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U.S. Senate Subcommittee Hears Testimony on School-to-Prison Pipeline

Edward Ward, Youth Leader, Blocks Together
Edward Ward, Youth Leader, Blocks Together

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Twenty-year-old Edward Ward, a sophomore on the honor roll at DePaul University, tried to describe to U.S. Sens. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Al Franken (D-Minn.), the only senators left in the room by the time he spoke on Capitol Hill Wednesday, what it was like to grow up in his neighborhood on the west side of Chicago.

“When I was 18, I witnessed a complete stranger's killing mere feet from me in a neighborhood restaurant," Ward said before the Senate subcommittee. "I was stopped by the police a few years ago. I saw them train their guns on me until I could show them the item in my hand was only a cell phone.”

Things didn’t get much better at high school, Ward said. “My school environment was very tense. The halls were full of security officers whose sole purpose seemed to serve detention. I felt constantly on alert – afraid to make the smallest mistake. I felt I couldn't go to them for general security issues because first I would be interrogated.”

schoolppipe_seriesMore than 400 people crammed into hearing rooms in two separate U.S. Senate office buildings to hear lawmakers, educators, federal and court officials, and Ward testify about how punitive disciplinary measures at schools were funneling children into the criminal justice system, often for minor offenses like truancy or dress code violations, and at much higher rates if they were minorities.

This was the first-ever Congressional hearing on the subject, according to Dignity in Schools, a coalition of parents, educators and students advocating for the end of zero-tolerance policies in schools. Ward, who also works as a community organizer, is a member of the coalition.

Although many of his classmates wanted to succeed academically, they were hobbled by financial struggles at home and the responsibility of caring for siblings, Ward said. A classmate was suspended for being late to school, he said, even though she was tardy because she couldn’t leave her little brother alone at home until her parents returned from work.

There were lots of instances where his classmates were suspended or expelled for minor offenses that should have merited “a stern warning or a reminder,” Ward said. When they were suspended, they often disappeared for days -- weeks if they were kicked out of school, he said.

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Learn more about school discipline reform trends at the Juvenile Justice Resource Hub HERE.

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“We have a discipline crisis in this country that must be ended,” said Judith Browne Dianis, co-director of the civil rights group The Advancement Projectand another witness at the hearing.

Judith Browne Dianis, Co-Director, Advancement Project
Judith Browne Dianis, Co-Director, Advancement Project

“Police are arresting youth for things like talking back. That’s now ‘disorderly conduct.’ Writing on desks is now vandalism.”

At the same time, racial disproportionality in school discipline can be such that, within the same school district, a five-year-old African-American girl who set off a fire alarm was suspended for five days, while a white ninth-grader who committed the same offense was suspended for just one day, testified Deborah Delisle, the assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education at the U.S. Department of Education.

Held by the Senate Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights, the hearing drew so much public interest that it was shifted to a 260-seat room, the largest available, in the Hart Senate building.

Other witnesses at the hearing included U.S. Reps. Bobby Scott (D-Va.) and Danny Davis (D-Ill.); Melodee Hanes, the acting administrator of the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention; Mike DeWine, the attorney general for Ohio; and Judge Steven Teske, chief judge at the Clayton County juvenile court in Georgia. (Judge Teske is a frequent op-ed contributor to the JJIE.)

By the time the hearing was to start, the first room was full. A mass of young people, many wearing Dignity in Schools t-shirts, was still lined up in the hallway outside, waiting to get in. Capitol Hill staffers soon escorted them three floors up in an adjacent building to a 150-seat “overflow room” equipped with a live video feed.

But that room soon ran out of seats too.

OJJDP’s Hanes told the senators that millions of children were suspended or expelled every year for minor infractions like truancy, classroom disruption or dress code violations. Fifteen percent were suspended 11 or more times, she said, and those were the kids who were more likely minorities and who were likely to end up in the juvenile justice system.

“We have learned that the minute a child sets foot in the juvenile justice system, their chances of becoming an adult offender go up 50 percent,” Hanes said. “As soon as they enter the juvenile justice system, their chances of completing their education, of getting a job, their chances of life, diminish significantly.”

The costs to taxpayers are significant as well, Hanes pointed out: It cost $10,000 a year to educate a child, and $87,000 a year to lock a child up.

“Research has clearly indicated that children exposed to violence in the home or in school or in the community, those children suffer trauma. The evidence is conclusive that those children don’t do as well,” Hanes said.

Ward said his classmates' experience bore that out. “A lot of youth from where I come from, they face huge struggles, huge difficulties,” Ward said. “We have to take into account the situations students face outside school to understand their actions when they’re in school.”

Any discussions of solutions had to include young people themselves, several witnesses said. “We can’t arrest our way out of this issue,” Dianis of the Advancement Project said. “Young people have to be part of this conversation.”

Witnesses on the third panel listen as Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine testifies.
Witnesses on the third panel listen as Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine testifies.

Solutions included developing greater consensus among experts about best practices, greater collaboration on research and data between federal agencies and better guidance for school districts and states on practices that maintain students’ rights. Other solutions proposed were greater public education on the necessity for appropriate responses to delinquent behavior, more training for police officers in crisis intervention and greater awareness on the part of the public and law enforcement on how to handle those from diverse social, medical and economic backgrounds.

“We’re basically using our criminal justice system as a substitute for a public health system and an education system,” Franken said during the hearing. “This is a bipartisan issue. There is no question about that.”

Senate hearing photos courtesy of U.S. Senator Dick Durbin. Photo by Kaukab Jhumra Smith.

Clayton County Breaks Ground On New Juvenile Justice Center

Clayton County leaders break ground on the new Clayton County Youth Development & Justice Center.

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. "In this recession I felt that Clayton County didn't have the finances or the horsepower to build it, but the commissioner took charge with SPLOST (Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax) funds and got it done. I didn't think it would happen during my time and here we are breaking ground two weeks before I retire."

Judge Banke praised the county commissioners -- particularly chairman Eldrin Bell -- for pushing the project through. County voters passed a measure to fund the construction of the facility through a one-cent sales tax hike during a 2009 election.

Commissioner Bell with Eddie McGhee of the Clayton County Sheriff's Dept.

Juvenile Court Judge Deitra Burney-Butler says the facility’s construction is a testament to Clayton’s commitment to its young people.

“This means the world to Clayton County,” she says. “You put your money where your treasure is and this facility shows that in Clayton County we put our children first.”

County Commission Vice Chair Wole Ralph agrees.

“This demonstrates what we believe to be of seminal importance to our county,” he says. “We’ve got a youth development center that deals with the needs of the family and a [nearby] recreation center that deal with the needs of the children.  This speaks to what’s so great about Clayton County.”

The current Clayton County Juvenile Court facility is a converted parking garage built in the late 1970s, according to Judge Banke.

Juvenile Court Judge Steve Teske, who emceed the groundbreaking ceremony, calls the facility “a dream come true.”

Judge Teske poses with a rendering of the new facility.

“You just have to work hard and have faith,” he says.

Judge Teske says the vision for the new facility grew out of a 2001 strategic planning meeting attended by Judge Banke and then Juvenile Court Judge Tracy Graham Lawson, who now serves as district attorney.

Bell says he remembers it well.

“When they brought the idea to me, we had no idea where the money would come from,” recalls Bell. “I immediately joined them in saying it must be done. This project took universal cooperation for it to come together.”

Judge Teske says the building’s design speaks to the county’s “preventative” approach to juvenile justice. The first level of the four-story facility will house offices for community organizations, including the Court Appointed State Advocate (CASA) program, the FAST Panel and QUAD CST programs, along with other community resource organizations. The top two floors will feature the juvenile court and court offices, demonstrative of court being “a last resort.”

The facility is expected to be completed in 2012. The facility will also include a National Resource Center Youth Policy & Law Center, which will host delegations from the Annie E. Casey and MacArthur foundations. Monthly visitors will study a variety of juvenile court issues, including ways to restructure the courts and ways to reduce recidivism rates.

“Usually a facility like this is designed to support incarceration; this one is designed to address the issues faced by families,” notes Bell of the center, one attendee referred to as “an awesome building with an awesome purpose.” “This facility puts family and community first.”

CASA, JUSTGeorgia Lobby Lawmakers For Children

The state juvenile code rewrite and a bill proposing an end to the practice of overmedicating foster children topped the agenda Tuesday as advocates from  JUSTGeorgia and the Georgia Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) program gathered at the capitol for their annual lobby day.

More than 300 supporters from across the state turned out to meet with legislators about what they say are two top critical policy issues affecting children this session. “We’re all here trying to do right for the children of Georgia,” says Georgia CASA Executive Director Duaine Hathaway. “We are here to inspire Georgia legislators and get them to act on behalf of Georgia’s children.”

JUSTGeorgia Project Manager Julia Neighbors says the event is as an opportunity for the network of volunteers and supporters to reconnect with seasoned lawmakers, while raising awareness among the 45 new legislators who have taken office this year.

“This is also just a good opportunity for JUSTGeorgia to work with CASA,” she says. “Many of the JUSTGeorgia Coalition members are made up of CASA volunteers, so it made sense to partner for this event.”

State Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver’s (D-Decatur) HB 23, pushing for more oversight in the process in which Georgia’s foster children are prescribed potent psychotropic drugs was a hot topic during the day’s events. The bill has already been introduced and referred to committee for review.

Gov. Nathan Deal mingles with lobby day attendees.

“We need to have something in place to monitor how these drugs are being administered to children,” says State Rep. Glenn Baker, (D-Jonesboro). “We need to educate our foster parents more about these drugs, but we can’t place the blame on these folks. It’s my understanding is that there is only one druggist in the state that supplies these medications.”

Organizers also urged supporters to refer to Georgia’s current juvenile code rewrite, as the Children’s Code Rewrite. “When people hear juvenile, they tend to have a reaction that is not necessarily in our favor,” explains legislative consultant Wendi Clifton. “It’s not just about juvenile delinquency, the code is also about children who have been abused and neglected. We don’t want the juvenile side to relegate the deprivation side of this.”

Here’s what some other attendees had to say about why they went to Lobby Day:

Jacquinn Scales

Jacquinn Scales, Clark Atlanta University Student

“I am majoring in social work, so I came to familiarize myself with CASA and JUSTGeorgia. I am an advocate for foster kids and at-risk kids because I was one in the state of California. I just moved to Atlanta this summer to attend school. I know that these types of programs, like CASA,  provide that added support that court system doesn’t.”

Wendi Clifton

“This day at the capitol is about raising awareness to create a ground swell of support for children’s issues. In tight budget times, a lot of child advocacy program tend to get cut. Sure, we must balance our state budget, but we also have to support children’s issues too. Our goal is raise awareness and to educate the legislators on the issues that we care about. If we don’t address deprivation and abuse issues with our children, it  turns into an issue of delinquency. A lot of kids who’ve been deprived and abused end up committing crimes if there is no intervention. We all have a role and responsibility to get involved in legislation that affects our children.”

Doretha Ross, DeKalb County CASA
“The reason I came out today is because I want to support the thousands of kids in foster care in Georgia. I think they can reap great legislative benefits. I see a need for legislators to take a good look at what’s going on with children in our state. I’m a lobbyist for children. I believe CASA makes a difference. ”
Doretha Ross and Madelyn Brown

Madelyn Brown, DeKalb County CASA

“We are here to promote the rights and advocacy of children. We want to make our legislators more aware of the important issues. We are here as advocates who represent the children of DeKalb County. We are here speaking and lobbying on their behalf. We also want to raise awareness about the psychotropic drugs and juvenile code. We are especially concerned about the placement of kids when they get suspended from school. They need more counseling and intervention – not to get locked up.”

State Rep. Glenn Baker, (D-Jonesboro)

“We have four CASA classes a year in Clayton County.  And also Juvenile Court Judge [Steve] Teske is very hands on and involved with his juvenile justice work. That just solidifies our relationship between CASA and the juvenile justice system. I really don’t know how we did anything before the CASA program. We are 100 percent supportive of them and the work that they do. We need to do what it takes to address the important issues on behalf of Georgia’s children.”

Rep. Glenn Baker

Julia Neighbors,  Project Manager, JUST Georgia

”When you look at the children’s code there’s the child welfare side and the delinquency side. The reality is that these are the same kids. It is very important for us to come together on behalf of the kids who are overlooked and neglected. If an intervention on the abuse and deprivation side does not take place, that same child ends up on the delinquency side. We have many new legislators this session and we think it is really important for them to know about CASA. We see the opportunity for some great partnerships. It’s so wonderful for our elected officials to see all kinds of people coming together for the kids.  I think it sends a powerful message to our legislators.”

Julia Neighbors

Debbie Alexander, Director, Metro Regional Youth Detention Center (RYDC)

“I came out today because I am trying to find more ways to reach out to the community. We do a lot with the kids inside our facility, but now we are trying to do more with those who are on the outside. We are trying to make contacts so that we can give back to the juveniles in the community. I consider myself a servant leader. We want to do more for the children we serve and be advocates for youth. We are trying to find resources for these kids for when they do get out of our facility. We want to be able to let them know what’s available to them as far as support once they leave us.”

Debbie Alexander

Gerald Bostock, Child Welfare Services Coordinator, Clayton County Juvenile Court

“On a scale of one to ten I’d say CASA is a 2,000! They’re huge. In Clayton County I think we do a good job of staying in touch with our legislators; we do talk to them a lot about the current issues. This, however, was an excellent opportunity for our volunteers to mingle with state legislators and make sure that we stay on their radar.  Today we came to push HB 23 and the juvenile code rewrite. The problem with this psychotropic drug issue is that there is no oversight. These foster parents don’t understand the drugs that these children are on. You also have caseworkers who don’t understand these drugs either. Somebody has to take responsibility for these medications. As for the code rewrite, it’s been a long time coming. The rewrite will eliminate a lot of areas where there’s room for interpretation in the law. It’ll provide a good structure for the circuits (courts) to work by.  At this point, the code is a living being that is constantly changing and growing.”

Gerald Bostock

Mary Primsose, Juvenile Detention Counselor, Metro RYDC

“I am most concerned about the youth that are in our facility who have not really done anything very serious. They’re there for minor things like skipping school and they’ve never committed a crime. There should be alternatives for them besides being locked up.  I’m from Alabama and I feel like that my home state and others are creating laws that are more kid-friendly. I want Georgia to do more. There’s a lot of work to be done with our youth. We aren’t here today to learn as much about what to do for the youth already within our facility, but what can we do for the young people on the outside to prevent them from coming in to one.”

Mary Primrose

Susan Holmes, State Representative, (R-Monticello)

“I’m newly-elected; I represent Jasper, Jones, Monroe and Lamar counties. I think CASA does an excellent job. I am so proud of the work that they do in my district. I am here to learn more about what they do. Young people are the future of our state.”

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Chandra R. Thomas is an award-winning multimedia journalist who has worked for Atlanta Magazine and Fox 5 Atlanta. She has also served as a Rosalynn Carter Mental Health Journalism Fellow at Atlanta’s Carter Center and as a Kiplinger Public Affairs Journalism Fellow at The Ohio State University.

Judge Steve Teske: The Road to Jericho

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. After eleven years in a robe, I look back and can confidently say that no one is truly prepared to take the bench-especially the juvenile bench. In fact, I still struggle. I am still scared! I am scared I may do more harm than good sometimes.

Johnny’s mom was upset and crying.  “I don’t know what to do with him, she said.  “Johnny is so quiet at home.”  She described him as a good son who does his chores, stays at home, and obeys her rules. “I just don’t understand why he is so bad at school,” she cried out in frustration, tears streaming down her face.

She broke down and with a painful and broken voice she explained how she asked the school to test her son; that she thought he may have a learning disability, and “they just tell me Johnny is a bad kid and making poor choices.”  The bailiff handed her several tissues. She ended her testimony with a plea for help saying “I just want help for my son . . . I love him and want him to be happy.”

Not knowing what I know today, I did the only thing I knew to do - the only option available for me - I found him delinquent and placed him on probation.  That didn’t stop Johnny from returning to court, in shackles once again, with mom crying and asking for more help.  I was frustrated with Johnny at first. Every time it was for Johnny mouthing off, threatening someone, or refusing to follow instructions from a teacher, principal, or the school police officer.  The charges were the same - disrupting public school, disorderly conduct, simple assault, or obstruction.

This went on for over a year until one day, during another one of his detention hearings, a seasoned intake officer, Cathy Slay (now the supervisor of intake and for obvious reasons) made an observation - one that embarrasses me when I look back and ask myself “How could I be so stupid?”  Cathy said, “Judge, does it bother you at all that Johnny is on case 14 and they are all school related?”

I thought for a moment, and I could tell from Cathy’s smile that she saw the light go on in my head. Her observation begged the question - if Johnny is truly delinquent, why is he not acting out in the community? He is not breaking into cars and homes or terrorizing the neighborhood and getting into street fights. The problem was in the school, nowhere else.

By this time Johnny was 14 and about to turn 15.  It was time to take a stand - against the school system. This mother needed help - serious help. Cathy referred the mom to an advocacy organization for parents with special needs children called Parents Educating Parents and Partners (PEPP).  It’s a group of parents and others trained in the special education laws to assist parents on how to advocate for their special needs child.

The school personnel bucked up - like Johnny would buck up to them in the classroom.  They resisted at first, but when Cathy refused to certify the next school complaint that came in, they were confused.

The principal called me. He wanted to know why the court refused to “handle” the complaint. I politely informed him that the juvenile code authorizes the judge or designee to determine if a petition should be filed in the “best interest of the child and community.” I explained that Johnny has not been a trouble-maker at home or in the community -only in school.  “Why?” I asked the principal.

“Because he’s bad,” he replied.

“Why?” I again asked the principal.

“I don’t know,” he answered with a “How should I know” indignant attitude.

“Maybe it’s about time we try to determine why Johnny is chronically disruptive and has failing grades,” I pointed out.

I told him that I wasn’t going to certify any more misdemeanor disruptive non-violent complaints until he was tested - until we, the courts and the schools, got more information about this young man.  I also suggested that he discuss this with his school attorney, along with the case of Morgan v. Chris L., 927 F. Supp. 267 (E.D. Tenn. 1994), aff’d, 106 F.3d 401 (6th Cir. 1997), cert. denied, 520 U.S. 1271 (1997) upholding the decision of an administrative law judge directing the school system to withdraw a juvenile complaint filed against a student with a disability for conduct similar to Johnny’s.

I explained to him that the goal of PEPP is to help parents to partner with schools in the development of an Individual Education Plan (IEP), a goal that embodies the spirit of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). I also explained that the U.S. Supreme Court in Honig v. Doe, 484 U.S. 305 (1988), “made it clear that the removal of disabled students could be accomplished only with the permission of the parents or, as a last resort, the courts.” I stressed to him that the juvenile court was not “the last resort” for Johnny, especially given the nature of his infractions and the lack of testing.

The principal, as a courtesy, conceded. It wasn’t that the principal didn’t care, he was frustrated, too. Principals have a tremendous burden keeping schools safe, and their burden grew exponentially with the requirements of the “No Child Left Behind” law.  Notwithstanding the requirements of federal laws for students with disabilities, schools have limited resources for treatment and thus respond to disruptive behavior with punitive measures such as out-of-school suspension and expulsion.

Many of the disruptive students have underlying causes grounded in a disability, mental health disorder, or are suffering from abuse, neglect or other problems from home.  We have to consider that schools are not equipped to be social service or mental health agencies.  Most of our communities already have separate agencies charged with providing those services.  We need to link these agencies with schools to help them with these disruptive students.  Overuse of suspension, expulsion, and arrests increases drop-out rates.  This leads to an increase in juvenile crime and later, adult crime. This cannot be good for communities, but that is another discussion for another day.  Suffice it to say, the principal was not my problem.  I understood his dilemma.  The system was my problem.

Johnny was tested. He was in the 8th grade and reading on the first grade level.  Johnny had a learning disability. He had this disability for years. How does a student make it through several years of school, when he cannot read and not a single teacher notices?  An IEP was in the works for Johnny. We were in a celebratory moment. It took us nearly three years, but Johnny is finally going to get the education he needs - a smaller class, less stress and anxiety, and an opportunity not to be embarrassed and act out.

You see, in talking with Johnny, and after looking back and figuring this out, we discovered that Johnny was embarrassed that he could not read.  When called out in class, he would get scared.  When he got scared, he lashed out.  He did the only thing he knew to do to avoid the embarrassment. He would threaten someone, yell at the teacher, disobey an instruction, and even raise his hand, or strike the student next to him.  Johnny did not want his peers to know he was “stupid.” In those moments of fear, Johnny wanted to get out of the classroom.  No matter what it took - no matter where he ended up - he just wanted to escape. The system accommodated him.  I unwittingly accommodated him.

Remember the pre-frontal lobe I mentioned in an earlier column? Kids don’t process emotion into logic so well.  Johnny, at fifteen, did the only thing he knew to do to solve his problem.  Not the best solution, but a solution nonetheless.

Not too long after our celebration, Cathy called me.  In Cathy’s typical no-nonsense voice, she said, “Hey Judge, I have bad news.  Johnny was arrested for murder.”

My heart fell. Cathy told me that Johnny was with an adult, a former juvenile delinquent.  Someone whose personality had sociopathic traits, who required detention for the safety of the community - someone Johnny had met in the RYDC during one of his stays there.  A stay I allowed to happen - and for what?  The only thing Johnny ever did wrong was try to defend himself from emotional harm. He never committed a burglary, a car theft, or any crime in the community.  He was scared, but didn’t want his peers to know his fear.  So he responded the best way he knew how, he created distractions to escape that fear.  I couldn’t figure it out, and my best response was to sanction his repeated arrests in school.  It was in lock up that he met the person who put the gun in his hand - the gun that killed a man who surprised him during a burglary.

Johnny is serving a life sentence. He was 15, shackled in an adult courtroom, with a serious learning disability, a first grade reader, being told he will spend the rest of his life in prison. It has been difficult to let this go. It will haunt me forever. Those close to me have attempted comfort on those occasions I recall this and other mistakes in my current 20/20 hindsight.  “Johnny made that decision to associate with that adult,” they said. “He didn’t have to take that gun and pull the trigger.”  They are right.  He did make these decisions.  He is responsible for the death of an innocent man. He must be held accountable.

But should these truisms become an impediment to exploring why Johnny did what he did?  If the adults who raised him, taught him, and judged him don’t ask why, do we risk another Johnny killing another innocent person?

We cannot deny the fact that Johnny’s teachers should have recognized his learning disability early on.  I cannot deny the fact that Johnny should have never been in detention in the first place - a place where he met new friends - a place that assisted his path to murder. I should have known better, and I didn’t. I never felt more ill equipped to do my job than in that moment. Worse yet, I felt I was part of a system that had blood on its hands. Some may say I am taking this too seriously, or maybe I’m overdramatic.  A man is dead, his family and friends hurting to this day. A kid’s life destroyed.  This is serious.  This is dramatic.  They are right.  I am taking it seriously and I am being dramatic - and it’s time we all give serious and dramatic attention to the systems that teach, treat, and touch our kids.  I wish I could go back in time and handle Johnny’s case differently, but I can’t.

It was then that I looked around for help. What can I do to prevent other kids from falling prey to poor adult decision-making in school and in the court?  How can we do a better job in the schools of assessing chronically disruptive youth and addressing the reasons for such behavior? How can we do a better job of distinguishing the kids who make us mad from those who scare us - those cases where detention is more appropriate for community safety?  We had to find alternatives for those kids who make us mad, who made a stupid decision, who should not be placed in jail - a place that makes them worse.

I came across the Annie E. Casey Foundation (AECF) and the Juvenile Detention Alternative Initiative (JDAI). I had visited their Portland model court and was impressed. I thought to myself - if I had this in place, Johnny wouldn’t be in prison today. It was at a Coalition for Juvenile Justice meeting in Charleston, West Virginia that I met the director of JDAI, Bart Lubow.  He was gracious to sit down with me and hear my plea to let me in the door.  All I wanted was to network, to learn from others how to do a better job. He let me in.

Using the JDAI core strategies, the community stakeholders came together to improve our systems for kids.  In the eight years with JDAI, we have experienced a 70 percent decrease in kids detained, an 80 percent decrease in kids arrested on school campus, a 70 percent decrease in felony weapons on campus, a 50 percent decrease in juvenile felonies, and a 21 percent increase in kids graduating high school.  No system is perfect.  Not every kid is saved.  We still have many problems to solve.  But our community culture has changed.

From the school superintendant to the chief of police and sheriff to the judges, we have learned from evidence-based research and networking with other JDAI sites more effective ways to treat kids, and it’s not rocket science.  It’s very simple.  It begins with loading the front-end with validated risk and assessment tools to help us distinguish the kids who make us mad from those who scare us.  Who should be in detention and who should go home? Of course there is much more, and that will come later - in parts.  Although simple in concept, it’s not easy in practice.  Just as my mom often said in my childhood,” Steve, if it’s easy, it’s probably not the right way.”

None of us - teachers, principals, school police, probation officers, and judges - are immune to making mistakes with the kids within our authority and control.  Sometimes, maybe many times, our decisions are fashioned by a system - one not grounded in evidence-based practices, or instead our decisions are grounded in tradition, culture, and anecdotal philosophy.

To a great extent, the latter is what led to the emotional, moral, and legal mistreatment of kids in Luzerne County, PA- what has been dubbed the “Kids-for-Cash” scandal.   With one judge convicted and the other awaiting his criminal trial, many kids on minor school offenses were removed from their homes and placed in private facilities.  The judges received kickbacks for their placement of kids in those facilities.  The owners of the detention facilities were also convicted.  This happened from 2003 until discovered in 2008 by the Juvenile Law Center - a child advocacy group led by Robert Schwartz, an attorney and great advocate for children.  We are talking about thousands of kids.  We are talking about $2.6 million in kickbacks.

The ensuing investigations revealed a culture and tradition in Luzerne County that allowed such decisions.  Contrary to best practices, prosecutors and defense attorneys didn’t object when the judges would send kids away for months for a school fight and no prior history.  Over 50 percent of the kids did not have an attorney.  The culture and tradition allowed for assistance and deals to be made involving cash across political, legal, socio, and ethnic boundaries in Luzerne County.  It was so imbedded in the system that one judge during his plea colloquy commented that he really didn’t believe he was doing anything wrong.  This lack of responsibility, coupled with the egregious acts of the judges, were the reasons the federal judge rejected the original plea agreements that would have placed them in prison for 87 months. They are facing up to 20 years.

I testified before the Pennsylvania House Children and Youth Committee this past June on juvenile justice reform.  I was in Harrisburg, PA last week to give a keynote address to over 600 judges and juvenile justice practitioners.  I met with their judges.  They are still reeling from Luzerne County.    Serious changes have already taken place in Luzerne, and many other changes are taking place to prevent this from happening elsewhere in their state.  I spoke with the Special Master, Judge Arthur Grimm, and the chair of the Inter-Branch Commission on Juvenile Justice, Judge John Cleland, as well as other commission members, Judges Woodruff and Uhler, and I was impressed with their commitment to bring reform and ensure this will never happen again.  I have no doubt that Pennsylvania, which has been a leader in juvenile justice, will come out of this stronger.  I shared these impressions with the judges, and added that they “will not be measured by how they stumbled, but how they will get up!”

We all stumble in this work, but do we know it when it happens?  Luzerne County stumbled, but they didn’t see it.  Their system was not grounded in good practices.  They were running blind, and kids were getting hurt.  Once we do realize we’re on the ground, do we try to get up?  Do we get up and brush off the dirt - the dirt of our mistakes - the mistakes that can break a kid for the rest of his life?

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. once referenced the familiar biblical story of the “Good Samaritan” to make a point.  I think it’s appropriate here. He stated how he admired the Good Samaritan.  How the Samaritan rescued people beaten and hurt along the road to Jericho.  But surprisingly, Dr. King didn’t want to be like the Good Samaritan. He wanted to be the person that “fixed” the road to Jericho so no one will get hurt!

Johnny was beaten and hurt on our road to Jericho many years ago.  It is too late for me or anyone else for that matter to be a Good Samaritan and rescue Johnny.  But Johnny’s hurt did not go unnoticed.  The man he killed still has a voice.  Our Road to Jericho was broken.  It needed fixing.  Our community has been repaving our Road to Jericho so there will be no more Johnny's - no more innocent victims.  Pennsylvania is doing the same.

What is your Road to Jericho? What more can you do to keep kids from getting beat up?

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The Hon. Steven Teske has been a judge at the Clayton County Juvenile Court for more than 10 years. He represents Georgia on the Federal Advisory Committee on Juvenile Justice. Judge Teske also chairs the Board of the Governor’s Office for Children and Families, and serves on the Judicial Advisory Council to the Board of the State Department of Juvenile Justice.  He's a leader in the Annie E. Casey Foundation Detention Reform Initiative and a nationally recognized speaker on juvenile justice issues.

Judge Steve Teske: Making Adults Mad – When Did That Become a Crime?

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. Every time I entered the store I would ask Mom for one.  She would say “I don’t know Steve, those can be very dangerous,” or “You need to talk to your Dad,” or “Maybe Santa Claus will bring you one if he thinks you’re responsible enough to have one.”  And on Christmas morning, I found out I had grown up; I was now a responsible young boy because Santa gave me - yes, a Daisy BB gun!

I don’t remember receiving any other presents that year although, as Christmas’ go in my family, I got more than I deserved. I wanted to shoot that gun now, but Mom made it very clear that I had to wait for Dad to show me how to use it the “right way.”  That meant waiting for all the gifts to be unwrapped (I had three siblings), Mom cooking breakfast, Dad getting showered and dressed, and then the lecture about guns and safety.  I hated the lectures! Come on for God’s sake! I am now ten years old.  I know what I am doing!

But I took it like a man. I looked on as my Dad strategically placed the Daisy BB targets on the backyard fence.  He firmly told me “never point the gun at another person-NEVER.” He told me to always use the paper targets, and to shoot them at a distance to avoid the BB ricocheting and hitting me, or someone else.   I repeatedly replied, “Yes sir.” He showed me how to aim and shoot, and after spending what seemed like hours in the backyard, I asked him if I could take the gun and targets to the open field behind the nearby Catholic school.  My father granted my request, and I was sure to run out of the yard with that gun as quickly as I could before my mother discovered that Dad let me escape unsupervised with the BB gun.

When I got to the front gate of the school, I looked up and stared at the statue of the Virgin Mary holding the Baby Jesus. I don’t know what overcame me, but for no apparent reason, as if something wickedly spiritual took control of me, I aimed the gun at the Baby Jesus and pulled the trigger.  The BB struck Jesus in the forehead, and in that same moment, I felt a burning sting inside my mouth. In a natural response I covered my mouth with my hand and when I pulled it away, it was covered in blood. The flow of blood did not stop.  In my ten year old mind, I knew I was going to bleed to death - I was going to die!  I still had enough sense about me to run to a nearby water fountain and wash my mouth, over and over until, thank God, the flow of blood stopped - and I was still alive!

I was distraught and scared.  I wanted to go home. I looked down at my shirt now covered in blood and gasped with fright thinking how I could sneak in the house undetected to change my shirt and discard the evidence.  I made my way home, took off my shirt and buried it in the yard, and waiting for the right moment, peeking inside the windows, I ran inside and into the bedroom to grab a shirt, then to the bathroom to clean up. I made it.  My parents will never know what I did. I washed myself, and while brushing my teeth, I saw it - the chipped tooth! Looking into the mirror with horror and disbelief, my left front tooth was chipped by the BB. How am I going to keep this from Mom and Dad?

I went to my room and hid the rest of Christmas day to figure it out, and I did. I would not smile or laugh until I could come up with something plausible, that would not threaten my childhood freedoms and pleasures, especially my Daisy BB gun. I lived in anticipation for only a week.  My parents never noticed. Not that they didn’t care to notice. I just smiled less. I finally told them about my near escape from death, and other stupid and harrowing stories, when I turned 40 (I am now 50). They just shook their heads and wondered how their son, or any boy for that matter, made it through childhood escaping serious bodily harm, or death.

Fast forward 40 years. Now, I must respond to the stupid acts of kids. Now, I know why kids do stupid things.  Now, I know why I did stupid things as a kid. During my tenure thus far on the bench, the medical sciences have now confirmed what the behavioral sciences have been saying for decades:  Kids are wired to do stupid things. The frontal lobe, which translates emotion into logic, is not developed until age 25. To prove my point, just wait until spring break, watch the news and count the number of college kids falling from balconies in Destin, Daytona, and Panama City - the result of alcohol poisoning.

This is why the Supreme Court in Roper decided we cannot execute juveniles. This is also the reason why the same court in Graham decided that sentencing kids to life without parole (except for homicide) is cruel and unusual punishment and contrary to the best practices of juvenile justice.  Despite this irrefutable medical research, it begs the question why do so many communities across Georgia, and throughout the country, criminalize stupid adolescent behavior by referral, arrest, and sometimes detention? Why do so many of our juvenile courts receive more referrals from the school system than from any other source? More disconcerting is that most of these referrals are misdemeanors historically addressed by school disciplinary measures.  Are adolescents better served and the community better protected by automatic transfer to adult court on violent felonies?  If not, is there a better way?

 I just wonder how some of us would respond if our own kids were thrown into the delinquency process?  How would we want to be treated? Did our kids make an adult really mad and is that why they are in court? Or is it because they did something that truly scares us?

I am not sure I have the answer. I have some thoughts. I know we can’t get there without some frank dialogue, asking pointed questions, and sometimes offending our political, social, and philosophical opinions and beliefs. This column is the first in a series exploring these questions and more, about how we treat kids, or how we should treat them when they misbehave. 

I do know this: Given what I know of the stupid things I did when I was a teenager, had I done some of those things as a kid today, I certainly would have been arrested more than once and treated as a delinquent.  I doubt I would have become a lawyer, much less a judge today.  That I do know.

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The Hon. Steven Teske has been a judge at the Clayton County Juvenile Court for more than 10 years. He represents Georgia on the Federal Advisory Committee on Juvenile Justice. Judge Teske also chairs the Board of the Governor’s Office for Children and Families, and serves on the Judicial Advisory Council to the Board of the State Department of Juvenile Justice.  He's a leader in the Annie E. Casey Foundation Detention Reform Initiative and a nationally recognized speaker on juvenile justice issues.

Read more from Judge Teske:  The Silent Majority