Spare The Rod – Sunday, September 17, 2000 – Published in The Concord Monitor
* We are failing kids by punishing them rather than nurturing them into healthy, mature adults
Adult problems with teenagers are an old story. Every older generation complains about the younger generation. But something new has been happening. Adults are scapegoating teenagers and blaming your misbehavior as a principal cause of crime and violence. A philosophy of heavy-handed punishment, not rehabilitation, has become the dominant legislative and judicial trend.
More and more states are prosecuting juveniles as adults. Since 1992, 45 states have passed or amended legislation making it easier to prosecute kids as adults for a wider array of charges. We have also been lowering the age when kids can be prosecuted as adults. Many states have set the age at 14, but Vermont actually allows 10-year-olds to be prosecuted as adults.
Surprisingly, these harsh changes have occurred at a time when statistics have shown a decline in the national crime rate for serious violent crimes committed by youths. The drop was 33 percent from 1993 to 1997.
During the last 10 years, the number of people under 18 held in adult prisons in the United States has doubled. About one-third are there for property or drug offenses, not violent crime. We are sending kids to adult prisons knowing that young prisoners are at greater risk for physical and sexual assault. We also know such placement is a training school for more crime. Yet, we do not stop.
There is a stereotype that some teenagers are beyond hope, not like us. Allegedly, they are time bombs waiting to go off. Anecdotal evidence offers up a generation of Ecstasy-ingesting predators skateboarding toward instant gratification and cultural illiteracy. Writer Mike Males has dubbed them the scapegoat generation. We need metal detectors, video surveillance, curfews and early warning systems to spot the bad apples and protect us. On the basis of fear, we concoct a “get tough” social policy to sanction and punish teens.
The perception that kids are dangerous has been fed by sensationalistic events like Columbine and Jonesboro. Even though Justice Department data show that schools are actually safer than ever, there is a perception that the opposite is true. While the odds of being shot at school are minuscule, a 1999 Gallup Poll suggested that three-quarters of Americans think it is likely that a shooting will occur at their local school.
“Zero tolerance” policies at schools have become widespread. Schools impose swift and severe punishment for offenses that previously would have been seen as minor transgressions.
Nationally, there are many examples of this trend. Consider the case of the third-grader expelled for getting into a scuffle on the playground during tetherball. Another third-grader was suspended for putting an allegedly threatening message in a fortune cooking for a class project. Then there was a 9-year-old who was suspended for bringing to school a manicure kit with a 1-inch knife.
My personal favorite: the 13-year-old Texas boy who was assigned to write a Halloween horror story. He wrote a story describing the shooting of a teacher and two classmates. The boy got a perfect grade plus extra credit for reading his story aloud in class. The only problem: In his story, the boy used real names. When parents of the classmates complained, school officials notified juvenile authorities. Sheriff’s deputies removed the boy from school. After he had spent five days in juvenile detention, the charges were dropped.
Here in New Hampshire, I have seen some police treat teenage boys like they are prospective hardened criminals. The New Hampshire equivalent to racial profiling is teenage boy profiling. A group of teenage boys driving around, especially at night, appears to be problem cause for a police stop. There is an automatic assumption: Teenagers equal trouble.
This newspaper recently ran a story about the new cottage industry profiling teens at school. High schools are hiring psychologists to assess the violent threat potential of students. the idea is to assess risk factors so as to predict the degree of threat posed by particular students.
One Illinois school’s profiling checklist included use of abusive language, cruelty to animals and writings reflecting an interest in the dark side of life. Other schools have scrutinized T-shirts and jewelry.
The United States has the highest rate of children and adolescents living in families below poverty guidelines in the industrial world, the result of spending fewer public resources on children than any other industrial nation. Neither political party is willing to face the adult responsibility for youth poverty. Another way to look at our school funding debate in New Hampshire is simply the reduction in adult support for children’s education.
No society congratulates itself as much as we do. “We’re number one” is practically our national motto. Yet we are failing kids by punishing them rather than providing the support systems and nurture they need to grow into healthy, mature adults. Sociologist Edgar Friedenberg once wrote, “Adolescent personality evokes in adults conflicts, anxiety, and intense hostility (usually disguised as concern).” Those words still capture our reality.
A credo of past generations has been to invest in the young so that kids could have a better future. That is a tradition we should return to and honor. No one can deny that there are bad kids who will never be rehabilitated. However, we need to see kids as individuals with inherent worth and value and act accordingly.