Do you remember Joe Clark? The principal portrayed by Morgan Freeman in the movie “Lean on Me”? One could say he was the personification of zero tolerance when it came to principals. During his first year he kicked out more than 300 students in one day for being tardy or absent, and as he put it, for being “disruptive.” He would remove hundreds more over the next five years.
Ronaldi Rollins’ view from his corner office on the third floor is typical of metro Atlanta. A parking lot, some two-story apartment building, all nestled in the middle of a bunch of pine trees. Welcome to Jonesboro, Ga., command central for one juvenile probation officer in charge of 20 struggling teens. To pay a visit to Rollins, a kid has to make it past two levels of security. First, the metal detector and officer at the front door.
Within a year, what is now a mound of red Georgia clay will be home to the new Clayton County Youth Development & Justice Center. County leaders officially broke ground Thursday on the 65,000 square foot facility that bears a $15 million dollar price tag. It’s set to be completed within 12 months. The facility, south of Atlanta, which will be built adjacent to the existing Harold R. Banke Justice Center on Tara Boulevard in Jonesboro, will house Clayton County Juvenile and community resource organizations. “Every other metropolitan county [in Georgia] has gotten another juvenile justice center: DeKalb, Cobb, Fulton, Gwinnett, Douglas and now it’s Clayton County’s turn,” says Clayton’s Chief Judge of the Juvenile Court Van Banke, who is set to retire in two weeks.
Who knew that an innovative initiative that is showing dramatic success in decreasing the number of children incarcerated in Clayton County was actually sparked by a “failure” in the system. So goes the story of how Juvenile Court Judge Steven Teske was inspired to create the Finding Alternatives for Safety and Treatment (FAST) panel, a program that statistics show is having a major impact in the county.
Teske says the case of a young man now serving a life sentence for murder actually prompted the idea for to him to start the program. “The system had failed him on so many levels; by the time he’d gotten to the seventh grade he was reading on a first grade level and no one had ever intervened,” recalls Teske, of the teen who, after years of run-ins with the law, ultimately gunned down a security guard during a botched robbery. Several studies have linked lack of education to criminal behavior. Teske firmly believes that if school leaders and social service agencies had intervened earlier, he would have evaded the very gang life that ended up taking away his life and that of an innocent man.
Local child advocates are reacting favorably to United States Attorney General Eric Holder’s recent comments about the dire need for major juvenile justice system reform. In remarks to the National Association of Counties Legislative Conference, Holder called for the Department of Justice to adopt a new approach that combines evidence-based research and comprehensive community partnerships. Holder also said that it’s time for us to ask some important questions such as; why is it that African-American youth make up 16 percent of the overall youth population, but comprise more than half of the juvenile population arrested for committing a violent crime? Why is it that abused and neglected children are 11 times more likely than their non-abused and non-neglected peers to be arrested for criminal behavior? And why is that so many of those who enter our juvenile justice system either can’t afford – or do not know to ask for – access to legal guidance?
It was 1999, I was recently appointed to the juvenile bench, and we had a new presiding judge. A meeting was called to discuss the direction of the court. Among several issues, we were concerned about the number of complaints filed by School Resource Officers (SRO) and decided to meet with the Chief of Police to discuss other alternatives to filing complaints. We were prepared for the meeting. We had data reflecting an increase in referrals by over 1,000 percent since the inception of the SRO program in the mid nineties. The data was broken down by offenses and most were misdemeanors primarily involving school fights, disorderly conduct, and disrupting public school.
I met him after only a few weeks on the bench. His name was Johnny and he was thirteen. He had been detained for disorderly conduct and disruption of school charges. He mouthed off at a teacher using what we call in the legal arena “abusive, profane, and opprobrious” words. In other words, he said “F— you.”
Johnny was of average stature for his age. He didn’t smile, but then again who does while shackled sitting in a courtroom? I was new at this and still trying to get a grasp on this judging thing.
Looking back 40 years and recalling the blood flowing profusely from my mouth, I now understand why my Mom frowned every time I asked her for a Daisy BB gun. I often think of this moment, and several others in my childhood, when sitting on the bench or deciding diversion and informal adjustment policies for the court. I look back and I am convinced that adolescents are wired to do stupid things, and I did plenty of stupid things as a teenager – but I was never arrested or referred to juvenile court. Why is it that most of the cases referred to my court are kids who make us mad, the kids who were never arrested or referred in my day, and not the kids who scare us? I was ten years old and I was relentless about a BB gun.
A young boy is ripped from his family. As he is placed in the back of a stranger’s car, he looks out the back window and sees his mom crying and his dad in the back of a police car. He doesn’t understand. He is scared. He can’t stop crying.
A young teenager is running the streets and getting into trouble. He is stealing and getting into fights to survive. He knows he is ready to kill if he has to. A young man was neglected and sexually abused as a child. He sees no purpose in life. Death, at times, seems more inviting than life.