OP-ED: Contrarians Needed to End Juvenile Justice Status Quo

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Teske-10-771x578crop2Any large scale social problem cannot be solved solely by government action. On the contrary, government solutions are no solutions.

Don’t confuse my bluntness with those anti-government demagogic rants spewed by militia groups — to the contrary. I am a contrarian when it comes to governments thinking they’re the sole proprietors to solving our social problems.

Those of us on the front lines of juvenile justice are increasingly aware of programs that work to reduce recidivism. For some among us, expanding our knowledge about what works and what doesn’t invites us to be more inquisitive about what more can be done.

Just as the Hubble Telescope confirmed the universe is expanding, so too our exploration of the “What Works” universe confirms that we are touching the tip of the iceberg — there is more to our juvenile justice universe than what meets the eye. The more we advance, the more we are driven to want more to be better than before.

Doing better is not limited to what works, but where it should work. It doesn’t make sense that we limit some of these effective interventions to a reactive system, a system that waits for kids to become delinquent.

A system that targets delinquency prevention starts with identifying those most vulnerable to become delinquent.

We know that kids raised in poverty, no matter their race or ethnicity, have lower test scores and drop out of school at a higher rate than their more affluent peers. We know that youth who drop out of school are at greater risk of committing delinquent acts. We know there are a disproportionate number of kids of color living in poverty. Who is disproportionately represented in poverty will be disproportionately represented in juvenile justice.

We have made progress by developing restorative justice practices to divert kids away from the courtroom and objective admission instruments to reduce the number of kids detained, but it doesn’t cessate the number referred to the court in the first place.

We have become adept at diverting minor offenses at the front door, but the sidewalk leading to the house needs a gate.

Once a kid is arrested on campus, research informs us that he or she is twice as likely to drop out of school. Our judicial system is reactive, we wait for kids to be brought to us already damaged. The same is true for school systems — kids in poverty enter kindergarten years behind their more affluent peers.

With what we know about the effects of poverty on school outcomes and delinquent conduct, it begs the question why communities are not targeting people of poverty with interventions that would improve graduation rates and in turn reduce delinquent behaviors?

Its difficult to solve the problem if one doesn’t understand the problem. Effective problem-solvers understand that the solution is in the problem, or stated another way, the problem is the solution.

Systematic Inventive Thinking teaches us to break down the problem into a chain of unwanted effects, and then consider each element in the problem or its environment. This sets the stage to ask how an element can be adapted to prevent an unwanted effect and break the chain.

We already know poverty’s chain of unwanted effects: low graduation rates that drive crime rates. How goes graduation, so goes crime.

If the problem informs us, then the question is how do we adapt our system to respond differently to poor families in ways that will improve educational success?

Dismantling ineffective zero tolerance policies is a good start, but its not enough. These policies didn’t create the school-to-prison pipeline, they merely exacerbated the pre-existing conditions of trauma associated to poverty: homelessness, domestic violence, crime, food insecurity, family breakdown and so forth. It does not matter how excellent the educational program if the student carries toxic baggage that diminishes his or her responsiveness to what is taught, especially if trauma is at the root of disruptive behavior.

Problems that come from the outside can’t be solved from the inside. These kids require interventions that take place in the home involving parents and by those trained in trauma. Schools do not have the capacity to address these serious needs, nor should they. This systemic problem demands a systemic solution — an independent backbone agency that serves as a bridge between the schools and those who can treat these needs.

Not a government entity nor private, but one that braids the two — a collection of public and private leaders making collective decisions that collectively impact schools.

This collective impact model has been employed in Kalamazoo, Cincinnati, and other cities resulting in substantial increases in graduation rates.

What the government can’t achieve alone, the collective can — but it it will take contrarians to the status quo.

2 thoughts on “OP-ED: Contrarians Needed to End Juvenile Justice Status Quo

  1. Chris

    Go to strivetogether.org. It will give you information about Kalamazoo and Cincinnati and the collective impact approach in more detail. I would also suggest googling “Stanford Review” and “collective impact” Stanford Review has some good scholarly articles on collective impact with data. I hope this is helpful.


  2. I am interested in finding out more about the programs you refer to in Kalamazoo and Cincinnati. Could you provide a link to their websites or the names of the programs?