Reformists hold certain truths to be self-evident:
Systems that enact policies contrary to the good of those it serves are in need of reform.
Systems in need of reform are seldom reformed because those in control cannot discern the harmful contrariety of their policies.
Those unable to discern harmful policies must be compelled to change them using whatever lawful means necessary.
These truths have been guideposts in my work off the bench to enhance my due process role on the bench.
When I became a judge, it didn’t take long to question why so many kids appeared in my court on minor school offenses. In 1995, the year before police were introduced to schools, there were only 50 referrals to the court. By 2004, it had increased to 1,200 referrals.
The vast majority of these kids were not delinquent even though they committed a delinquent act — a phenomenon unique to kids due to their neurological construction. Despite their capacity to do remarkable things, they’re neurologically wired to do stupid things.
We treated kids who made us mad like the few who scared us.
Something didn’t sit well with me about handcuffing students who made an administrator mad. The more we arrested, the more dropped out of school. The more who dropped out of school, the greater the juvenile crime rate.
The Sweeten study would later validate my local data: Students arrested on campus are twice as likely not to graduate and four times more likely if they appear in court.
Since introducing the first school-justice partnership protocol in 2004, many jurisdictions have replicated the model with outcomes similar to Clayton — school referrals down 83 percent and graduation rates up 24 percent.
It is no surprise that researchers James C. Howell, Mark W. Lipsey and John J. Wilson stated, “Judge Teske’s Georgia Clayton County School Referral Reduction Protocol is an ideal solution to excessive school suspension and expulsions” in “A Handbook for Evidence Based Juvenile Justice Systems,” p. 135.
And there is no surprise that a conservative think tank like the Texas Policy Foundation that uses academically sound research described “a more effective model for school discipline ... pioneered by Judge Steven Teske.” According to the Foundation, “Governor Rick Perry’s Criminal Justice Division sought to determine whether Judge Teske’s disciplinary system could be replicated in Texas.” Within a short period, the early results showed a 27 percent drop in referrals (Texas Policy Foundation Policy Perspective, August 2012).
But what remains a surprise is the number of jurisdictions still exercising zero tolerance practices despite its zero intelligence. What is asinine is how many refuse to change, knowing they can implement evidence-based models with better outcomes.
I have spent the past seven years helping many jurisdictions create a school-justice partnership, but they came to me asking for change.
How do we effect change in systems not asking for change?
The answer is codification.
Make all school systems that utilize law enforcement on campus create a written school-justice partnership.
The unwilling will argue that a statewide mandate dilutes the local values and standards of each community, and that local communities should decide the application of zero tolerance policies.
This argument is contrary to the basic principles upon which our Founding Fathers created our republican form of government.
When drafting our Constitution, the framers’ biggest challenge was creating a constitutional framework that would preserve the basic tenets of democracy while prohibiting the many factions in society from forming a majority that could create harmful policies and laws.
In Federalist Paper No. 10, James Madison stated that the only practicable approach in a system governed by multiple people is to control the effects of factions. Factions are a necessity in a democracy, but a tyrannical majority can be just as devastating as a tyrannical dictator. Therefore, the aim of government in a democracy is to protect the minority from an unchecked majority subject to “unruly passions.”
There is no doubt that zero tolerance policies are the product of the “unruly passions” of those in control, which are wreaking havoc on the minority — our voiceless children.
There are some things so fundamental to the protection and welfare of all children that should never be subject to compromise, and the overarresting of students for minor violations is one of them.
Community values should never trump the best interests of children, which explains why we have state laws prohibiting adults from doing things to children that could bring them harm. Yet despite these laws, no one is asking why school systems aren’t charged with educational neglect for pushing kids out of school and emotional neglect for handcuffing them and placing them in detention cells — circumstances documented as harmful to the welfare of children.
Or maybe the words of philosopher Max Stirner are true: “The state calls its own violence law, but that of an individual, crime.”
Another site where I worked to build a school-justice partnership was Connecticut. The Clayton Model was replicated in two sites resulting in a reduction in arrests by 59 percent and 87 percent respectively.
The studies, coupled with the success of the replication sites, begged the question: Why not make this happen statewide?
Connecticut decided it was time to control the harmful effects of the zero tolerance factions by mandating what others were doing voluntarily — create a school-justice partnership.
Connecticut passed Public Law 15-168 to require all school systems using law enforcement on campus to create a school-justice partnership that limits the role of police in disciplinary matters and requires a graduated response system in lieu of arrests.
I think it’s time to call those who perpetuate the harmful effects of zero tolerance policies for what they really are — abusers.
And it’s time to mandate their extinction.
Steven Teske is chief judge of the Juvenile Court of Clayton County, Ga., and vice chairman of the Governor's Office For Children and Families. He is a past president of the Council of Juvenile Court Judges and has been appointed by the governor to the Children & Youth Coordinating Council, DJJ Judicial Advisory Council, Commission on Family Violence, and the Governor's Office for Children and Families.
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