Before I was a Houston-area karaoke legend, I was a fourth grader who consistently received progress reports with something similar to the following:
Very bright student, but lacks focus sometimes. Is more interested in singing in class than listening.I still sing. In the car, in the shower, and when things get unbearable in the third year of law school, in class. It's just that no one's there to write those progress reports anymore. My school room indiscretions weren't limited to testing the building's acoustics, either. With my friends, we disrupted class regularly. In Spanish, we made Senora Lockyer's life some variant of hell by answering legitimate questions with nonsensical answers like "Muy tengo." I was fond, for either lack of creativity or lack of linguistic knowledge, of responding to her inquiries with the bold claim that I did, in fact, have blue shoes.
On other occasions, we would fight. We'd bully each other in the locker room, and some kids got it worse than others. Just about everyone had their turn, though, and the sharp end of a wet towel eluded no man. In tenth grade, one kid mooned a car out of the back of the tennis bus. And on our junior year state championship golf trip, we stupidly pelted a home with eggs. At night, on occasion, we would turn up at school to spend time alone on the football field.
All of us have been juveniles at one point or another, and if we are honest with ourselves, we can think of head-scratching moments from those years. But if you are like me, your indiscretions were dealt with in detention, suspension, or maybe a good parent-teacher conference. You grew up, and the stupid things you did as a 12-year old only follow you if you're stupid enough to diary about them on this or another site.
For many of today's elementary and high school kids, though, things are changing. They're no longer afforded the room to grow. Instead, we are more and more treating in-school misbehavior as a criminal issue. Children are either ticketed or arrested for mistakes that have no business being adjudicated in the courts.
Or the Texas couple, so enraged by the throws of a high-school relationship gone bad that they became the lactose lovers, tossing milk on one another. For that crime, they were hauled off to jail.
Or any number of bored doodlers, who are being hauled in under gang-intended graffiti statutes for transcribing such dangerous messages as:
"I love my friends Abby and Faith. Lex was here 2/1/2010."There's no word at this point whether police took Lex's directive as a written confession. These stories might be humorous if they didn't end with children herded through the court system, their identities shaken. And the stories here are just highlights. A simple Internet search will uncover dozens of other cases that might just cause pause.
There are bigger issues at play here. Our inability to deal appropriately with our kids is not only a symptom of a broken justice system; it's also a contributing cause.
When the gun debate picked up fire last month, one of the most popular proposals centered on putting more police officers in school. Those officers would presumably be in a school to play the role of movie-like defender in the rare instance that some deranged gunman targets kids. But what does that officer do on those days when his job as a sentry doesn't turn up a killer?
In most schools, he's deployed as a de-facto enforcer. Without specific training on dealing with juveniles, he's left to employ the only kind of justice he knows - putting people in handcuffs for causing trouble. The consequence of placing more police officers in schools is that those officers are put to use. They're called in to deal with situations that might have been better left to the athletic director, the vice principal, or even the teacher. Studies have shown a positive correlation between police officer presence and arrest numbers in schools. Simply put - when put there, police officers are going to do what police officers do.
Literally thousands of students are arrested in our high schools and elementary schools each year. In places like Texas, it's much more likely that these kids will receive tickets. Texas treats many things - including traffic tickets - as class C misdemeanors. These are non-arrestable offenses still handled by the criminal courts. Since they carry no possibility of jail time, people accused of these crimes do not receive court-appointed counsel, nor do they receive the sort of due process that follows a normal criminal proceeding.
For poor families, tickets can carry many additional expenses. First comes the cost of the ticket, which can be as much as $500. In addition, the parent will have to take time off of work to make a cumbersome trip to a local court. Because the matter's processed in the criminal system, all of the usual risks apply for students. If they're late for court or they happen to miss a court date, they can be arrested on bench warrants. Likewise, these courts do not offer the anonymity protections afforded to students in juvenile courts. Where records are sealed in juvenile courts, they become a part of the public record in misdemeanor court. It's an ugly practice that has the potential to scar a student's record permanently over something that might have been better dealt with at the school level.
It's difficult to discuss criminal justice matters without touching on race, and this issue is no different. Would it surprise you to learn that minorities are ticketed and arrested at higher rates than their white counterparts? The Washington Post reported on this issue:
Overall, the data showed that 96,000 students were arrested and 242,000 were “referred” to law enforcement by school leaders, meaning the students were not necessarily arrested or cited.That's right - nearly 100,000 children arrested, right in their school. And non-white kids seem to miss out on the benefit of the doubt that a white student might get for throwing his or her airplane in class.
In a more focused analysis of school systems with more than 50,000 students enrolled, the data showed that African American students represented 24 percent of enrollment but 35 percent of arrests. White students accounted for 31 percent of enrollment and 21 percent of arrests. For Hispanic students, there was less of a disparity in arrests. They accounted for 34 percent of enrollment and 37 percent of arrests.
But the real question has to do with the consequences of these policies. Just what sort of society are we creating? Juvenile justice advocate Bryan Stevenson has spoken and written at length about the life-altering effect of identity. His point is well-measured and well-taken: when you tell and show a kid over and over that he's supposed to be something or another, he'll end up being that something.
When I was 17, I received a pre-season football honor. It was somewhat unexpected, but set the stage for what was a good season on my part. After the first game of that season, when I'd made a big play late in a win, one of my teammates' dads approached me. He said something that's stuck with me, and it's applicable here:
"If you give a dog a good name, he'll answer to it."This is also true for our juvenile offenders. When we call them criminals, expose them to the system, and administer harsh punishments for mundane acts, we transform them into something that no one wants to see. Even in places like Georgia, they can recognize the cause and effect that occurs when you make a wider criminal net your juvenile policy:
"We know from the research that if you arrest a kid on campus, he’s twice as likely not to graduate," Clayton County Juvenile Court Judge Steven Teske said. "If they appear in court, they’re four times as likely not to graduate."There's certainly something to the idea that kids less likely to graduate in the first place will be more likely to commit offenses, so the arrest itself may not be the tipping point for all kids. But it'd be unwise to ignore the flip side of that correlation, where shipping a child into the juvenile justice system produces as many problems as it solves.
A Princeton study supports the idea that interaction with the juvenile justice system is linked to negative education outcomes, even when other relevant factors are controlled for. That study notes some of the important practical concerns for students in the pipeline. Their court settings cause them to miss school and fall behind on assignments. They can experience some form of social anxiety and mistreatment from their peers. The factors are many, even without considering the psychological effect on a child.
It doesn't take a brain scientist to know that education is correlated to economic outcomes, with high school dropouts making up a large portion of the poverty-level citizenry. In essence, our willingness and desire to deploy police officers to situations where very little harm is caused will contribute to poverty. It will contribute to the sort of disenfranchisement that leads to real, adult crime. When kids are stripped of opportunity, told they're criminals, and ushered out of the mainstream, their limited options often foretells a future of criminal activity.
We have ourselves to blame for this problem. Our laziness and apathy has manifested itself in a juvenile justice apparatus that is anything but prepared to administer justice. It's out of sight, out of mind, and many don't care. While in our schools, 12-year olds are getting their first taste of the criminal life by throwing well-aimed airplanes.