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Volume II, No. 1; September 14, 2004

The Community Based Learning “Click” i

Tragically, 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.

Gerald Eisman
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.”

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Last Updated: May 06, 2016

Last Updated: May 06, 2016

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