Thursday, October 8, 2009

Are We Shocked Enough to do Something Different?

Attorney General Eric Holder and Education Secretary Arne Duncan are rightly concerned with the horrifically violent death of Chicago teen Derrion Albert.

Albert, an honor student, church member and, by all accounts was brutally beaten to death on his way home from school when he got caught in the middle of a fight between two rival gangs. His beating, caught on cell phone video has been seen around the country and is seen as symptomatic of a larger problem with violent inner city youth. Derrion's school, reported to receive $500,000 in federal funds to stabilize as students return to that school.

Again, an understandable concern and a significant initial response. Of course there is also additional responses. Some are now calling on youth violence to be seen as a public health crisis.

I guess that's one way to look at it.

But I also think that we are never going to really make much headway if we keep segmenting pathologies associated with concentrated poverty.

Out of control youth are really a product of an adult society which can't get its act together. That definitely includes parents - but it is true of all adults who touch the lives of children and youth.

For more than a couple of decades now, we've begun to criminalize youth behavior. We have allowed public education to become a jobs program for adults, a cash cow for companies that produce standardized tests and a football to be kicked around by politicians. And we have allowed ourselves to be deluded that the world can be divided into 'those kids' and 'our kids'. We isolate these children and youth geographically in poor neighborhoods while giving them a window to the world's prosperity through television and videos (again, making adults rich).

And we wonder why we have a problem.

How we've come to view our young people is portrayed poignantly in a study released this year by the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

"Wrongly assuming that crime rates and demography are inextricably linked, a number of academics warned of an impending juvenile crime wave. In 1995, John Dilulio attached the term “superpredator” to the then preadolescents that he predicted would be part of a huge and ruthless juvenile crime wave (dominated by youth of color). These youth were described as “fatherless, jobless, and Godless” by Dilulio, who was joined in his dire predictions by James Q. Wilson, Charles Murray, and James Fox. But soon after the peak in the mid 1990s, juvenile crime rates fell for the next ten years and several studies showed that Dilulio and others had gotten the issue wrong. The temporary spike in youth violence was not simply a matter of more youths on the streets, and did not indicate a change in the nature or basic behavior of youth. Rather, the short term rise in crime was attributable to economic disparity, adult drug dealers using youths as pawns, and, most importantly, easy access to guns."

"Nevertheless, Dilulio and other “Chicken Little” warnings about “a new horde from hell that kills, maims, and terrorizes”had taken hold. A barrage of “get tough on (youth) crime” laws were enacted and for the most part remain in effect today, long after the very temporary juvenile crime wave subsided. A combination of media coverage, political fear mongering, and a misinformed public—and conservative mountebanks such as Wilson, Murray, and Dilulio—came together to change the very nature of the national debate on juvenile justice."

The study, funded by the Annie E. Casey Foundation and assesses the intersection of media coverage of youth crime, public perception, public policy and real trends and issues in youth crime Washington D.C., San Mateo, California, and Dallas, Texas. It looks to more effective and realistic views to dealing with youth violence than simply introducing kids to the criminal justice system at earlier ages. Even Dilulio has changed his mind, stating in 2008 and "...argues for less detention and a more community-based response to crime."

The report covers newspaper coverage in these target cities over a 20 year period; reviews and assesses crime statistics to discern actual trends; includes interviews with stakeholders - juvenile court judges, chiefs of police, probation, probation staff, police, prosecutors and public defenders - as well as in depth interviews with youth caught up in the system.

A summary of some of the findings include:

Most adults have little contact with youth and most never have direct experience with youth crime. They base their impressions on word of mouth, public officials and the media.

Most stories on youth depict them as 'troubled or, more likely trouble for society' with stories identifying them as either the perpetrators or victims of violence. Too much coverage focuses on infrequent but heinous cases without any context.

Communities often need to respond to shorter-term crime trends. Systemic responsiveness checks public fear and law enforcement needs to be carried out in a responsible, planned and strategic manner vs. panic mode.

The study also calls for an 'evidence-based approach based on the real stories of the system involved or at-risk youth themselves.'

More on this later. For me, the point is that we need to understand that the true triage that needs to go into effect is not just in singling out youth as a troubled demographic. The systems that surround them are equally as troubled. They are responding inadequately to youth AND their families.

One of the problems I have with George Bush's 'No Child Left Behind' legislation has little to do with the legislation. It's the subliminal message sent intentionally or unintentionally. We cannot seriously be committed to 'No Child Left Behind' and leave behind their families.

1 comment:

Casie Pierce said...

One of the things that I noticed with my summer Green Team last year was that the ones who had gone to juvenile detention (jail, basically) had gone not because of fighting but for doing what I perceived as things kids do, like throwing rocks at a passing train. These were the "troubled" kids whose parents just didn't care about them. In fact, the only thing their parents wanted was their paychecks. I had to chase them down to get their permission to take them out-of-state camping for a week. Their parents didn't even call to check on them. So either they really trusted me, or they didn't care about their kids.

One day when we were doing a curriculum piece at the Larry Johnson Center, two grown-ups got in a fight in the parking lot. One was the parent of a kid I had the previous year. These were 33-year-old WOMEN, fighting, with their fists. This is the culture that my kids live in.

The other problem that we had, is that they tend to be territorial. The kids all went to Lincoln, but the ones who lived on Dixon wanted to fight with the kids who lived in Bon Ton or Ideal.

We tried a conflict resolution class. That's something that is key. These kids need to understand how to handle their issues without resorting to violence first. But what's hard about it is when their parents are out fighting, or when their parents react to them with violence.

One boy that I had to kick out of the Green Team was a straight-A student, had never been in trouble. He picked up a condom at a park and threw it at another student. She hauled off and hit him and he hit her back. So I put them both on three-day suspension, and then he started throwing a fit, kicking the van, throwing his fists, trying to hit their supervisor. I knew that when he got home his dad was going to whip him. I didn't have to wonder where this kid got his rage from.