Jailing a Kid for Making Adults Mad Only Creates Worse Crimes, More Victims

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Judge Steven TeskeIt's not an easy task to keep disruptive kids in school because our inclination is to remove them like we do a tumor.

The intuitive thought when it comes to discipline is to punish the transgressor to deter future misconduct. Suspending students from the classroom has become the traditional response for misconduct, notwithstanding evidence that oversuspension causes dropout rates to rise.

For example, a study of absences among Georgia high school students beginning their ninth grade year through 12th grade found that those absent 15 days or more had a pathetically poor 30.37 percent graduation rate. Most stunning is that many of these absences were due to suspensions. This suggests that we pushed them out of school.

The advent of police on school campuses created another layer of push-out using criminal sanctions as a punisher. This has harsher results, as shown by a 2006 study showing that a student arrested on campus is twice as likely not to graduate and four times more likely if they appear in court.

Despite these harmful outcomes, there are those who ask why other students should have to endure the disruption caused by one student. In the words of Spock, spewing logic across the universe, “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.”

But what if the failure to address the needs of the few now will result in injury to the many in the future?

Consider that in Georgia, 70 percent of the adult prison population dropped out of school. Many of them were the disruptive kind who were suspended, expelled and arrested without any consideration given to why they were disruptive in the first place. Many of these inmates were once the same disruptive students in our schools who we are now unwittingly pushing out into the streets for quieter classrooms today.

Many of our intuitive thoughts make sense when we live for today. They are not so sensible when we reach the future, and realize that those we pushed out yesterday are now victimizing more of us in worse ways today.

What if we could create a system that identifies the reasons why, and the resources to ameliorate, the causes of disruptive conduct? The goal would be so that the misconduct dissipates so that learning improves, and so does the odds of graduation.

What if we could do today what it takes to make us safer tomorrow?

Like diseases, disruptive behaviors do not occur by chance and they are not randomly distributed. This means they can be studied to determine their causes in every case. Once these causes are identified, we can develop solutions to eradicate the cause just as we do with diseases.

[Related: Man Still Fighting 40-year Sentence for Nonlethal Crime He Committed As 14-year-old]

I had the distinct honor recently to deliver a keynote address at Georgetown University to kick off the first program of its kind that certifies a multidisciplinary group of professionals in the mechanics of creating and implementing such a system, called the school-justice partnership. The program is the brainchild of one of our greatest champions for kids, Shay Bilchik, who is the founder and director of the Center for Juvenile Justice Reform at Georgetown University.

Shay has a long history of child advocacy as an attorney, administrator of the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, director of the Child Welfare League of America and now at Georgetown training professionals to become champions for our most vulnerable kids.

His venture into school-justice partnerships is one that I embrace. While we can never do enough to dismantle the school-to-prison pipeline, he is creating a coterie of experts to build school-justice partnerships at ground zero of communities throughout our nation.

Shay is not new to this. His work has touched the lives of many kids in so many ways and at so many levels by equipping so many with the skills necessary to reform systems at the grassroots level, where the lives of youth are mostly affected by adults making policy decisions. The continued practice of unhealthy zero tolerance policies underscores the need for more folks certified in best practices, like school-justice partnerships, to increase the army of reformers at ground zero — the local community.

When I convened educators and law enforcement in 2003 with the objective to create the nation’s first school-justice partnership, I instinctively knew it was the best approach to dismantle the school-to-prison pipeline, absent legislative enactments prohibiting zero tolerance policies.

God forbid if we passed laws that prohibited arresting students for minor school offenses, which would affect only those remaining school superintendents still ignorant of what works or too stubborn to change.

When did it become a crime to make adults mad?

More states, in their effort to reduce incarceration of low-risk youth, have passed laws prohibiting judges from doing just that (rightfully so). So why can’t the same occur to stop the flow of students from school to juvenile courts when students make an adult mad?

Until legislatures attain the political will to force change, the battle has to be taken to the local communities, championed by grassroots folks who have been trained in a grassroots model called the school-justice partnership.

Steven Teske is chief judge of the Juvenile Court of Clayton County, Georgia, 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, Department of Juvenile Justice Judicial Advisory Council, Commission on Family Violence and the Governor's Office for Children and Families.

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