Judge Steve Teske: The Good Shepherd

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I was thirteen years old when I was called to the principal’s office. As I sat in the waiting area, I could hear two police officers from inside the office telling the principal they were going to arrest me. My stomach got weak and my eyes began to well up with tears. My world crashed all around me. At that moment I wished I could turn back the hands of time - I couldn’t. I wanted to escape. I had nowhere to go. I can only imagine how many kids wish the same thing when confronted by a police officer or sitting in a detention cell.

In my 11 years on the bench, I have asked kids countless times: “What were you thinking?” I already knew the answer: they weren’t.

It started as a dare. Our school was new and had all the state-of-the-art gadgets for a school in 1973. One of those gadgets included fire doors that were controlled from the principal’s office. They said the doors could not be closed. I thought differently. With my friends egging me on, I made my plans to escape from the lunch room. I brought to school that day some pliers, wire cutters, and a screw driver. The lunch room was in the round building which was connected by a hallway to the classroom buildings. There were fire doors in the hallway between the lunch room and the class rooms. I hurriedly took the screws off the panel, snipped a couple of wires, crossed them, and suddenly the doors began to move - they were closing. I was startled by the sound of the fire alarm. That’s right - the closing of the doors triggered the fire alarm.

I heard the students coming from the lunch room toward the hallway only to be stopped by the closed doors. The room filled with students and teachers. There was wall to wall flesh. Without warning, the door on the other end of the hallway closed, and people were trapped. Students began to panic and people were pushing and shoving. I looked on with fear, knowing I caused this panic. I heard a crash to my right and turned around to see a girl with cerebral palsy on a metal walker fall from the frantic pushing. I picked her up and held her up against the wall. A teacher saw me.

The police and fire department arrived and rescued us from the hallway of flesh and panic. Like the others, I went to class hoping I would not be discovered. When the class period ended, and as I walked to my next class, a couple of teachers hollered out thanks for helping save that girl. Another called me a brave young man. I learned that teachers gossip as much as the students. I was enjoying the hero status. During the last period, the principal’s secretary called my teacher and asked him to send me to the principal’s office. I was convinced the principal had heard of my heroics and wanted to thank me. I enjoyed the walk to his office. I did not know, however, that my conniving venture was captured on a video camera.

The police and firemen were mad. They wanted their pound of flesh. Who could blame them? As I sat there, my stomach in knots, tears welling up in my eyes, and believing my life was over, I contemplated the end of my life - not physically - emotionally. I believed instantaneously that I would never make anything of myself. What do I tell my parents? Will they get me out of jail? Will I get to go home? Will I be placed in a home for boys? What will it be like to be away from my parents, my brother and sisters, and my friends? I was scared and I wanted to take it all back. I wanted to start the day all over again.

I then heard my principal, Dr. Kimball, plead with the officers not to arrest me. I held my breath in hope. I wanted to pray, but couldn’t hear Dr. Kimball’s words and my thoughts to God at the same time. He told the officers that I was a good student, a bit rambunctious, but a good kid. He said I was smart, and pointed out my devious accomplishment; that it was something not any student could pull off. He admitted it was stupid, but still showed some ingenuity. The police were not impressed.

Finally, Dr. Kimball promised them that I would be punished severely. One of the officers asked Dr. Kimball why he cared so much that “the kid” not be arrested. His answer: “He is not a juvenile delinquent!” He explained to them that although I committed a crime, it was out of stupidity, not delinquency. The officers, thank God, listened to him and they left the school without me.

I later attended my disciplinary hearing. I was suspended. Dr. Kimball honored his word to the officers. Thinking outside the box, he issued a gag rule. Students were forbidden to talk to me and the other three accomplices I had convinced to act as my lookouts. I was grounded for a long time at home; not to mention the other punishments I had to endure at the hands of my parents. I thanked Dr. Kimball for saving me from jail. He simply stated, “Never forget the mercy and forgiveness extended to you Mr. Teske, especially if you find yourself in a position of authority over others.”

His words haunt me often when I am wearing the robe. Does this kid or that kid deserve mercy? Does he scare us or does he make us mad? Is what he did the result of being wired as a kid to do stupid things, not thinking? Or is he delinquent in need of treatment and supervision?

Today, with police on campus, we are seeing many students arrested and referred to juvenile court for conduct far less serious than what I did at 13. Students are arrested for fighting, mouthing off, and disrupting school; matters traditionally handled by school administrators and now too often turned over to police on campus. A long time school resource officer (SRO) with the Clayton County Police, Officer Robert Gardner, once described this dilemma by way of analogy to a shepherd and his flock. I have since dubbed it “The Allegory of the Good Shepherd.”

Gardner says that any given middle or high school consists of sheep and wolves. Most of the student body is like sheep. Only a handful is wolves. The goal of the SRO is the protection of the sheep from the wolves. Just as sheep do from time to time, they become curious and wander from the flock. The shepherd must guide them back to the flock, or they will be killed by the wolves. Officer Gardner analogizes the shepherd to the SRO, and sheep to those students who make adults mad. He sums it up quite simply: “The SRO should be protecting the sheep from the wolves, not helping the wolves victimize the sheep.”

Officer Gardner has not transported a single student to intake in two years! He has filed only six complaints in that same period. Yet the safety of the school has improved dramatically. Weapons on campus have fallen approximately 70 percent. He was named “Officer of the Year.” An honor bestowed upon him by the vote of the entire department.  Why?  Because they credit him with helping to solve many crimes in the community, including violent felonies. I will share how he does this as a SRO on another day. But suffice it to say that a zero tolerance approach resulting in arrests is ineffective. In fact, it’s harmful.

It matters how we respond to the sheep in our schools because school arrests increase the risk of dropping out of school. Court appearance further increases the risk (Sweeten, 2006). We didn’t have police on campus in my day, and principals didn’t call police to their campus. Dr. Kimball didn’t call the police - I did when I caused the fire alarm to sound. But that did not stop my principal from intervening. He was my shepherd. He saved me!

Today, many principals have abdicated their disciplinary role to SROs. Ironically, this transfer has placed SROs in a unique position to improve school safety, solve crimes in the community, and improve graduation rates. It takes a good shepherd to keep kids safe. A good shepherd can distinguish the wandering sheep from the wolves. When this occurs, everyone benefits. Officer Gardner has saved many kids from dropping out of school under his shepherding eye.

Sadly, the failure to be a good shepherd harms kids. It makes them worse. When that happens, it harms us. It is a vicious cycle. It needs to be broken.

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The Hon. Steven Teske has been a judge at the Clayton County Juvenile Court for more than 10 years. He represents Georgia on the Federal Advisory Committee on Juvenile Justice. Judge Teske also chairs the Board of the Governor’s Office for Children and Families, and serves on the Judicial Advisory Council to the Board of the State Department of Juvenile Justice.  He's a leader in the Annie E. Casey Foundation Detention Reform Initiative and a nationally recognized speaker on juvenile justice issues.

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