Senior Investigates the Illinois Justice System

At Parker, we strive to develop creative students who think for themselves, listen to others and are inspired to apply their idealism in ways that address critical issues facing our world. Senior Eleanor Buono and her work this past semester are living examples of this mission in action. While some seniors across the country spend their last semester in high school in a more casual fashion, Buono decided to buckle down and take part in an Independent Study focusing on the Illinois justice system.

Beginning in 11th grade, students can elect to design and develop unique courses that take a deeper dive into academic areas that especially pique their interest, and, for Buono, this was a perfect opportunity. “I have always had an interest in becoming a lawyer, specifically a criminal justice lawyer,” she explained. However, although she had this opportunity, she did not want to simply look at the criminal justice system and leave with a paper explaining its general inner workings. Buono had a larger goal in mind, “I didn’t have much knowledge on how the court system worked and which laws affect youth. The majority of the time, criminal cases in which a child is convicted as an adult aren’t talked about or featured in the news. I wanted to shed light on the effects this has on children and ways the system can be changed. A lot of the time in our Parker bubble, we don’t always know what is going on around us. I wanted to provide a new perspective to the Parker community by teaching not only myself but also my fellow classmates.”

With this admirable goal in mind, Buono worked with her advisor, US History English teacher Mike Mahany, to begin a semester-long exploration of this issue. While her initial hope was to interact with lawyers and others involved through interviews, the nature of the COVID pandemic prevented her from doing many in-person activities. This forced Buono to change her trajectory to researching hundreds of articles and firsthand stories about the juvenile justice system. “I read about children who were being affected by the system and what it had done to them mentally,” Buono said. “Even though I couldn’t conduct my own interviews, reading people’s stories was just as powerful.” She was even able to connect the “War on Drugs” and mandatory minimum laws she learned about in Upper School History teacher Andrew Bigelow’s U.S. History class to the current events and people in her research. The serious nature of her study at times took its toll, yet she persevered. “The research process was extremely tough mentally. Hearing stories about young children being put into adult maximum-security prisons was really difficult to read. I think it is important to hear those stories because they taught me so much.”

As the semester drew to a close, Buono looked back positively on the process as a whole. “I found my Independent Study extremely interesting. I wouldn’t have learned any of this in my classes, so this gave me an opportunity to study what I really wanted to. My research will give me good background information for my major in college. I am studying Legal Studies at UW Madison, and I think my past knowledge will be helpful.”

Parker encourages students to exercise personal and civic power by connecting reflection with action, research with creativity, wisdom with innovation, deeds with consequences and character with citizenship. Through her tireless work during her final semester, Buono has shown that this aim is alive and well at Parker and reaffirmed the words of our founder, Colonel Parker: “The needs of society should determine the work of the school.” We are eagerly looking forward to what the future holds for Buono as she build on this strong foundation.

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Francis W. Parker School educates students to think and act with empathy, courage and clarity as responsible citizens and leaders in a diverse democratic society and global community.