Schools, Like Courts, Turning Away From Sledgehammer Responses

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Judge Steven Teske

StevenTeske-editHow many sledgehammers does it take to kill a fly?

A silly question, but analogous to the way we treat kids.

If you can’t kill a fly with one sledgehammer, more will make it worse. The flailing of sledgehammers in close proximity will bring calamity — and not to the fly.

The silliness highlights our approach to school discipline — we fling sledgehammers in the form of zero tolerance. We use suspensions, expulsions and arrests to rid our schools of disruptive students like they’re flies, but instead we hit everything around the problem, not the problem.

A growing number of judges divert these students from the courtroom to avoid the unintended consequences shown in a 2006 study that students arrested at their high school are twice as likely to drop out of school and four times as likely if they appear in court.

Among these judges are those who are active in their community off the bench, in ways that enhance their due process role on the bench.

They’re the ones who scratch their heads and ask out loud, “When did making adults mad become a crime?”

They’re the ones who understand that as goes graduation, so goes crime. They’re the ones helping to create school-justice partnerships to replace the sledgehammer with tools that are proven more effective — practices grounded in the medical research of the teenage brain.

hub_arrow_2-01To understand the teenage brain is to understand that what works for adults doesn’t work for teenagers. The teenage brain is the oxymoron in science — one part is mature and one is immature.

Our emotional life is primarily housed in the limbic system. At puberty it becomes hormonally fueled, resulting in risky behaviors that proves too much for the immature prefrontal cortex designed to manage our emotions.

According to Dr. Jay Giedd of the National Institute of Mental Health, the teenage brain is a “mismatch in timing.” The limbic system is fully charged to take on the world, but its prefrontal caretaker hasn’t grown up enough to hold its hand.

My controversial description of the adolescent years as the “Age of Stupidity” is controversial only to the extent that it’s taken literally. In the world of adolescence, doing stupid isn’t being stupid.

I look back at my teenage years and can say, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” But for too many of my friends, their teenage years ruined their adulthood.

Our teenage years are the most energetic, creative and healthiest of our lives, thanks to the hormone-infused limbic system. But the mismatch in timing also brings a 200 to 300 percent higher rate for death related to stupid decisions involving risky behaviors.

The teenage brain is under neurological construction and is easily adaptive to the surrounding circumstances. This plasticity of the teenage brain is the reason why Georgia and other states have enacted sweeping reforms that replaces incarceration with positive alternatives.

Just as courts are turning away from incarceration, school districts are turning away from suspensions and expulsions. The principles of positive engagement that underlie best practices in juvenile justice are also true for education.

In Georgia, for example, Dr. Garry McGiboney of the state Department of Education advocates for Positive Behavioral Intervention and Supports (PBIS) — an evidence-based program that improves school climate, which in turn improves attendance and decreases disruptive behavior.

PBIS seems counterintuitive because we have become entrenched in zero tolerance, but in reality it mirrors the characteristics of good parenting skills.

Who would ever think that judges and educators should mimic good parenting skills in their job?

Dr. McGiboney is kinder than me to those who are not so kind to kids. He attributes their flawed disciplinary decisions to fundamental attribution error — assigning the incorrect cause to the behavior.

Our tendency is to attribute defiance and disrespect to disruptive behavior as opposed to the student’s circumstances — peer pressure, neglect or abuse at home, bullying and more.

We react to what we see, not to what we don’t see. We may never know why the driver pulled out in front of us, but it doesn’t stop some of us from cursing and maybe flipping them the bird.

But what if the driver just received a call that her daughter was on the way to the hospital by ambulance?

Unlike the speeding driver, the student is still in our grasp. We can intervene by using the PBIS approach to determine why, so we can understand their what and help with how they can be better.

A 1 percent improvement in school climate was found to decrease discipline actions per student by 1.35 percent — a 10 percent improvement in school climate will reduce disciplinary actions by 13.5 percent.

If we fail to use what works, the plasticity of the teenage brain helps teenagers adapt to the circumstances we push them into — the streets, gangs and crime.

It’s bad enough teenagers must navigate a mismatched existence, the adults shouldn’t make it any worse.

If the prefrontal cortex can’t hold the limbic system’s hand, why can’t we?

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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