An eleven-year-old Florida student was handcuffed, taken to jail, and charged with a third-degree felony for having a plastic butter knife; a New York pre-K student is suspended for having too many bathroom accidents; a Mississippi student was arrested for breaking wind; a Tauton, Massachusetts second grader was suspended and forced to undergo a mental health evaluation for drawing a picture of Jesus on the cross; a California student faces a judge on criminal charges of being tardy too many times; and a Baltimore, Maryland student risked suspension for nibbling on a Pop Tart in the shape of a gun. We see it all the time in the headlines. For those who are unaware, there’s a war in America that’s been going on for some time now.
Every year, we are arresting over 2 million students. Far more students are suspended and expelled. Studies have shown that a child’s chances of dropping out increases by 50% for every time (s)he is suspended out of school. Presently, some 7,000 students drop out each school day. Most of these suspensions, expulsions, and arrests take place just before standardized testing. The reason for this, scholars posit, is what’s being called the Test-to-Prison Pipeline (a variation of the older School-to-Prison Pipeline theory). Simply put, a child that is suspended/expelled or incarcerated cannot take the standardized test and therefore the overall test results will be higher. This is critical in states like Florida where a school’s funding is based on how well students do on these tests.
Most juvenile arrests in America today are predicated upon what criminologists call the “Super Predator Myth.” This myth was first postulated by Professor John DiIulio, Jr. as a research-based theory of juvenile crime. Later, his research was found to be fundamentally flawed in every conceivable way. However, Pandora’s Box had already been opened by this junk science theory. We became a nation fearful of our youth and with the wrong-headed notion the only way to keep them from turning into murderous thugs was to arrest and try them as adults for felony crimes.
Today in America, the prison system is such a booming business. Private prisons, like the Geo Group, publicly trade on the stock market. Most of America’s population of inmates first came into the criminal justice system by way of juvenile arrests. The primary reason that an incarcerated person leaves a juvenile detention facility is because they have reached the age of majority and now must be transferred to an adult prison to finish out the rest of their sentence.
Rather than being a nation of law and justice, we have turned to “scared justice” tactics where laws vary based upon a person’s income, race, age, and other factors. And, no place can this injustice be more finely felt than by our nation’s youth.
In the fields of Conflict Resolution and Restorative Justice, professionals and writers are now focusing a tremendous amount of time on pathways to engaging in difficult discussions. Each field of conflict study has its own thought leaders with their own ways of tackling this endeavor head-on. But why are we seemingly in need of such study and works?
Part of the problem is the manufacturing of fear in the public over juvenile crimes. One major culprit is our nation’s School Resource Officer program. The other player in this social malaise is Hollywood.
While SROs are used practically nation-wide, the data on their effectiveness is less than compelling. While their stated purpose is to safeguard the students, national crime data reveals they generally arrest students for innocuous offenses when traditional school-based disciplinary procedures would be more effective and beneficial. In protecting students from school violence and shootings, the data also reflects they generally are ineffective with them mostly arresting students on baseless charges.
One of the best publicly available arguments against SROs can be found in the Justice Policy Institute’s “Education Under Arrest: The Case Against Police in Schools,” where it looks at the chronic failures, duties, dangers and case law surrounding SROs. For instance, in the Supreme Court case of J.B.D. vs North Carolina, involving a 13 year old student who was arrested without being read Miranda rights, the court found juveniles do not possess proper understanding to appreciate Miranda. Ultimately, the report delineates five ways to improve schools without needing SROs. These suggestions ranged from properly training and supporting staff on issues of behavioral disruptions to building quality relationships between staff and students.
Ironically, these suggestions are things which are best handled through Conflict Resolution and Restorative Justice strategies. In my book, Unbroken Circles for Schools, I specifically addressed how using Peer Mediation with Circles, Panels, Conferences, and Justice Circles can create a community of care which improves classroom instruction, addresses behavioral issues, builds relationships, provides counseling options, and identifies issues early on in order to render SROs needless in schools. The JPI piece proposed using government funds to purchase varying national plans but, as I note in my book, effective strategies already exist in the public domain.
Hollywood is also just as guilty of culpable harm. Specifically, shows like “Beyond Scared Straight” perpetuate a myth while fostering practices proven to actually harm children as bad, if not sometimes worse, than what SROs do by arresting children needlessly.
According to the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, “A study by Anthony Petrosino and researchers at the Campbell Collaboration analyzed results from nine Scared Straight programs and found that such programs generally increased crime up to 28 percent in the experimental group when compared to a no-treatment control group. In another analysis of juvenile prevention and treatment programs, Mark Lipsey of the Vanderbilt Institute for Public Policy Studies found that youth who participate in Scared Straight and other similar deterrence programs have higher recidivism rates than youth in control groups. And a report presented in 1997 to the U.S. Congress reviewed more than 500 crime prevention evaluations and placed Scared Straight programs in the “what does not work” category. Despite these findings, Scared Straight programs continue to be used throughout the United States and abroad.”
Again, the OJJDP focused on the very same solutions which the JPI looked at. Naturally, like with the JPI, the OJJDP urged for costly programs to be employed by schools and communities. However, like I stated before, effective Conflict Resolution and Restorative Justice solutions are already in the public domain and used daily by trained and certified professionals.
A common saying, “A leopard can’t change its spots,” is often used in reference to criminals. The meaning behind this is that a child who does wrong actions now will only do worse actions later as an adult – a flawed line of logic at best. I say, “If you paint spots on a lion cub, it doesn’t make it a leopard.” Ultimately, I contend that officials are making children out to be worse than they are. In fact, most, if they were given a little extra attention, could become tremendous benefits to society as adults.
Research has come forth saying that children are facing massive issues with underemployment by their parents, broken homes where they may have only an extended family member at best to serve as guardian over them, domestic violence in the home, substance abuse in the home, untreated illnesses, lack of proper nutrition, homelessness, child neglect, and sexual molestation to name a few. In fact, where I live, homeless kids have coined the term “couch surfing” to refer to how they spend their nights sleeping on the couches of friends, relatives, or anyone else that would take them in for the night. These are the children that our schools seemingly target.
What’s more troubling is that the children actually suffer more once they are incarcerated. This is because most states exempt juvenile detention officers from state child abuse and child neglect laws. In Florida, which is a top arrester of youths in America with over 58,000 arrested per year, a number of detention facilities have recently gone under review for children being allowed to die in front of guards without any call for help, children being sexually molested by staff, unnecessary beatings, and the list goes on and on.
There is a solution to this social justice dilemma. The crux of the problem is that the community must become engaged and press for resolve since schools and law enforcement refuse to take responsibility with this issue. This is a hard discussion topic for a society where many trappings of the traditional community are gone due to our nomadic existence and where the media colors our understanding of reality with sensationalized stories and filtered-out stories. This makes collaboration between nonprofits and religious institutions , on this issue, all the more critical for lasting change to take place since these are the unsung heroes doing most of the unseen social justice work in this nation.
WORKING TOGETHER; MAKING A DIFFERENCE
I suggest that interested stakeholders in the community, as well as Conflict Resolution and Restorative Justice professionals and advocates, agree to assemble at a neutral venue and break bread to talk about the problems facing their community. After all, this is how America got started! Once the problems have been stated, then the community should evaluate resources that each group can bring to the table. Since I pretty much wrote the book on this issue, here are some suggestions that I would make for consideration:
► Have the school district do away with SROs. There’s simply no need for them. National statistics show time and time again juveniles make up less than 1% of the violent crimes committed in America. These are officers that can be put out on the streets to arrest real criminals, direct traffic, or engage in a number of social benefits inherent to law enforcement.
► Have the school engage in Restorative Justice (RJ) and Peer Mediation practices. RJ has been proven far more effective on juveniles than any other group at reducing recidivism and also making lasting, positive behavioral changes. By the same token, peer mediation has been proven effective in handling issues typically tying up vital time normally handled needlessly by teachers. A good program should be a balance of daily circles, peer mediation, and conferencing.
► Creating a peer counseling corps can offer critical support and assistance for students in needs. Like peer mediators, peer counselors are trained by professionals in the field and given similar skill sets as adult professionals in the field use in their own practices.
► Establish a Neighborhood Restorative Justice Center (NRJC) as a deferment option should a child still end up in the court system. In many states, like Florida, there are already laws on the books allowing this sort of deferment but officials refuse to establish these centers. An NRJC, created by the community, allows the student that final, yet critical, opportunity to seek out atonement for their actions and to seek the help that they need.
There’s no other way to put it other than to say America’s war on youth is a national scandal. However, if handled properly, the communities around America have an opportunity to make a significant impact on the overcrowding of prisons, increasing tax revenues, increasing productivity, and re-engaging the “American dream” which has historically been our driving force in becoming a superpower in the global marketplace.###
Ken Johnson is a private researcher, writer, lecturer, and consultant on issues of culture and conflict. Organizational architecture and anabolic (positive) conflict are just some of the key issues he investigates. Though written for the school system, his book, Unbroken Circles for Schools, has core concepts which can be applied to various life applications. To learn more about Ken and his work, CLICK HERE to visit his website.