequently fails to protect victims
even if they have dutifully reported an incident. Several years
ago, I was involved in a project in San Francisco with the Domestic
Violence Information Network to improve the recording and flow of
information to police so that they would be better prepared to recognize
a repeat offense. The project brought together representatives of the
police department, district attorney’s office, municipal judges,
and city jailers, and included community organizations that play an
important role finding temporary housing and helping abused spouses
put their lives back together. The collaborative project experience
was an eye opener to say the least.
I joined the project with all sorts of expectations regarding the
design of information systems. As a computing professional, I took
a formal academic approach based on a model that goes from specifications
to implementation to testing. What I learned was well beyond the
material covered in my collection of textbooks!
Typically, the judicial system first became involved when the abused
spouse (by the way, not always a woman) called the court and asked
for a temporary restraining order (TRO) to be placed on the offender.
The court issued this order and recorded it in the Department of
Justice records. At the time of our study, however, the police had
no direct access to this information, and as we discovered, the
only record of a TRO that was provided to the police was recorded
on a 3 x 5 index card that sat on the police sergeant’s desk.
Unfortunately, it was frequently the case that a second incident
of abuse would occur on the following day, and unless the police
dispatched to the scene had searched the index cards, they would
have no knowledge of the TRO.
One solution we considered was to have the 911 operators who received
the call (usually from a neighbor) search the Justice Department
records by street address to see if a TRO was in place. However,
the 911 operators were not authorized by the courts to have access,
and their focus was on the call at hand, determining its level of
severity and passing on this information to police dispatchers.
The dispatchers, on the other hand, were authorized to perform
a record search. In fact they sat in front of an elaborate screen
in which four quadrants were set up to help them work as efficiently
as possible – one for the list of all incoming calls sorted
by severity, one for the list of all locations of police vehicles,
one for the call they were immediately working on, and the last
for access to records. It was their practice, however, not to initiate
a search of the records unless the police at the scene requested
it – something the responding officers rarely did because
they were concerned with the potential for violence in front of
them. All too often, the offending spouse, hearing the police sirens
approach, would threaten extreme retribution if the police were
told about the prior incident. Not knowing about the TRO, the common
police practice was to conduct a “cooling off” walk
with the offender around the block. Once the police had left the
scene, the victim was at the mercy of the abuser.
There were numerous additional problems of information flow at
the D.A.’s office, the jail and the shelters that I won’t
go into here. I will add that every person we met in the network,
from the judges to the police to the lawyers and the shelter operators
were earnest and dedicated in their efforts to make things better,
but the gaps in the system could lead to tragic consequences.
Alas, here’s what we discovered – the uselessness of
the information system in preventing repeat offenses was not due
to technological issues of access and performance, but rather to
a series of rules and practices that prevented timely information
to be present at hand. For all my training and for all the structured
approaches that I had presented to the students who accompanied
me on the study, I discovered a more profound truth – the
information system rules were a far second in importance to the
human system rules. This is a lesson that would be nearly impossible
to convey in the classroom.
It was during this experience that I had my community based learning
“click”. The “click”, you may recall, was
an expression for a consciousness raising insight that was popularized
by Gloria Steinem and other feminists in the 1960s. It referred
to the moment when a woman experienced discrimination so clearly
that she saw her whole life in a radically new light, an epiphany
that would change her worldview.
So, I unapologetically usurp the term for my community based learning
awakening. Once recognizing the complex relationship between systems,
both human and machine, I never looked at a design again in quite
the same way. And I continue to embrace experiential learning for
my students, so that they might have their own clicks.
The information system, by the way, did improve somewhat a year
later when the police department had laptops installed into many
of their vehicles. Coincidentally this was the consequence of a
parallel study quite separate from our own that was conducted by
a faculty colleague in Public Administration who knew less about
technology but more about how things actually work.
CSU, Service-Learning Faculty Scholar
i The full version of this article, What I Never
Learned in Class: Lessons from Community Based Learning appeared
in the AAHE Monograph on Concepts and Models for Service-Learning
in Engineering, “Projects That Matter.”