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Zero tolerance in schools could lead to problems for students in future

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In April, police arrested a 6-year-old girl at her school in Georgia after she threw a tantrum. Two years ago, police in New York removed a seventh grader from her school in handcuffs for doodling on her desk with a marker. Closer to home, police removed a 6-year-old boy from a Shelbyville, Ind., school after he allegedly kicked the school principal and threatened school administrators.

While these types of stories may be relatively uncommon in relation to the number of students nationwide, many groups with an eye on juvenile justice say “zero-tolerance” policies in schools may be creating more problems than they solve.

Disciplinary approach

In 2009, the Indiana State Bar Association hosted a “Summit on Racial Disparities in the Juvenile Justice System.” The 2010 report on that summit prepared by the ISBA Civil Rights of Children Committee said that zero tolerance in schools disproportionately affects youth of color and leads to increased delinquency and adult crime.

Russell Skiba, an Indiana University psychology professor who is director of the Equity Project, said zero-tolerance policies in schools are characterized by harsh consequences for certain behaviors, which in theory deters crime and protects other students.

“It is something that arose in the late ’80s and early ’90s when there was a real strong fear that youth violence in communities was also increased in schools,” Skiba said. “We’ve since learned that really isn’t the case, that violence in schools has remained pretty stable over the last 30 years.” But Skiba said the data about the effectiveness of school police is lacking.work-group

He mentioned the Impact Schools program in New York, which placed more than 100 police officers inside 12 schools known to have disciplinary problems. An analysis of data from that program found there was decreased attendance over time, an increase in the number of kids suspended and a decrease in the average achievements in that school.

Lack of data

Skiba and others often look to other states for examples of successful and failed disciplinary policies because Indiana lacks hard data on this subject.

In 2010, the Indiana Legislature passed House Enrolled Act 1193, a bill that created a Law Enforcement, School Policing and Youth Work Group. The 26-member group was assigned several tasks, including the study and recommendation of training curricula to the Indiana Law Enforcement Academy. It was also supposed to research how zero-tolerance policies in Indiana affect youth involvement in the juvenile justice system and prepare an annual report on a wide range of related findings

Two years later, that work group has yet to hold its first meeting. Its initial chair left the state, and Gov. Mitch Daniels never appointed another. Asked when he planned to appoint a chair, Daniels’ spokeswoman Jane Jankowski said in an email that she could not provide a timeline for when a chair might be appointed. The work group expires in 2015.

Lisa Thurau, an attorney who founded the nonprofit advocacy group Strategies for Youth in Cambridge, Mass., testified in support of HEA 1193 in 2010. She said the fact the work group has stalled out is a missed opportunity for Indiana.

Police and youth

Thurau has trained members of several police departments on best practices for interacting with young people.

“We try to make officers understand that youth’s behavior is often communicating what kids can’t articulate,” Thurau said.

Underlying factors that could cause young people to act out in school include abuse or trauma, a developmental disability or a substance abuse problem.

“You are putting people who have been trained how to deal with adults and use adult tactics in situations with teenagers; those same tactics don’t work with teens,” Thurau said.

Thurau will be in Indianapolis later this year to assist with a training for city police that patrol the 46218 zip code, which includes a near-northside area south of 38th Street and west of Arlington Avenue. Robert Bingham, chief probation officer for Marion Superior Court, is working with Thurau on the training.

“The most major focus is to assist beat officers and patrol officers in better engaging and communicating with youth,” Bingham said. Young people generally don’t look favorably upon law enforcement, he explained, and additional training could help improve relationships.

Bingham said the Indianapolis training will be modeled after the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority’s StopWatch program, which Thurau initiated. That program attempts to eliminate anonymity and foster healthy relationships between police and youth in an effort to reduce the number of children being arrested.

The MBTA polices the public transit system in Boston, where teens regularly congregate. In 2001, they arrested 680 young people, and 11 teens filed suit against the MBTA alleging police interrogated and arrested them without just cause. The MBTA identified a need for better interactions with youth, and in 2009, after being trained in teen psychology and communication, the MBTA arrested only 84 young people.

In a report explaining the StopWatch initiative, the MBTA stated that history has shown zero-tolerance policies are inherently flawed and tend to alienate the community rather than include the community in approaches to solving problems.

In Clayton County, Ga., the community helped create a solution to the problem of the rapidly increasing number of students schools referred to juvenile court.

Clayton Juvenile Judge Steven Teske and two Alabama judges wrote an opinion piece for The Huntsville (Ala.) Times about the issue. The judges stated that in Clayton County in 1995, only 36 students were referred to juvenile court by schools. But as the number of security officers in schools increased, referrals did, too – to 264 in 1998 and to 1,262 in 2003.

Community members, law enforcement and school officials worked together to create a protocol for how security officers handled the low-level misdemeanor offenses that accounted for a majority of referrals. The agreement outlined graduated sanctions, with referral to the court only as a last resort. It was instituted in 2004, and school referrals dropped by 45 percent in 2005. By 2007, schools referred only 523 students to juvenile court.

Teske had also testified in support of HEA 1193.

Consequences and alternatives

A young person with an arrest record could be denied entrance to college or the military, and certain offenses – like drug-related or violent crimes – can result in a family losing federally funded housing.

But are families aware that a juvenile arrest can have such serious consequences? “Nationally, our finding is a resounding ‘absolutely not,’” Thurau said.

Locally, Michelle Study-Campbell, the executive director of Reach for Youth, sees young people beginning to grasp the gravity of their situations as they are tried by their peers in teen court.

While teen court has been an official diversionary program associated with some courts, only recently has such a concept been introduced into schools. Reach for Youth piloted the program in Decatur Township schools in Marion County, and most recently, the county’s Warren Township school system adopted the program to deal with truancy cases.

The purpose is to keep juveniles with minor offenses out of the correctional system. A student who accepts responsibility for his or her offense goes before a jury of peers that hears the case and comes up with a sentence – usually an order to issue a formal apology, complete a community service requirement, and in cases of substance abuse, to complete substance abuse counseling. If a student completes the required tasks, the offense is expunged from the young person’s record.

“On teen court night, we see a lot of tears; we see a lot of heartfelt apologies and recognition that this is a very serious issue,” Study-Campbell said. Attorneys serving as judges for the teen court explain to young offenders what the consequences could be for their actions, if they were adults. “It’s pretty sobering,” Study-Campbell added.•
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