Second in a series. You can find the first here.
I’d like to share the opening of a recent Washington Post article with you:
SPRING, TEX. — In a small courtroom north of Houston, a fourth-grader walked up to the bench with his mother. Too short to see the judge, he stood on a stool. He was dressed in a polo shirt and dark slacks on a sweltering summer morning.
“Guilty,” the boy’s mother heard him say.
He had been part of a scuffle on a school bus.
I had to think about this for a second. Do you know how old fourth graders are? They are 9 or 10 years old. Reading this, my thoughts immediately went to a young teenager, but a teenager none the less. But a 9 year old? Wow.
Does anyone think this is ok?
Ok this is an emotional reaction to a emotion-provoking piece of writing. So I’ll try to step back a bit. I’ve recently read a few articles on the so-called “criminalization” of student discipline. I’ve written once before on “zero-tolerance” from my own perspective.
Zero tolerance doesn’t seem to be working. School districts are considering dropping zero tolerance policies. There is evidence of racial tolerance (which seems to imply that zero isn’t really always zero, anyway). It raises drop-out rates. In fact, one of the leading punishments for truancy is … wait for it … suspension. So, what do we do about it?
Jan Day pointed me to an article about Judge Steve Teske and his efforts to keep kids with minor discipline issues out of court. I highly recommend you take some time to read the article and click on some of the links. One of the interesting quotes, to me, is Teske’s recall of his own naughtiness during school:
Teske recalls pulling a prank at age 13 that set off his school’s fire alarm. He recalls the mass havoc that ensued. The threat of arrest. The terror he felt.
His principal prevailed in insisting the school system would mete out the punishment. “Would I even be a judge today had I gone to jail that day?” he asks.
He says he was inspired by the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative. In his district, he brought together parents, teachers, police, social-services and students to discuss better ways of doing things. In the end, his approach is not easier. It takes time and is not a cookie-cutter implementation – there is a lot of gray.
Now student incidents are managed in school more – referrals to juvenile court fell more than 70% over 7 years. Weapons incidents have dropped. Tips on serious offenses improved, as did relations between students and police.
And graduation rates are up 20% in that same timeframe. Other school districts are starting to take notice.
Teske shares an interesting metaphor in his blog.
Officer Robert Gardner, a veteran school police officer with Clayton County describes his student population using a lamb, sheep, and wolf allegory. Most of the student population is made up of sheep. They make noise, get into some trouble, but nothing major. They just make you mad from time to time.
The lambs are the nerds — always quiet and under the radar. They make up about 25 percent, at most, of the population.
The wolves — they are the dangerous students who come to school to wreak havoc and prey on others. They also make up no more than 2 percent of the population.
Gardner says his job is to focus on the wolves — the predators — the 2 percent. He says he can’t do it if he is arresting sheep.
But, let’s set aside stories of students referred to court for soda-pop possession, what about those kids who are clearly trouble – the “wolves?” Don’t we need to get them out of the classroom so we can focus on the kids who are there to learn? And what responsibility do we have to try and turn around those kids who do make trouble. Do we just give up?
A friend of mine shared a People Magazine article* about a judge in St. Louis making a difference in some of those wolves’ lives.
Here’s a little something about one of the students offered a chance at Edwards’ school:
In the fall of 2010, [16 year old] Jakayla Ivory stabbed a classmate in the neck with an ice pick during a fight.
Wow. That raises a different kind of emotion, right? This student had been kicked out of four schools since the seventh grade for various disciplinary problems. Now this violent encounter not only landed her in jail, but all but guaranteed her to be kicked out of school altogether, with all statistics about dropouts in front of her. But she was offered a life line.
Judge Jimmie Edwards started the Innovative Concept Academy in 2007 – an experimental school designed as a last resort for troubled and violent kids. The school takes the most desperate cases out of the justice system and gives them one last chance to change. Edwards, who sentenced hundreds of people to prison before moving to juvenile court, says “I knew I could do better than just taking away someone’s liberty.”
Beyond academics, close supervision and a strong, clear disciplinary approach, the school keeps students busy with after school problems and exposes them to new activities like golf, fashion, chess, and dancing.
These are students with difficult home lives and, often, quick tempers. But the students feel the change – Jakayla, above, raised her grades from F’s to B’s and C’s. She returned to public school, where is she now doing well. Other students have had similar turn-arounds. The article indicates that it’s too early to tell if the approach is working. But of 700 students enrolled since the start, only four have returned to the criminal justice system. That sounds like working to me.
We all are concerned about crime, the cost of keeping people in jail, how to prevent crime in our cities and communities. But we also think “We can’t save everyone! Some kids are just bad!” But perhaps Judge Edwards’ effort is well worth the time and energy. Maybe it would truly benefit all of us to think about how to help the toughest cases.
What do you think?
*I wish I could refer you to the article, but I can’t seem to find an online copy. However, if you also want to hear about Jackie O’s private life, check out this podcast of the magazine – the article starts just before the halfway point on the podcast. The article is in the October 10, 2011 issue of People Magazine and was written by Jeff Truesdell and Alex Tresniowksi.