‘You act up at school and they’ll punish you. That’s not the end of it; when you get home, there will also be consequences! Is that understood!?’ That’s how the stern dad would admonish his son, or, ‘Young lady, I expect you to act like one! If all the other kids stick their hand in the fire, are you going to join them? I hope not! We raised you with a brain and a sense of pride. Don’t go doing things that will get you in trouble; that you’ll be ashamed of!’ If we went out on the street with a video camera, there are probably lots of variations on these themes- more prevalent as you move up age ranges. A younger dad was pretty laid back about parenting, preferring, ‘Dude, what were you thinking?’ as his mom chimed in laughing, ‘You’re just like your dad!’
A 2013 National Study during the ’09-2010 academic year of 26,000 middle and high schools (Losen and Martinez) showed that one in nine students were suspended at least once and the majority were minor infractions of school rules –disrupting class, tardiness and dress code violations. But suspensions and expulsions weren’t consistently applied (Fabelo, 2011). This predicts poor academic success which can have long term consequences. The Ohio Department of Education reported reasons for out of school suspensions 2010-2013. The top reason reported 113,615 instances of disobedient or disruptive behavior. Fighting and violence was in second place. The trend increasingly is to initiate evidence-based positive behavior interventions and support instead of instant expulsion. Not staying in school has life-long consequences.
There was a ruckus in the cafeteria; beginnings of a food fight. The initial perpetrator fired peas off his spoon. The mushy little green things bounced off Rusty’s shirt; some slid down the inside front, releasing their earthy smell. Impulsively, he grabbed his banana peel and threw it only to have it land on Mr. Pinkney’s shoe after the side of the man’s face broke the aerial assault. The assistant principal had materialized out of no-where. Giggles and guffaws hung in the air as if they were instantly frozen in time. And Rusty was summoned to the principal’s office for disciplinary action.
Some zero tolerance policies in Ohio include a 17 year old arrested and expelled for shooting a paper clip with a rubber band and an 8 year old girl suspended 11 days for bringing nail clippers to school. A third grader was suspended 3 days for saying ‘yeah’ instead of ‘Yes, Ma’am’. There were 93,000 delinquency cases filed in Ohio’s Juvenile Courts in 2012 and over 16,000 Unruly Cases filed. [Source: Welcome to Ohio Communities 4 Kids Examples of Zero Tolerance] Neuroscience research shows that the teen brain does not develop impulse control until the mid- twenties; increased risk-taking is developmentally predictable. Discernment may not be fully developed.
There are several offenses which are considered ‘status offenses’- that is a charge when the teen is adjudicated for conduct that wouldn’t be considered a crime if committed as an adult. Things like truancy, chronic truancy, curfew violations, minor possession, underage consumption or runaway might be included. A teen that is adjudicated may be held in a detention facility if he or she poses a risk to public safety or would run away during the time the case is pending. A survey of teens who engaged in criminal activity shows that while 34% were arrested, 52% were not, and most ‘age out of criminal behavior’. Teens who serve time in detention are more likely to subsequently drop out of school, and/or use drugs or alcohol after their release. [Welcome to Ohio Communities 4 Kids: Detention Diversion]
Of teens who are detained, one fourth are for status offenses and/or technical violations; 10% from simple assaults and misdemeanor person offenses; forty percent involve property, drugs, public order and other, with only a fourth considered violent crime. Of the kids who are detained, “over 70% are experiencing mental health disorders; more than one-half met the criteria for two diagnoses; over 60% also had a substance abuse disorder and nearly 27% suffered disorders considered serious enough to require immediate significant treatment.” [Source: National Center for Mental Health and Juvenile Justice]. This argues for increased and enhanced care and diversion to appropriate mental and behavioral healthcare treatment.
How is the issue remedied? Research shows having school response programming is effective. In Ohio counties with such a program, children and teens receive the help they need to both address the behavior and remain in school. A successful intervention which provides family resources and/or mediation is helpful. The old model of viewing a teen as ‘the villain’ requiring harsh discipline, ‘boot camp- like’ treatment and indefinite removal from school/peers/family has been shown to be counter-productive. Conversely, seeing a teen as ‘the victim’ may recognize the need for therapy, but may not address other underlying causes. The last thing you want to do is to stigmatize a teen or re-traumatize them while attempting to make a positive and productive difference which builds upon their strengths and coping skill.
[photo credit: Teenager and Graffiti 25360250 by Marsia16/Dreamstime.com]