Safety and sense

May 25, 2004|By Vincent Schiraldi

THE RECENT shooting of four students after a Randallstown High School basketball game has highlighted again the downside of life among today's young people.

But most would be surprised to learn that today's teenagers are better behaved than their parents' and teachers' generation. The misperceptions of their behavior are contributing to a host of harsh and counterproductive policies toward young people in America's schools.

From 1993 to 2000, for example, there was a 75 percent decline in youth homicides in America, and the youth crime rate in 2000 was down to levels not seen since the 1960s. Yet a 1999 poll commissioned by the Building Blocks for Youth initiative in Washington found that two-thirds of Americans thought that youth crime was on the rise.

The Class of 2000 was less likely to commit crimes in school, take drugs, have teenage births and drop out than the Class of 1975. In 2000, there was only a one in 3 million chance of a young person being killed in a school. Yet 71 percent of respondents to a 1999 Wall Street Journal poll thought that a school shooting was likely in their community, and school suspensions and expulsions have doubled (to over 3 million annually) since the 1970s.

Two female students recently were strip-searched at Kent County High School after sheriff's deputies with drug-sniffing dogs descended upon the school and conducted a warrantless search.

Last year, a senior at Montgomery County's Walt Whitman High School was referred to the police and forbidden from attending graduation for smoking marijuana, a decision upheld by the school's principal, the school board and a county judge.

How many of today's educators, school board members and judges who smoked pot as youngsters can honestly say that they or society would have been better off if they had been strip-searched, arrested or forbidden from attending graduation?

Shipping students from schools to jails for relatively minor problem behavior has become so prevalent that the Harvard Civil Rights Project convened a conference last summer examining the "School to Prison Pipeline." It focused on the idea that when youths are kicked out of school, a chain of consequences is set in motion rendering them increasingly likely to wind up behind bars.

Too often, in response to shocking but idiosyncratic school violence, teachers and principals are becoming appendages of law enforcement, referring youths to police for things that landed their own generation in the principal's office.

An analysis by the University of California found that "zero tolerance" laws result in increasing referrals to court from schools for minor misbehavior (the serious stuff has always resulted in arrest). The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that out-of-school students are more likely to get into fights, take drugs and drink alcohol and less likely to return to school and graduate. Young people without high school diplomas are, in turn, less likely to work and more likely to go to prison than high school graduates.

Expulsions and police referrals by schools are meted out in a manner that is also hobbling minority youths, particularly in inner-city schools.

In Baltimore County, the suspension and expulsion rate for black youths is double the white rate, a figure of disparity similar to the national suspension data. Perhaps this is why the Justice Department predicts that, nationally, one out of every three black boys born in 2001 (today's 3-year-olds) will end up in prison.

The good news is that there are other options to make communities and schools safe. One study presented at the Harvard conference detailed a series of rigorously evaluated programs that help schools build more respectful environments and provide more intensive interventions for students at risk of failure or delinquency. Further, these programs show promise in reducing frivolous suspensions and arrests, ultimately saving taxpayers' dollars by reducing legal system costs.

Other promising reforms include smaller schools and schools that directly address the needs of nontraditional students by blending education and employment training, secondary and postsecondary training and learning opportunities that extend beyond the traditional school day.

Young people clearly need to learn in an environment free from drugs and violence. But now we are expelling and arresting students in increasing numbers, often for acts that, while irritating, are not dangerous to others. It doesn't have to be this way.

Young people are doing their part by behaving better than their parents and teachers did when they were in school.

Now it's our turn to create schools that improve learning and safety without resorting to counterproductive and punitive tactics.

Vincent Schiraldi is president of the Justice Policy Institute in Washington.

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