Judge Steven Teske

You Don’t Have to Be a Judge to Champion Change for Kids


Judge Steven TeskeThe art of leadership, some say, is not in finding followers, but in creating more leaders.

Something I wish I had thought about when I first developed the school-justice partnership.

I was only four years into judging, and probably still suffering from “robeitis” — a disease unique to judges who let the robe they wear go to their head. Symptoms may include inflated opinions of one’s self, expressions of invulnerability and bouts of singing Carly Simon’s “Nobody Does It Better.”

Maybe this disease contributed to my biased attitude that only judges can be champion conveners to initiate local school-justice reform. I would later realize — while doing replication work around the country (which would bring me into contact with some unique leaders in education and law enforcement) — that my opinion of the judicial role was inflated.

There is no doubt that judges possess the best vantage point to champion change for kids. You are sitting as a traffic cop in a courtroom that is the intersection of juvenile justice and its multiple stakeholders. However, too many judges say they won’t or can’t be that champion.

A collaborative model that requires a champion to convene others to begin change is most effective when “champion” is broadly defined. It should accommodate any stakeholder leader willing to exert their influence to convene other stakeholder leaders.

This is especially true in a system like juvenile justice that requires multiple parts, including mental health, social services, schools, law enforcement and the courts, to work in tandem if juvenile delinquency is to be significantly reduced. A community will never realize its true potential to improve public safety unless a leader somewhere in this system convenes others to start talking to integrate a fractured system so it can accommodate best practices.

A juvenile justice system without a champion is like a ship without a sail drifting aimlessly, its passengers hoping for land like a community wishing for fewer crimes. Without that champion to convene the different parts, the system will remain fractured. Its parts will work independently and never realize their common goal because a champion to lead them to do something uncommon is missing.

The art of reducing recidivism requires integrating a system of multiple parts, each acting as independent variables influencing the dependent variable (recidivism). As multiple regression analysis shows, the trick is to identify all the independent variables influencing a reduction in recidivism, then to create a system that best allows the variables to mesh at the right moment with the right kid to increase the effectiveness of treatment.

[Related: Convicted on Drug Charges, Georgia Youth Faces Life After Rehab]

We know that family dysfunction, lack of school-connectedness, antisocial peers, substance abuse, cognition (attitudes, values and beliefs) and weak problem-solving skills are risk factors for delinquency. We also know that the services provided to minimize these risk factors fall within different parts of the system — a system with parts that do not lend themselves to working together, and oftentimes working against each other.

The school-justice partnership model devised in 2003 requires a local champion to encourage the system parts to calibrate themselves to work simultaneously. The goal is to increase graduation rates by reducing suspensions, expulsions and arrests and treating chronically disruptive kids with modalities that target the cause of the behavior.

As goes graduation, so goes crime. The more kids we graduate, the fewer adults committing crimes — a principle that can resonate with law enforcement.

And these statistics have begun to move as we begin to see law enforcement leaders filling the void created by those who can’t or won’t act to convene.

I was first introduced to Kevin Bethel, deputy commissioner of the Philadelphia Police Department, several years ago at a meeting of multidisciplinary stakeholders by the MacArthur Foundation in Chicago meant to develop insight into the problem of zero tolerance and solutions. He would return to Philadelphia inspired by what some informally refer to as the “Clayton Model” and others the “Teske Model” and convene stakeholders to create a program that diverts students from arrest on minor offenses to avoid a criminal record.

Bethel’s champion role led to a partnership that diverts students to programs sponsored by the Philadelphia Department of Human Services and supported by the District Attorney, Public Defender and the Juvenile Court. The diversion program began in May 2014. It has shown success, with student arrests dropping 54 percent in its first year with 1,000 fewer behavior incidents in the schools. These are outcomes that explain why researchers have declared the Teske Model “an ideal solution to reducing suspension and expulsion (and arrests).”

Bethel may give me credit for inspiring him to do something, but his deviation from my model’s emphasis on judicial leadership inspired me to expand the definition of a champion to include any stakeholder leader inspired to convene others.

Bethel’s academic understanding of zero tolerance and practical application of collaborative solutions recently earned him the honor of being named a Diana A. Millner Youth Justice Fellow by the Stoneleigh Foundation at Drexel University, where he will spend the next three years addressing Philadelphia’s school-to-prison pipeline. Through the university’s Juvenile Justice Research and Reform Lab, he will be seeking to “expand the diversionary program beyond students and include other youths who are first-time offenders for small crimes, like theft.”

Bethel exemplifies the art of leadership by his dedication to a model that creates more leaders.

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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Judge Steven Teske

Steven Teske is the chief presiding judge of the Juvenile Court of Clayton County, Georgia, and also sits as a designated judge of the Superior Court in adult civil and criminal matters. He has been appointed by the governor to the Judicial Advisory Council for the Department of Juvenile Justice, the Juvenile Justice State Advisory Group, Commission on Criminal Justice Reform and the JDAI Statewide Steering Council, which he serves as its chair. He is ex-president of the Georgia Council of Juvenile Court Judges and served two terms on the Federal Advisory Committee for Juvenile Justice. He is former member of the Board of Directors of the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges and chaired its School Pathways Committee. He is the national chair of the Coalition for Juvenile Justice and has testified before Congress numerous times on juvenile justice reform.