Protect the Sheep from the Wolves, How Zero Tolerance Misses the Mark

Do you remember Joe Clark? The principal portrayed by Morgan Freeman in the movie "Lean on Me?"  One could say he was the personification of zero tolerance when it came to principals. During his first year he kicked out more than 300 students in one day for being tardy or absent, and as he put it, for being "disruptive." He would remove hundreds more over the next five years.

Quite frankly, I enjoyed the movie. It's Morgan Freeman after all.

How about the tense showdowns between Mr. Clark and the drug dealing gangbanger? Who wants those dangerous youth in the same school with our daughters and sons? I don't!

My adrenalin was pumping in that scene when Mr. Clark paraded all the gang banging, drug dealing and bullying students onto the stage and told them to get out. I clapped along with everyone else.

I love Hollywood. It overemphasizes parts of the truth to capture our attention, puts us on the edge of our seats, and helps us escape. The moment we step out of the theatre we return to reality. A reality in which there is no evidence that Mr. Clark improved the lives of students he kept on campus -- much less the ones he kicked out.

Three hundred students in one day? Really? Not even the police on our school campus' can find more than 25 students out of 1,200 who are the dangerous drug dealing and gang-banging type described by the movie. And Clayton County, Ga., where I live and work, is not known for its high socio-economics and low-crime rates. Nope -- we have the highest foreclosure rate, the most free school lunches, the highest unemployment rate and lowest medium income in the Atlanta metropolitan area.

When our school board acted crazy and caused our accreditation to be revoked, we were a laughing stock in the United States. People left Clayton County in droves.

Also, let’s not forget our last Sheriff, Victor Hill, and his antics that gave us national press coverage. Fugitives came to Clayton County because he wasn't executing warrants -- he wanted to be the chief of police instead. All that is gone now, but the damage is done. Clayton County is on a slow upswing for sure with our new leadership -- but the damage is not easy to repair.

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.

Zero tolerance policies do not discriminate. Everybody is arrested or suspended and this leads to bad outcomes beginning with an increase in drop-out rates and ultimately leading to an increase in community crime. Sometimes discrimination is a good thing.

"I can’t protect the sheep from the wolves if I spend more time arresting the sheep," says Gardner. "Its part of my job to discriminate against the wolves for the protection of the sheep and lambs."

The equal application of zero tolerance results in racial inequalities -- or maybe the racial inequalities is proof that zero tolerance is not equally applied. Regardless, the results are the same -- its zero intelligence.

Last week, I was invited by Daniel Losen to present before the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. Daniel published a report titled, "Discipline Policies, Successful Schools, and Racial Justice," which surveyed the research showing the ineffectiveness of zero tolerance policies and provided recommendations to reverse the negative effects. One of my fellow presenters was Jonathan Brice of the Baltimore City School System. I met with Jonathan, juvenile judges, and law enforcement in Baltimore a couple years ago to discuss the push-out of students using arrests, suspensions, and expulsions.

Today, Baltimore City Schools, under the leadership of their superintendent, Andres Alonzo, and staff like Jonathan, have made drastic changes in how they respond to minor school offenses and infractions. For example, there are some offenses that do not result in suspension and others that will not get suspension for more than five days. Anything over five days must be approved by the superintendent.

Administrators and teachers engage students using the Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports Model (PBIS). Instead of the Joe Clark approach, Baltimore now employs mediation, counseling, parent conferences and other resources to engage parents and students.

Alonzo says, "Kids come as is, and its our job to engage them."

Joe Clark took the easy road. He got rid of the wolves and a lot of sheep. Those lost sheep likely were devoured by the streets. They no longer had the protection of an educational environment -- the second best protective buffer against delinquency.

Mr. Alonzo took the more difficult road. He believes in zero tolerance when correctly applied. He won't hesitate to remove a wolf, but he works hard to engage the other 98% and keep them in school. Consequently, the drop-out rates have been cut in half and graduation rates have increased by 20%.

This business of juvenile justice is not exact, but it's not arbitrary either. We know alot more today about what works to reduce delinquency using social science methodologies.

It's analogous to surgery in a way. You don't remove the liver when it's the appendix that's about to burst. Similarly, you don't kill the sheep when the wolf is on the prey.

See more of Teske's work.

An Inside Look at a Typical Day on the Street with a Clayton County Juvenile Probation Officer

Clayton County, Ga. Juvenile Probation Officer Ronaldi Rollins

Ronaldi Rollins’ view from his corner office on the third floor is typical of metro Atlanta. A parking lot, some two-story apartment building, all nestled in the middle of a bunch of pine trees. Welcome to Jonesboro, Ga., command central for one juvenile probation officer in charge of 20 struggling teens.

To pay a visit to Rollins, a kid has to make it past two levels of security. First, the metal detector and officer at the front door. Then comes the thick, fiberglass window and receptionist at the third floor waiting room. Just about every door, with the exception of the restrooms, requires a four-digit code to pass.

But probationers showing up unannounced may have a hard time finding Rollins behind his desk.

Photo credit: Clay Duda/
For juvenile probation officer Ronaldi Rollins, keeping tabs on the kids he oversees is anything but a desk job.

“A big part of my job is mentoring,” Rollins says. And the best way to be a mentor is to relate to the kids on common ground. And common ground means the front yards, street corners, vacant lots and schoolyards of this suburban Atlanta community they all call home.

In Clayton County, juvenile probation beats are divided by school. That means an officer assigned to Lovejoy High School, for instance, would likely supervise kids living in the city of Lovejoy.

But Rollins works a different kind of beat. He’s tasked with overseeing the Clayton County Virtual Alternative School, and that means keeping up with kids from one end of the county to the other, from Lovejoy to Forest Park.

Forest Park. That’s where 15-year-old Marko was picked up on a probation violation after taking his mom’s car, again.

No cake past the guard line.

Now 16, Marko* just celebrated his birthday in jail. It’s his fourth day behind the razor wire fence of Martha K. Glaze Regional Youth Detention Center (RYDC). Depending on what the judge says Monday, Marko may be staying for a while.

“I’m going to recommend you be committed to the Department of Juvenile Justice and do 30 days in YDC,” Rollins says from behind a battered wood-grained desk in one of the holding cells.

Marko solemnly nods.

Rollins isn’t exactly thrilled about the recommendation. He knows the judge could decide on harsher punishment. For someone like Marko -– a documented gang member and designated felon by the courts -– alternatives to incarceration are running out.

By his own account, Marko has been running with a gang since he was just 12-years-old. At 14, he became an official member of the Westside Via Locos, a sect of the notorious SUR 13 street gang.

“I was young and wanted to live that life, live a crazy life,” Marko says. “But now that it did happen, I don’t want it anymore. It ain’t the right path.”

Marko already went through the Evening Reporting Center program, a community-based alternative to incarceration designed to help keep kids out of jail and out of trouble, but after stealing his mother’s car and failing a drug test for marijuana he has found himself back in a RYDC-issued blue jumpsuit.

“If he is in the gang and he was still doing stuff he would be like ‘yeah I did it,’” Rollins says. “When I first met him that’s how he was.”

But Marko isn’t an active gang member anymore. For him the most important things are making sure his five-year-old brother doesn’t follow in his footsteps and working to help support his family, he says.

At their meeting, Marko is working on finishing a handful of letters, many at his probation officer’s request. One is an application to a bootcamp-style Youth Challenge program. Another is a letter of apology to his mother.

Photo credit: Clay Duda/
For Rollins, the kids are just a click away. The addresses for the 20 kids he supervises are plotted on his iPhone's Google Map app.

“Are you going to read it,” Rollins asks, pointing to Marko’s letter to his mother.

“What? In front of the judge?”

“Yeah. It may help,” Rollins says with a shrug. “But it’s your call.”

“You know I’m kind of nervous to do it in front of people…”

Gang life brought with it the crazy lifestyle Marko wanted, but also a sobbing mother and a designated felon status. His mother disapproves, to say the least, breaking down in tears during their last visit.

“She don’t want no son as a gang banger,” Marko says.

Anyone convicted of gang-related offenses automatically earns the designated felon title, and the chance of spending up to five years at one of the state’s six Youth Development Campuses (YDC).

“I really see a lot of potential in Marko,” Rollins says. “He’s just a complete 180.”

Later Rollins pulls the old department-issued Crown Victoria out of the RYDC parking lot as he thumbs through his iPhone. All the kids he supervises are stored in his phone, with their addresses plotted out on his Google Maps app, and just a click away.

Curriculum, straight from the e-book.

Clayton County’s Virtual Alternative School is new, and unique, and Rollins is still trying to get used to it.

This fall is the first semester it has been put to use. Each student was given a laptop to complete the majority of their course work from home. Rollins says it’s helping to break up the kids from one central location.

Photo credit: Clay Duda/
Students of the Clayton County Virtual Alternative School have the freedom to complete their course work on their own schedule, to an extent.

Alternative schools are made up of students suspended or expelled from their home district. They offer an option, usually mandated by the school, for students to continue their studies.

For probationers, school attendance is mandatory, unless specifically approved to attend a GED or other education program.

“A lot of schools spend too much time trying to teach testing or handle discipline,” Rollins says. “If you’re a problem-child you may get suspended for 10 days just to get them out of the teacher’s hair.”

Likewise, discipline is always an issue in alternative schools, where the "get out of my hair" kids go. The virtual academy format diminishes some problems.

A student’s work is monitored by 10 virtual teachers. Students are required to spend a minimum of 20 hours on schoolwork and at least six hours of “face time,” or time face-to-face with a teacher in an actual classroom, each week.

Alternatives, and the road back to the classroom.

Derek*, 14, is still in pajama pants when he answers Rollins’ knock at his front door a little before noon.

“You just waking up?” Rollins quips, half joking.

“Nah, I’ve been up,” Derek says, still rubbing his eyes.

Seconds later he’s back at the door with his school-issued laptop updating Rollins on his course work. One of the benefits of the virtual academy, for students at least, is the flexibility to sleep in and still get their work done.

Like Marko, Derek has been assigned to report to the Evening Reporting Center (ERC) during the week. He likes the program, he says, but questions its effectiveness. He spends the majority of his time at the ERC playing basketball and little completing the work they assign, he says.

“You know that’s not what it’s really about, right?” Rollins asks with a smile.

Photo credit: Clay Duda/
Kids report to Clayton County's Evening Reporting Center weekday afternoons in a bid to keep them off the streets during peak time hours. (File photo, May 17, 2011.)

He knows. The program’s main goal is to keep him off the street, he says, adding he’s a bit concerned about getting back into trouble now that one of his old friends has moved into the neighborhood.

“It ain’t that I’m trying to stay out of trouble,” Derek says. “It’s that I don’t have time to get in trouble.”

Derek is scheduled to complete his stay in alternative school at the end of December, but like every student he still has to earn his way out. That means passing at least six of his eight classes and accumulating a minimal number of disciplinary write-ups and absences.

For now, he enjoys the luxuries of starting class at a quarter till 12, but he’s a little worried about life after December. He’ll be returning to Lovejoy High School, where his troubles started, with a schedule of early morning classes.

When the hard work pays off.

“To be honest, this job is more fun than anything if you’re good with kids,” Rollins says. “The fact that I’m still young myself helps, so I can relate to the kids.”

Rollins, 27, prides himself on the fact that he has only overseen three or four kids that got sentenced to any kind of “serious time” since taking over the beat three years ago.

That’s just a handful of kids out of a caseload of more than 200.

“In Clayton County we do things a little differently,” he says. “Through education we reduce recidivism."

Names have been changed to protect the identity of juveniles.

Photo credits: Clay Duda/

Clayton County Virtual Alternative School

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.”

‘FAST’ Track To Juvenile Justice

Who knew that an innovative initiative that is showing dramatic success in decreasing the number of children incarcerated in Clayton County was actually sparked by a “failurein the system. So goes the story of how Juvenile Court Judge Steven Teske was inspired to create the Finding Alternatives for Safety and Treatment (FAST) panel, a program that statistics show is having a major impact in the county. 

Teske says the case of a young man now serving a life sentence for murder actually prompted the idea for to him to start the program.

“The system had failed him on so many levels; by the time he’d gotten to the seventh grade he was reading on a first grade level and no one had ever intervened,” recalls Teske, of the teen who, after years of run-ins with the law, ultimately gunned down a security guard during a botched robbery.

Several studies have linked lack of education to criminal behavior. Teske firmly believes that if school leaders and social service agencies had intervened earlier, he would have evaded the very gang life that ended up taking away his life and that of an innocent man.

“A man would be alive today and [the boy] would not be in prison for life if something had been done,” says Teske, who has served as chairperson of the Governor’s Office for Children and Families and a member of the Federal Advisory Committee that consults the president and Congress on juvenile justice issues. He hopes the FAST Panel will help divert young offenders like that teen from a life of crime.

Every Monday, Wednesday and Friday mornings the FAST panel, made up of a diverse mix of experts — including child welfare authorities, school psychologists, mental health counselors, child welfare group representatives and community volunteers — convenes to get the back story on the children who end up in front of Clayton County’s Juvenile Court Judges. Members are trained in juvenile justice and child welfare issues, undergo background checks and take an oath vowing not to violate the young offender’s privacy.

The panel interviews the child’s parent or guardian and then makes  recommendations to the judge about what should happen next. Teske says the hearings streamline court appearances and allow juvenile judges to make more informed decisions. He follows the panel’s suggestions 95 percent of the time.

The overall objective, he says, is to mobilize social service agencies to address the wide-range of underlying issues – everything from mental health to abuse – that are likely contributing to a child’s decision to act out.

“We focus on alternatives to detention,” explains panel member John Goolsbee, of Clayton County’s Department of Family and Children Services. “The idea is not to put children in jail, but to treat them so that they have the opportunity to become productive citizens.”

By all accounts the program is working well.

“We’ve reduced juvenile detention rates by 95 percent and reduced racial disparities by 70 percent,” gushes Teske, noting that prior to the effort African-Americans were disproportionately represented in Clayton’s juvenile system. The disparities have been reduced, he says, through an assessment process that assists high-risk youth in getting increased access to the services needed to return to the community sooner.

Adds Teske. “When we started in 2003, our average daily population (of Clayton County children) in the RYDC (Regional Youth Detention Center) was 100 – that means more than 40 kids were sleeping on the floor. Now the average daily population is 12.4.”

Probation officer caseloads have dipped from 150 county children per officer to 30. Supporters say Clayton County’s collaborative approach has also resulted in better communication between the agencies involved and has drastically improved services for children.

Panel volunteer CeeCee Anderson, a former special education teacher, says the initiative’s benefits are plentiful.

“We’ve gotten the parents more involved; we hold everyone accountable; the parents and the schools,” she says. “You have to take the village approach. Many of these kids are begging for love.”

During a recent meeting, panel members, seated at a long wooden table sipped coffee and listened intently as a single mother dabbed tears from her eyes while sharing her frustrations with her 14-year-old son, who she claims stole money from her purse. Administrators at his school had apparently determined that he was precocious enough to skip a grade in school, but his severe behavioral problems, she says, prevent him from advancing. The delegation unanimously recommended that he be assigned a male mentor and undergo counseling to deal with what they suspect is deep-seated anger issues related to his father’s absence in his life.

Panel volunteer Henry Walker was pleased with the hearing’s outcome.

“[The mother] had no idea that she had so much support available to her in the community and that’s why we’re here,” adds Walker, a retired Boy Scouts of America executive.  “We talk to the parents and try to provide solutions that will aid and assist them. That’s what happened here today and that’s what we will continue to do moving forward.”


Chandra R. Thomas is an award-winning multimedia journalist who has worked for Atlanta Magazine and Fox 5 Atlanta. She has 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.

Child Advocates React To AG Holder’s Juvenile Justice Reform Call

Local child advocates are reacting favorably to United States Attorney General Eric Holder’s recent comments about the dire need for major juvenile justice system reform.

In remarks to the National Association of Counties Legislative Conference, Holder called for the Department of Justice to adopt a new approach that combines evidence-based research and comprehensive community partnerships. Holder also said that it’s time for us to ask some important questions such as; why is it that African-American youth make up 16 percent of the overall youth population, but comprise more than half of the juvenile population arrested for committing a violent crime?  Why is it that abused and neglected children are 11 times more likely than their non-abused and non-neglected peers to be arrested for criminal behavior?   And why is that so many of those who enter our juvenile justice system either can’t afford – or do not know to ask for – access to legal guidance?   Some even plead guilty to criminal offenses without the advice of a lawyer. Read the full speech.
Some of the points Holder made in the March 7 address include:

  • Serving our young people makes good economic sense by keeping them out of “over-stressed and under-funded corrections facilities and saving precious law enforcement resources.”
  • How we treat our children speaks to who we are as a nation.
  • It’s time to broaden our approach to juvenile justice – and to ensure that sound research and respected analysis are a part of our decision-making process.
  • We must transition from a prosecution-and-punishment model to a prevention-and-intervention paradigm.
  • We must adopt a comprehensive plan of action – one that engages law-enforcement partners, medical professionals, social services providers, lawyers, parents, teachers, coaches, mentors and community leaders.
  • We as a nation must be smart, not just tough, on crime to help generate the positive outcomes we seek for our young people.
  • Juvenile justice reform will also save the nation money in the long run.*The best—and most targeted—solutions will be shared solutions, "created together—after rigorous scientific evaluation and innovative resource levering."
  • Evidence on our nation’s juvenile justice system demonstrates that change is needed because the current system does not spend resources as wisely as it should.
  • Even though many of those who are incarcerated enter the juvenile justice system for non-violent offences, they often emerge violent – or, at the very least – traumatized.
  • Each year too many of the 100,000 young people who exit formal custody have nowhere to go, return to unstable homes or end up in shelters, on the streets, or in other potentially dangerous or violent situations.
  • Many juveniles who leave the system are not welcomed back to their community school and struggle to find educational opportunities.
  • Juvenile justice reform must become a nationwide effort to bring systemic, not incremental, reform to our justice system.

Here’s what some local leaders and child advocates had to say about Holder’s comments.

Sen. Jones

Emanuel D. Jones, State Senator (D-Decatur)

“The attorney general spoke very powerful words regarding our system of Juvenile Justice. I agree with his call to action and we can do better by our kids. The system is broken and too many poor and children of color are being unfairly punished in a system that lacks accountability of their efforts to rehabilitate detained children. Our system of juvenile justice is broken and anytime institutions are allowed to profit off youth detention, justice is compromised. We need to remove this yoke from around lady justice' s neck and allow meaningful reform in our juvenile justice system. Alternatives to incarceration are available and I believe the Departments of Juvenile Justice must be given greater flexibility to rehabilitate children to include the authority to parole children in youth detention centers.“

Tanya Culbreth, Home-School Parent Liaison, B.E.S.T. Academy (an all-male Atlanta public middle and high school)


“We treat our children as sub-standard human beings -- not as human beings who can succeed -- and get sub-standard results. I agree that we need to implement more intervention and prevention methods on the front end and not the back end with prisons and detention centers.  I also agree with the attorney general that it is time for major reform. This system is clearly not working. We need to look at where we are spending our resources. Working at an all black-male Atlanta Public School, his comments really resonate. He’s right about the racial disparities. The answer to this lies in the answer to the question; how do we engage a population that feels so disconnected? These young men come from families that also feel disconnected from mainstream society. They feel like the odds are stacked against them. The school-to-prison-pipeline is real. By cutting education spending and investing into prisons we are grooming our kids to go right into the prison system. Now many schools are merely teaching our kids how to past the standardized test. After that the teachers don’t have time or the energy left to explore, inspire and encourage the students.  No Child Left Behind did just the opposite of the stated intent; No Child Left Behind has left everybody behind!”

Judge Teske

Steve Teske, Clayton County Juvenile Court Judge

“This past November I delivered a keynote speech at a conference in Washington D.C. sponsored by the Department of Justice on juvenile justice.  Attorney General Holder made introductory remarks to my keynote speech.  He shared the same information.  My speech supported what he said.  It is time we re-invent the juvenile justice system using evidence-based practices.  However, evidence-based practices must include a system that is multi-disciplinary and supports evidence-based programs that effectively restore youth.  Effective programs are only effective in practice when all stakeholders work together.”

Chara Jackson, American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Georgia Legal Director


“I am very pleased with what Attorney General Holder said. His comments speak to exactly what we’re trying to do in Georgia with SB 127, the juvenile code rewrite, led by JUST Georgia and other stakeholder groups. His comments really show people who have been committed to juvenile justice for years that we all really are on the same page. I think with the passage of the code rewrite in Georgia can be at the forefront of change in the juvenile justice system. Hopefully we are close to getting this measure approved in the Georgia Senate.”

Viveca Famber-Powell, Atlanta Defense Attorney

“I wholeheartedly agree with Mr. Holder.  I have worked as a defense attorney for almost 30 years with much of that time defending and advocating for children charged with offenses from ungovernable to murder.  At every level, incarceration is a tool that is always used too quickly.  This is especially so in the most serious cases where the imposition of minimum mandatory 10 and 25 year prison sentences for children as young as 13 in cases where there is no loss of life or even injury is a routine occurrence in Georgia.  These expensive prison dollars can be more efficiently, economically and successfully spent on supervision and services for more children. These services are already in place and work and can be shown empirically to be successful on most children, even in serious cases.  The $180,000 it costs to keep a young offender in prison 10 years on an armed robbery can educate 45 boys in the public school for a year.  If there is any way to avoid spending that $180,000 on one child, we should try it.  There is ample research already to show that young offenders here can be rehabilitated, monitored and supervised in the community at a cost far less than the close to $500,000 per child it would cost to imprison that same child for 25 years as current law mandates. Crime and punishment is not what we should aspire to when we talk about children in the criminal justice system.  The better identifier would be mistake and correction.”

Judge Steve Teske: The Blame Game – The Winner Loses and The Kids are Hurt

It was 1999, I was recently appointed to the juvenile bench, and we had a new presiding judge. A meeting was called to discuss the direction of the court.   Among several issues, we were concerned about the number of complaints filed by School Resource Officers (SRO) and decided to meet with the Chief of Police to discuss other alternatives to filing complaints.  We were prepared for the meeting. We had data reflecting an increase in referrals by over 1,000 percent since the inception of the SRO program in the mid nineties.  The data was broken down by offenses and most were misdemeanors primarily involving school fights, disorderly conduct, and disrupting public school.

It was a frustrating meeting to say the least. Despite our preparedness, we were not talking the same language.  To our surprise, the Chief (who has since retired) was excited about the numbers.  He interpreted them to mean his officers were doing an excellent job.  Looking back at it, he was right - from his perspective!  We failed to consider the work culture of law enforcement.  Police grade themselves, in part, by the number of arrests they make.  After all, isn’t that what police do? The Chief made it quite clear to us: if my officers witness a crime, they are trained to make an arrest.   We walked away disappointed and scratching our heads.  We felt we had to accept what was referred to us - that we had no control over the decisions of police in schools.  As frustrating as this was, we were jurists.  We must respect the sound constitutional principle of separation of powers.  We had to find another approach.

It was just as well, at least for the time-being.  This forced us to do some introspection of our own court process.  As much as we wanted the police to refrain from arresting kids for conduct once handled by the school disciplinary process, maybe we could make changes in how we responded to these kids when they were referred to us, to minimize the negative effects of arresting kids for minor school offenses.

One would think that common sense would have us question the use of handcuffs and court appearances as an appropriate response to school infractions. I know what some of you right brain functioning readers are thinking, “Steve, isn’t this conduct a crime?”  You‘re right, it is a crime, but it’s been a crime since the genesis of the public education system and was never treated as a crime until we placed police on school campuses.  That’s because we knew then what the research today supports - that the stigma of being arrested is difficult for many kids to accept and have to shoulder.

For example, we now know that court appearance hinders educational attainment, increasing the probability of dropping out, and that dropping out, in turn, may set in motion a number of negative outcomes including unemployment (Bernburg & Krohn, 2003) and increased criminal involvement (Jarjoura, 1993, 1996; Thornberry, Moore, & Christenson, 1985). Kids arrested on school campus are twice as likely to not graduate and four times more likely if they appear in court. (Sweeten, 2006). This research makes clear, even for the most punitive minded person, that a kid’s contact with the juvenile justice system, particularly for youths with limited prior delinquency, may have unintended negative consequences.

It was for these reasons we wanted to stop the flow of referrals into the court.  Why?  Because the harm was occurring on campus and was likely irreversible.  The irony was that kids were being arrested and referred to court for “rehabilitation.”  Yet, the mere arrest or appearance in court made rehabilitation efforts useless and a waste of time and resources.  The damage was already done, and made worse by sending the kid to court.  And it still continues in most jurisdictions throughout the country.

Before we go further, I want to make clear what some, I am sure, will not see so clearly.  It’s not about “slapping” kids on the hand.  It’s not about blaming the police or the schools.  It’s not about arresting students when they commit violent crimes.  On the contrary, it’s about common sense - about arresting the kids that scare us - not the kids that make us mad.  It’s about letting police be police, not disciplinarians.  It’s about better management of our resources and time.  Every time the police leave the campus to transport a student on a misdemeanor offense, the campus is left open and unprotected for the scarier students to pounce on other students - or worse, for an intruder with a weapon to enter the campus with no defense.  It would be unfortunate if, God forbid, a student or intruder shoots up the school while the school resource officer is at court intake booking a kid for mouthing off or fighting. Most important, it’s about improving outcomes for our students by keeping them in school and punishing sensibly.

It begs the question - is there is a correlation between overuse of arrests on school campuses and the continual decrease in graduation rates?  The graduation rate across the country reached its peak at 77 percent in 1969. This rate fell to 68 percent by 2007.  In Clayton County, during the time we engaged the Chief of Police, our graduation rates were beginning to decline.  By 2003, the rates hit an all-time low of 58 percent, and the school arrests hit an all-time high of 1,400 (an increase of more than 2,000 percent since the employment of SROs), and felony juvenile crimes were rising at a fast pace.

The latter statistic begs another question: is there a correlation between graduation rates and juvenile crime?  Common sense, at least, suggested there was a correlation.  We already knew that arresting kids for minor school offenses, and at an alarming rate, were harmful.  Certainly it can’t be good for community safety when more kids are dropping out and therefore wandering the streets, unemployed, hanging out, and doing who knows what.

By 2003, it was time to take drastic action.  It was time to bring the schools and police together.  They were not going to come together on their own.  It would require the juvenile judges to make this happen.  We discussed our role as judges in engaging community stakeholders to talk about juvenile justice and other related concerns.  How could we, as judges, watch this happen and not take any action?  We certainly didn’t have any legal or ethical barriers.  In fact, our juvenile code in Georgia authorizes judges to engage stakeholders for the purpose of developing protocols to address delinquency cases and for prevention (O.C.G.A. 15-11-10).  Furthermore, our judicial canons encourage judges to “engage in activities to improve the law, the legal system, and the administration of justice.” (Canon 4).  This includes allowing judges to “consult with an executive or legislative body or official, but only on matters concerning the administration of justice.” (Canon 4).

We agreed that the harm to many kids was a systemic failure and involved “matters of administration of justice.”  There is no justice when the system harms kids. We had a moral and legal obligation to do something.  We also considered our position in the juvenile justice system.  It made practical sense that we take the lead, and not acting would be an injustice.

Practical sense because juvenile justice as a “system” is an atypical system.  Consider the definition of a system, which includes a boundary with inputs and outputs.  Inputs enter the system in the form of demands and supports and the system works to produce a desired outcome.  We can all agree that the desired outcome in any juvenile justice system is the reduction in recidivism among juvenile offenders.  However, we now know from what has been dubbed the “What Works” research that reduction in recidivism requires a system to:

  • Target high risk juvenile offenders
  • Assess their delinquent-producing needs
  • Match those needs with evidence-based programs
  • Provide intensive supervision.

Although simple in concept, it’s complex in application because the delinquent-producing needs (cognition, family function, school-connectedness, substance abuse, anti-social peers, and weak problem solving skills) are addressed using treatment programs provided by different systems, as opposed to a single system as contemplated by the traditional definition of a “system.”

For example, consider the following groups whose unique function can be tailored to combat those factors that produce delinquency in youth:

  • Schools - School connectedness is the second greatest buffer against delinquency. (US Surgeon General. (2001), Youth Violence: A Report of the Surgeon General).  We know that school connectedness is linked to lower levels of substance abuse, violence, suicide attempts, pregnancy, & emotional distress. ( Journal of School Health 72/4).
  • Social Services - Family function is the greatest buffer against delinquency. Kids raised in poor functioning families bring their baggage to schools and oftentimes dump it on teachers and other students or commit crimes in the neighborhoods.  These kids and their parents require social services in the home to address their poor functional traits. These families may require multi-systemic therapy (MST), functional family therapy, or intensive wrap-around services.
  • Mental Health - Many youth are using marijuana and other illicit substances and require mental health services for education and treatment.  The use of drugs connects kids to poor social peers and decreases their school connectedness due to truancy and inability to learn in the classroom when they attend.
  • Probation - School based probation and other surveillance tools play a crucial role in breaking up the anti-social network of friends contributing to a kid’s delinquent behavior.  Probation officers can move the court for protective orders that restrain other youth from having contact with a delinquent kid, if the kid refuses to follow the instructions of his probation officer to not have contact with his anti-social peers.  This tool has proven to be quite effective when non-court involved kids are brought to court with their parents.  It is embarrassing to say the least.
  • Other Community Service Providers - There are a number of non-profit and for-profit providers with expertise in evidence based programs on the “What Works” list.  These include programs previously mentioned and others such as cognitive restructuring, mentoring, and other behavioral treatment programs.
  • Courts - On the bench, judges have at their creative disposal legal tools to assist probation officers in their efforts to break up a delinquent kid’s anti-social network of peers including, but not limited to, protective orders, restraints on freedom of movement and contact with others, and conditions requiring pro-social involvement in after-school programs.  Off the bench, judges, especially in Georgia, possess the authority under OCGA 15-11-10 to engage the aforementioned groups and develop protocols that connect them to better serve kids in the community.

Consequently, troubled youth with multiple needs may require multiple programs provided by multiple systems - systems that possess their own budgets, rules, regulations, and agendas.  In other words, they often do not communicate although they are oftentimes working with the same child.

What we have learned from this systems perspective is that the juvenile justice system is not only the court or probation, but a multi faceted system - a system that requires the integration of inputs from multiple systems to achieve a single desired outcome of prevention and reduced recidivism.   Unfortunately, many systems are not achieving the desired outcome because the systems are not integrated with a specific aim to achieve the desired outcomes of juvenile justice.  This atypical system, therefore, requires an atypical approach to connect these groups to improve outcomes for youth.  This atypical approach is the juvenile judge.

It is atypical only because many judges remain uncomfortable stepping into a role off the bench.  This is understandable. For some judges, it’s a matter of personality. They are uncomfortable engaging the public. For others, they don’t see it as a judicial responsibility, believing in the traditional notion of presiding on the bench and dispensing justice through court orders.  I am sure there are other perspectives but these are the prevailing reasons opposing a judicial role for community advocacy or system reform.  I want to be clear and point out that this judicial perspective does favor system reform and advocacy - but it’s not a judicial function.

Regardless, there are a growing number of juvenile judges that embrace the dichotomy of judicial leadership - dispensing justice on the bench through court orders and advocating for justice off the bench through system change.  This growing contingent feels compelled to take action off the bench and engage the community.  They cite as support the approval of the judicial canons and the statutory authority to engage the community to develop protocols as previously mentioned.

Notwithstanding the laws and canons of ethics in support of judicial engagement of the community, there is something to be said about the moral implications of participating in a system that threatens the well-being of children and failure to take action to eliminate the threat when we know that handcuffing the wrong kids is harmful.  It’s all too easy to find reasons why we can’t do anything.  As I travel the country, I have heard judges and administrators say, “I can’t help what they send me” or “I don’t control who the police arrest.”  These statements are true, to an extent.  They are true when we elect not to engage the system to make changes.  How do we reconcile a contradiction between the law which obligates juvenile courts (O.C.G.A. 15-11-1) to assist, protect, and restore children whose well-being is threatened, and a systemic practiced in many jurisdictions across this country in which the courts passively participate in conduct that hurts children?

Notwithstanding these differences, it makes sense for judges to take the lead in bringing about local system change.  It is in the courtroom where we find all these groups intersecting in the lives of kids.  The judges witness on a daily basis this disconnect between these groups despite treating the same child.  If the courtroom is the intersection of juvenile justice, the juvenile judge is the traffic cop. (Teske & Huff, Juvenile & Family Court Journal, Spring 2010, 54).  The judge is in a strategic position to bring stakeholders together when others cannot.  The role of the judge in system reform is simple - ask and they will come.

With the assistance of the Annie E. Casey Foundation Juvenile Detention Alternative Initiative (JDAI), this multi-system integrated approach using the judge’s “traffic cop” role to bring the group leaders to the table has been used in several jurisdictions around the country to reduce school suspension, expulsions, and arrests, while simultaneously building a system of care to assess and treat these disruptive students and their families.  It can be done - it has been done!

Judge Brian Huff in Birmingham, AL, Judge Jay Blitzman in Middlesex County, MA, Judge Kimberly Browne in Columbus, OH, Judge James Burgess in Wichita, KS, Judge Angela Roberts of Richmond, VA, and Judge Jimmie Edwards of St. Louis, MO are a few of the many judges around the country engaging the community to revitalize juvenile justice systems to protect children against harmful decisions of adults.  I am also fortunate to be working alongside many judges in Georgia who likewise engage their communities to enhance their systems.  Judges Peggy Walker, Michael Key, John Sumner, Britt Hammond, Robin Shearer, Sandra Miller, and the list goes, are a few of the Georgia juvenile judges engaging the community to improve outcomes for children.

The dirty work of juvenile justice doesn’t happen at the state or federal level.  It happens in the local communities where the children and families live.  It’s at the local level where agencies, providers, volunteers, probation officers, and judges live with our children and cross paths when our children get in trouble.  Juvenile delinquency is primarily a community problem to be solved by the community.  We appreciate state and federal assistance to support our local efforts to prevent and treat delinquency but in the words of that James Bond movie theme sung by Sheena Easton, “Nobody does it better” than our local judges and the community stakeholders.

The fact that judges and community stakeholders can do it better brings with it the responsibility that our local systems are operating at their best to not only respond to delinquent youth, but to prevent harmful contact between the juvenile justice system and the youth in our schools and community.  If the best work is at the local level, the best reform efforts to improve outcomes are at the local level.  Pointing the finger at each other doesn’t improve our system.  It’s called the blame game and it’s dysfunctional.  Systems must focus on problem solving and that begins with talking to each other.  So, who’s going to bring the stakeholders together in your community?


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: 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?


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.


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

Judge Steve Teske: The Silent Majority

A young boy is ripped from his family.  As he is placed in the back of a stranger’s car, he looks out the back window and sees his mom crying and his dad in the back of a police car.  He doesn’t understand. He is scared. He can’t stop crying. 

A young teenager is running the streets and getting into trouble.  He is stealing and getting into fights to survive.  He knows he is ready to kill if he has to.

A young man was neglected and sexually abused as a child.  He sees no purpose in life. Death, at times, seems more inviting than life.

These are the faces of just a few I heard from at the recent CHRIStal Ball, an annual event to raise funds for CHRIS Kids.  Now take these three stories and multiply them by at least 933,333 other children and youth in this country that are reported abused and neglected; and this nearly 3 million does not include those not reported. During these recent difficult times in our nation, these numbers are increasing.

Children suffering at the hands of abusing and neglecting caretakers are at high risk of suffering from reactive attachment disorder. Children suffering from this disorder may have an aversion to physical affection, become disobedient, defiant, and argumentative, display manipulative and aggressive behavior, and lack remorse or guilt when they behave badly. As they grow older, into adolescence, they develop either inhibited or disinhibited symptoms of reactive attachment disorder.  Youth with inhibited symptoms are withdrawn and emotionally detached. They push others away, ignore them, and may act out aggressively toward others. Those with disinhibited symptoms prefer strangers over their parents, and often behave immaturely.

For those of us in juvenile justice, working with troubled adolescents, are you getting the picture yet? Consider the connection between these symptoms and the six researched based causes of delinquent youth:

  • Cognition (attitudes and values)
  • Peers (anti-social friends)
  • Family Function (abuse, neglect, lack of supervision and nurturing)
  • School Connectedness
  • Substance Abuse
  • Weak Problem-Solving Skills. 

Thanks to the Zero-to-Three research and the work of Casey Family Programs and the Center for Juvenile Justice Reform at Georgetown University, we are recognizing this connection between early childhood abuse and neglect and how it manifests into delinquent conduct in adolescent years. We now call this population “cross-over” youth, and they present symptoms most difficult for the average foster parent or adoptive parent.  Consequently, judges and other juvenile justice and child welfare practitioners often confront “cross-over” youth no one wants because they are difficult to handle; because they are hard to get close to; and because they are afraid to get close to others.

 Judges, you know these youth. These are the ones who find their way into your court because they have committed a delinquent act and now DFCS, in many instances, wants them out of their foster care system because they are labeled “disruptive” and they can’t find a placement.  The adoptive parent who wanted that adorable child at age three or four, now calls him a “monster” at thirteen. And many times it is just as well they don’t remain in a foster home that is ill-equipped to handle the distresses of these symptoms.  It requires an organization that specializes in these “cross-over” youth.  Those three youth described above are now adults.  They were residents of CHRIS Kids.  They are high school graduates either in college or serving in the military and returned Saturday evening to share their stories of how CHRIS Kids nurtured them back to emotional well-being to become productive pro-social adults helping others.  In fact, one is now on the board of directors of CHRIS Kids. 

But this would not be possible without the support of the community, from both business and private citizens.  I was impressed and humbled by the community support for these kids.  I could not help but think how those of us on the bureaucratic side of juvenile justice complain about the lack of money in the state budget, when so much is done in the private sector to support homes for these very troubled kids.  Do we truly understand what the cost would be to the taxpayer if DJJ or DFCS had to pay the full cost for housing and caring for - and I mean really caring for these youth - and steering them toward a productive adulthood?  But for the business community and the caring and concerned private citizens, those of us in the courtroom and in the field would have no viable options to save these troubled youth.  They are the silent majority.  They give and seek no recognition.

I sat at my table Saturday night and considered the connection between me, as a judge, and the community.  How can I be effective if I am not aware of what is going on in my community with programs; if I don’t know who is giving to help these kids that I see in my court every day? Furthermore, should I get to know what programs are working, and what I can do to make sure the system is getting those kids to caring and effective programs?  I speak only for myself.  I need to get off the bench from time to time to time visit that silent majority to say thanks, and give as they do.


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.