I was appalled when I read a recent article in the Macon (Ga.) Telegraph titled “Report blasts Bibb County School System’s Handling of Student Discipline.” The story was in response to a report published by Safe Havens International that, in part, criticizes the recent agreement between the juvenile court, police and the local school system to reduce the referral of certain misdemeanor offenses to the juvenile court and focus more on meaningful intervention that is long lasting according to the research. The Safe Havens report recommends that the school system withdraw from the agreement. What’s playing out in south Georgia now has no doubt happened in many communities across the country where a group — at best acting out of ignorance or at worse out of self-interest — tries to wreck good public policy that is designed to help kids and society. But let’s take a closer look at who is behind this report.
Regular JJIE contributor Judge Steve Teske was recently featured in The Washington Post for his crusade to end the school-to-prison-pipeline. The Post examines how Teske’s work to reduce schools’ referrals to juvenile court has gained a national audience.
Teske says zero tolerance policies have resulted in too many kids entering the juvenile justice system. In Teske’s opinion, “zero tolerance often means overpunishment for low-level misdeeds,” according to The Post. Because of that, he helped bring reforms to his home community of Clayton County, Ga., where Teske is chief juvenile judge. Since implementing the changes, juvenile crime has dropped, recidivism is down and graduation rates are up.
Teske, the story says, remains tough on crimes involving guns and drugs.
“The cases we have in court now are the burglars, the robbers — the kids who scare you, not the kids who make you mad,” Teske told The Post.
As Teske travels the country speaking about the need for reform, the success of Clayton County, The Post notes, is now inspiring communities in Connecticut, Indiana and Kansas, among others, to implement similar reforms.
And Teske is quick to point out his own teenage lapse in judgment, a school prank that today would have landed him in juvenile court. At 13, he pulled his school’s fire alarm but his principal insisted the school handle Teske’s punishment.
“Would I even be a judge today had I gone to jail that day?” he asked in The Post.
I was in my car recently listening to news radio when I heard that one of our deputies was killed trying to apprehend an armed robbery suspect. I was shocked and pained — I knew the deputy. What followed magnified my pain. It quickly morphed to anger — the suspect was Jonathon Bun, a 17 year old with juvenile court history in my county. In this business we must ask ourselves: “Could we have done anything different to prevent this tragedy?” I understand Mr. Bun is innocent until proven guilty, but solely for the purpose of self-assessment, there is much we can learn from Mr. Bun and his journey through the juvenile justice system that may improve the way we do business — that could reduce the number of victims-and maybe save lives. We know from the research that 8 percent of all kids arrested for the first time are serious high-risk offenders. We call them the “8 Percent Problem.” This small percentage of juveniles are arrested repeatedly (a minimum of four times within a 3-year period) and are responsible for about 55 percent of repeat cases. In other words, most of the serious juvenile crimes are committed by a handful of kids in our communities. If we can target that 8 percent, we can significantly reduce serious juvenile crime. We call that the “8 Percent Solution.”
We have also learned from the research that this “8 Percent Problem” population possesses identifiable characteristics.
The Second of a Three-Part Series by the Judge on the Subject of Trying Juveniles as Adults. I took the bench and asked if the parties were ready to proceed. “Yes, your Honor,” they all announced in unison. I looked up and saw a young man, 16 years old, trying hard to hold back his tears. His parents sitting to his left, his attorney to his right — his hands quivering.
A room full of lawyers got a strong message from Dr. Phil McGraw, TV’s family therapist. There is “no safe place for kids anymore,” Dr. Phil told a panel on bullying at the American Bar Association’s Midyear Meeting. “Kids can’t go to their room to get away from [bullying],” he said in the videotaped address on Friday. “Bullies can still get to them through Facebook and the Internet.”
Dr. Phil said the victims of bullying need help. “We need all hands on deck,” he said. “This needs to be addressed and this needs to be addressed now.”
Other panelists echoed the call to action. Richard Katskee of the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, called bullying a “systemic problem that requires a systemic response.”
“Punishing a bully is not enough,” he said. “They need therapy to help end the behavior.”
“This is a time when we can make progress and institutionalize change,” said Michael Lieberman, Washington Counsel for the Anti-Defamation league. Watch this anti-bullying PSA produced by the ABA that was featured at the conference:
The ABA’s Commission on Youth at Risk is seizing the momentum. They won support for a resolution to the House of Delegates that urges state and federal officials to take action in eliminating bullying. Dr. Phil called the resolution “top notch.” Key points of the resolution include:
Discourages inappropriate referral of youth to juvenile court
Labels expulsion and out-of-school suspension “inappropriate” punishments
Urges officials to prevent the causes of bullying
The resolution also calls for the identification of victims of bullying, a departure from current zero-tolerance policies in schools that do not distinguish between the bully and the victim. Clayton County Juvenile Court Judge Steven Teske advocates reversing these policies. “Zero tolerance policies are contrary to our fundamental right to self-defense,” Judge Teske writes in an op-ed on JJIE.org
In a panel discussion titled Bringing Youth Justice to Georgia, Judge Teske called for a reduction in school referrals to juvenile courts.
We moved to Clayton County, GA in 1974. I was 14 years old. I had lived in nine different cities from California to New York, and back to our southern roots when my father was transferred to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta. My childhood took me many places. I met a lot of kids of all physical, emotional, spiritual, and social shapes and sizes. Benjamin Disraeli once said that “Travel teaches toleration.” In hindsight I must agree with the former British Prime Minister. My travels have introduced me to different religious beliefs, political and social thoughts, and people of all colors and cultural backgrounds. My childhood friends were white, black, red, yellow, and brown. They were Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu, Islamic, Christian of all denominations, atheist, and agnostic. They came from families of varying political persuasions from conservative to liberal, from Republican to Democrat to Independent, and with economic tastes from capitalism to socialism in varying degrees.
My many childhood friends from coast to coast in a thirteen year time span expanded my understanding of diversity and taught me to be tolerant of those with different cultures and beliefs. However, toleration, I have learned, is a double edge sword. In the words of Edmund Burke, “Toleration is good for all, or it is good for none.” The determinative question when the tolerant sword is cutting is “Which side of the sword is doing the cutting?” Is it the cutting edge that promotes the acceptance of people regardless of their differing beliefs or the edge that promotes the acquiescence of conduct hurtful toward others? The former is good for al l, the latter is good for none. This concept of toleration raises an interesting paradox when applied to the arrest of kids on school campuses. I think we can all agree that there should be no toleration of student disruption of any kind. I helped to raise three children. They are now adults and doing quite well. All my kids attended public schools.
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.