Posts Tagged faith in punishment

Chronically Misbehaving Kids Suffer Mental and Social Disease

Published by EducationNews.org — Sometimes these students get a chance to  shake off the ‘bad kid’ self-image.  Too often not.

(Photo: Pixabay, Creative Commons)

Naturally, Faina Davis, a lawyer and head of Restorative Justice for Oakland Youth (RJOY), would have a happy-ish story about what happens when troubled kids connect with adults who practice Restorative Justice.  Far more often, kids misbehave, get punished, misbehave, get punished, in an endlessly destructive cycle.  But Restoration works to interrupt this cycle by solving whatever was driving the misbehavior in the first place.

An 11th grader, whom Davis calls Cameron, transferred into a Restorative Oakland high school.  He’d already become, as she put it, one of those “scary-dude kids” with saggy pants, a black hoodie and a horrible attitude.  Such charmers come to her through the Oakland’s schools, which have become demonstration sites for restorative justice.

On his first day at the new school, Cameron met with the school’s Director.  Cameron probably expected, per usual, to get yelled at, berated, and threatened with dire consequences for any more misdeeds.  Instead, this Restorative Director put aside the thick folder of records of Cameron’s academic failures, suspensions and arrests.  Start fresh.  Cameron couldn’t suddenly become an angel.  But together he and the Director would deal with the obstacles in the way of building a brighter, healthier path for this angry adolescent.

Happy ending: a kid who never cut a break finally got one.  Someone intervened in Cameron’s history of failure to pull him off the school-to-prison assembly line.  Cue sunset.

But Cameron was already a hot mess. 

It would be so simple, so straightforward if we knew that “scary-dude” kids were just born that way and not cultivated by circumstances to become a defensive, aggressive pre-prisoner.  Davis only gives us a taste of Cameron’s circumstances.

He was first suspended at the ripe old age of four.  To retrieve his own confiscated candy, he’d snuck out of the pre-school building and crawled back in through a window.  You might think a four-day suspension was serious overkill given his age and crime.  But more importantly, the suspension wasn’t going to get to any root of a problem.  Nor did it.

By 11th grade Cameron had racked up 150 school suspensions and lots of arrests.  His first arrest was for causing a middle-school milk fight in the cafeteria.  Yes, a milk fight in a large public school can escalate to such mayhem as to be dangerous.  Still.  Chronic misbehavior is the equivalent of a kid waving his arms and screaming:  “Help me!  I’m in trouble.  My family’s in trouble.” But no, he’s just punished.  Research would argue that Cameron’s suspension record strongly predicted his arrest record.  He was on a hamster wheel of recidivism.  Not until that Oakland Director did it slow down.

But what took so long?  Clearly his family had little capacity to support him.  Does he have PTSD from surviving as a kid in harsh, poverty-steeped background?  What’s been the price so far?  Can his “bad kid” self-image be repaired?  Whatever the answers, the kid has already paid a steep price.

Public systems allow kids’ troubles to fester way, way too long.

Since pre-school Cameron was a neon sign of trouble.  But schools, justice, and social services only wake up when such a kid has crossed a legal line, stolen a car, robbed a Quickie Mart or dealt drugs.  Schools only take notice when the kid is so disruptive as to be sent to “an alternative program,” segregated with the other bad kids “whose needs are better served elsewhere.”  Having crossed the line, the bad kid’s fate is sealed — end of story.  We blame the kid.

Increasingly other countries are using Family Group Conferencing to help kids like Cameron.  A facilitator brings all relevant parties to the table to figure out how to solve any and all issues that will reduce or eliminate recidivism.  Over time, countries like Australia, New Zealand, among many others, get once-siloed agencies — housing, mental health, police — to act as a team.  Currently a kid and her family will touch many agencies without any of them knowing what the other is doing — very ineffective and wasteful.  Also, Americans are more squirrely than most about breaching the family’s privacy.  The presenting issue is the kid, but she’s not growing up in isolation.  We can’t solve poverty, but we can help all families become healthier and more resilient in the face of poverty or other adversity.  Allowing family dysfunction to fester is a crime itself.  Breaching the sanctity of the home for less than criminal reasons may be an American sacrilege, but not doing so is no favor to the kids.

Suspensions and juvenile arrests are symptoms.  Chronic recidivism is a full-blown social disease.  Recidivism of any negative behavior is a huge, waving red flag.  Davis and RJOY work on the Oakland schools so they aren’t making things worse.  It’s not schools’ fault that things have already gotten as bad as they are.  But right now there isn’t a social-service system the public can hold responsible for letting kids languish.  There should be.

(Photo: Pixabay, Creative Commons)

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist writing about kids and schools through the lens of Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice.  Currently she is Project Manager for a National Institute of Justice grant to study the effectiveness of restorative conferencing programs now being implemented in six Rhode Island Schools.  Steiny is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, the design partner in the grant.  After serving a term on the Providence School Board, for 16 years she wrote the Providence Journal’s weekly education column.  Since 1998, she has consulted with The Providence Plan on data analysis and communications, helping to develop Information Works! for the RI Department of Education and the RIDataHUBFor more, see juliasteiny.com or contact her at juliasteiny@youthrestorationproject.org. The Youth Restoration Project has a Facebook page with news and resources on the Restoration movement here and internationally.

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Only America Refuses to Sign the Children’s Rights Treaty

Published by EducationNews.org — Seriously?  Are we so divided that we can’t even agree on taking care of the kids?

(Photo: Ilyas Ahmed, UN Photo)

I can’t imagine a clearer set of ideals for the modern world than those set forth in the United Nations’ 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child.  The document’s 41 Articles are the conditions of a treaty among nations aiming to focus governments on creating healthy conditions for children.  It’s a monument to idealism.  And it’s particularly relevant now because it spawned a Child-Friendly Cities movement that is very active in some places.

It’s also relevant because only one nation is not part of the treaty, and that would be us, the United States. More on that in a moment.

High school history classes make us think of treaties as documents that carve up post-war territories or establish the details of trade alliances.  This one is aspirational.  It addresses the question: What would the conditions of young people’s lives be like if all nations had it right?

For over a decade, the United Nations coordinated the work of international committees negotiating the Convention’s specifics.  Portions were lifted directly from the U.S. Constitution, a document admired internationally.  In drafting it, the world community came together for the sake of kids.

A passage from its Preamble says:  “The child should be fully prepared to live an individual life in society and be brought up in the spirit of the ideals proclaimed in the Charter of the United Nations, and in particular in the spirit of peace, dignity, tolerance, freedom, equality and solidarity.”

Today, the Convention remains the most widely accepted international treaty in history.

One by one, 194 countries signed on. 

And last year the treaty celebrated its 25th anniversary as Somalia, one of the last two hold-outs, came aboard.

God knows Somalia is not a model of being kind to its children.  Among other provisions that Somalia disregards is Article 36, which states “Parties shall protect the child against all other forms of exploitation prejudicial to any aspects of the child’s welfare.”  Somalia, while by no means unique, exploits children sexually and for their labor, and conscripts them into deadly wars.  The UN has been working there to ease children’s plight.  But the point is that signing on only commits the nation to an ideal, however distant.  The Convention is not a contract and has no legal authority.  Its authority is moral.

So what makes the U.S. balk? 

Here’s the Article that was the deal-breaker for both Somalia and the U.S.:

“Neither capital punishment nor life imprisonment without possibility of release shall be imposed for offences committed by persons below eighteen years of age.”

Opposing this provision seems particularly sad as the U.S. is finally making some effort to curb its famously huge prison population.  The 1990 faith in the efficacy of punishment is only just now starting to unravel.  For the record, no evidence supports punishment, either as a way of teaching community-appropriate behavior or as a deterrent.

To be sure, some dangerous people, including youth, need to be kept out of the mainstream until we can trust them.  But even here, in our famously punitive country, courts are beginning to agree that it’s just too early to write off and kill kids 17 and younger.  In recent years the Supreme Court, as well as state courts, have been chipping away at the penalties for serious juvenile crime.  Harsh mandatory minimal sentencing is becoming less mandatory and left more to the discretion of judges.  States have fallen out of love with burgeoning prison budgets and so are willing to re-think their practices.

Like Somalia, the U.S. has flaws.  But right now would be an excellent time to embrace kids’ well-being and sign on to a set of healthy ideals.

Granted, the process for the U.S. to sign a treaty is cumbersome, and in today’s political insanity it’s probably impossible.  But our refusal to join speaks volumes about our national apathy towards children.  Only good lives in that treaty.  America’s signature now could help reestablish our nation’s optimism, idealism and inclusiveness.  We could use the morale boost.

Even in our divisions, kids seem like they could unify us.  Heck, if Somalia can stand up for ideals, so can we.

(Photo: Ilyas Ahmed, UN Photo)

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist writing about kids and schools through the lens of Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice.  Currently she is Project Manager for a National Institute of Justice grant to study the effectiveness of restorative conferencing programs now being implemented in six Rhode Island Schools.  Steiny is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, the design partner in the grant.  After serving a term on the Providence School Board, for 16 years she wrote the Providence Journal’s weekly education column.  Since 1998, she has consulted with The Providence Plan on data analysis and communications, helping to develop Information Works! for the RI school department and the RIDataHUBFor more, see juliasteiny.com or contact her at juliasteiny@youthrestorationproject.org. The Youth Restoration Project has a Facebook page with news and resources on the Restoration movement here and internationally.

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School Suspensions Model the Wrong Behavior for Students

Published by EducationNews.org — By our actions, we teach intolerance.

suspension

Last week we looked at reasons why kids misbehave — how sometimes they can’t or they won’t act in community-appropriate ways.  Whether it’s a choice for them or not, it’s always a big pain for the people around them.

So this week we’ll look at the most common response to misbehavior, which is best described as a sort of banishment.  It’s punishment, yes, but specifically an aggressive cutting-off of being in relation to the offender.  Such ways of rejection include belittling, berating, humiliating, isolating, suspending, expelling — basically trying to hurt the kid into compliance.  In short, we kick ‘em out.

And it has become such a habit, we do so mindlessly.  At least we did until the relatively recent attention to the school-to-prison pipeline.  The berating and so forth start before actually suspending the kid, which is the mouth of that pipeline.  And while anyone can understand why teachers want disruptive kids removed from class, it’s harder to fathom other unexamined knee-jerk practices such as kicking kids out of school for not being in school.

Schools take offense at bunking, and offense deserves punishment.

In 2012 the fine researcher Robert Balfanz raised the nation’s consciousness regarding chronic absenteeism in the report The Importance of Being in School.  “Chronic absenteeism” is defined as missing at least 10% of school time.  As officials worked on reducing the problem, they found that kids might be absent less if they ceased to be punished for the offense.  In Rhode Island, as elsewhere, students were routinely suspended for skipping school.  It’s like a bad joke:  If you’re not coming to school, kid, let’s make it official.  But no one seemed to notice that kicking kids out of school for not being in school made no sense.

During the 2010-11 school year, more than half of all suspensions in Rhode Island high schools were related to attendance — including skipping class and detention.  In 2012-13, the year after RI passed legislation outlawing suspensions for absenteeism, the total number of high-school suspensions of all kinds dropped almost by half.

Kicking people out of school and out of society reflects a community norm.

In theory, tolerance is super-important to American culture.  We value inclusion.  We welcome diverse people into our community.  We want children to share, get along, be accepting of the new kid, the odd kid, the English language learner.

But by our actions, we teach intolerance.  By our actions, kids know that when they are offended or harmed, the proper response is to retaliate and inflict some hurt themselves.  Yes, they get in trouble, but they see few alternatives modeled for them.  Schools and parents get super irate about bullying, and if bullies are caught, or even accused, they get bullied themselves by disciplinarian adults.  We teach punishment.

So kids grow up hoping they are on the end of meting out the punishment.

Typically at the beginning of the school year, teachers detail their classroom expectations to the kids, post them on the wall, and explain how they will be enforced.  Restorative practices always involve the community’s voice as a whole, because it encourages cooperation.  So restorative classrooms create the norms or rules as a class, kids and teacher together.  When the kids are asked what consequences might be for violating the class norms they just worked out together, their answers are usually just short of the guillotine, or tar-and-feathering.  Even “bad” kids have no empathy for future offenders; they are among the most eager to contribute harsh suggestions.  But they’re only parroting back what they learned from adults.  They need help dialing back their firm grounding in kick-out techniques to imagine dopier little consequences like doing push-ups or singing a song for 30 seconds.

An acquaintance of mine lives across from a large elementary school.  When windows are open during warm days, she hears constant yelling.  This is not secret abuse, but acceptable behavior.  Though some members of the community may not like it, they don’t complain.  The message to the kids is that this is community-appropriate behavior.

Considering that much of the world considers the U.S. to be the land of innovation, our schools suffer a surprising poverty of imagination when it comes to disciplining kids.  No evidence supports the efficacy of punishment.  And it certainly doesn’t win kids’ cooperation.

 

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist who also blogs about Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice. After serving on the Providence School Board, she became the Providence Journal’s education columnist for 16 years, and has written for many other outlets. As the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, she’s been building demonstration projects in Rhode Island since 2008. She analyses data and provides communications consulting on Information Works! and the RIDataHUB, through The Providence Plan. For more detail, see juliasteiny.com or contact her at juliasteiny@gmail.com or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.

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Instead of School Suspensions, Let’s Listen to Kids

Published by EducationNews.org — Kicking out the disruptive kids is convenient.  But what do we, or they, learn from it?

suspension

Allow me to say right off the top that I believe each out-of-school suspension is a symptom of a mental or social issue.  I’d call them symptoms of disease, but some are more like sniffles.

In 2014, President Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper sparked awareness not only of the frequency of suspensions, but also of the glaring racial disparities among those suspended.  Some states are using legislation to curtail these kick-out practices that appear to be the starting point of the school-to-prison pipeline.

The Restorative Practices/Justice lens asks us to take a step back from the offending incident itself to consider the bigger picture.  What does the offense tell us about the community as a whole — school, neighborhood, family?  What contributed to it?  A kid who has damaged property, behaved abusively towards a teacher or gotten into a fight must take responsibility for her action.  But what does the behavior mean?

School staff ask about what happened, but rarely do they go deeply into the matter.  Suspension is a quick, time-honored response.  But its convenience cuts off any chance of understanding the kid, the symptom, or the conditions that nurtured the yucky behavior.  I once heard a restorative guidance counselor ask a kid if his disruptive behavior was trying to say something.  Without hesitation, he said:  “We have no food.  My dad’s gone.  I’m not sure where.”  What’s a suspension going to accomplish?

Kicking kids out does not teach them how to behave in a community-appropriate manner.  Nor does more time in front of the TV or video game get to the root of a mental or familial problem.  Sometimes better classroom management, or more engaging instruction, would ward off unwanted behavior.  And sometimes, to protect the other kids’ learning, teachers feel they have no choice but to kick a kid out of their class.  But usually, suspensions banish the problem only temporarily.

Four reasons why kids misbehave:

The first two are opposite sides of the same coin:

1.  Learned behavior — For example, many urban students live in families and communities where they are sworn at constantly.  School staff, not uncommonly suburban themselves, can easily be offended by kids’ hideous language and aggressive demeanor.  It’s ugly, don’t get me wrong.  But it’s learned behavior.  By all means, teach them why it’s necessary to unlearn it.  Help them understand that it should not spill into schools or the workplace.  A restorative question might be:  “Does this language (or other behavior) happen at home?”  If so, it’s private and needs to stay at home.

2.  Unlearned Behavior, which is to say social skills not yet mastered –  The occasional kid who comes to school eating with her hands has never been taught to use a fork.  More often, when kids haven’t been taught to take turns, they talk so intrusively as to be maddening.  Others throw punches at the most minor offense because they’ve been taught to fight for survival.

3.  Trauma — We have all experienced some degree of trauma in our lives — a car accident, death in the family, job loss.  Healthy people manage to respond in more and less healthy ways.  But kids, especially those most suffering from chaotic urban poverty, often act out as a way of expressing their distress.  I knew a 6th grader who occasionally howled uncontrollably during the class.  If you knew her backstory, you’d howl too.  And yelling at traumatized kids often sets them off.  Kicking them out effectively blames the kid for being triggered.

4.  Brat behavior — Yes, some kids get away with whatever they can.  I was one of them.  To avoid a boring Spanish class, I snuck away with friends to smoke cigarettes.  When we got caught, we lost privileges that I wanted back.  I knew I ran a risk of consequences, but getting kicked out would have been an invitation to rebel yet more.

No one likes rotten, undisciplined manners and social skills. 

But yelling, punishing, humiliating, lecturing, and all forms of trying to hurt the kid into compliance, do not improve social skills.  They don’t calm the traumatized child.  They don’t help the brat see her arrogant ways.  They are the opposite of listening and modeling behavior we want to see.

Being heard is a powerful, palpable feeling.  Suspensions shut the kid up.  But what is the behavior trying to tell us?  Unless we listen, we don’t know.  Traditional public schools have not been expected to take time to hear kids’ voices, issues, and frustrations.  As a result, problems and rebellion inevitably fester.  We don’t have to believe everything they say, but good heavens:  ask.  Listen. In a healthy community, all voices must be heard — kids, staff, families community members.

Because when community members — of a classroom, a school, a neighborhood — are satisfied that they’re being heard, they’ll establish trust.  Yes, creating ways to hear each person is a heavy lift.  But it is precisely what will end suspensions as we know them.

 

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist who also blogs about Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice. After serving on the Providence School Board, she became the Providence Journal’s education columnist for 16 years, and has written for many other outlets. As the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, she’s been building demonstration projects in Rhode Island since 2008. She analyses data and provides communications consulting on Information Works! and the RIDataHUB, through The Providence Plan. For more detail, see juliasteiny.com or contact her at juliasteiny@gmail.com or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.

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Restorative Justice Concludes Ugly Dalhousie Facebook Scandal

Published by EducationNews.org — Lessons learned, when Dalhousie University gave victims the opportunity to face their offenders and decide the consequences.

dalhousie

The nasty social-media scandal caused by male 4th year students at the Dalhousie University Dental School has resolved.  Victims, offenders and relevant faculty participated in a restorative-justice (RJ) process for five painful months.  In conclusion, they wrote a 9-page “Statement from the Restorative Justice Participants,” speaking together and as sub-groups.

This summation of lessons learned might well become a seminal document in the evolution of the growing Restoration movement.  It is not a report with specifics about who, what and when — however curious we are as to exactly what went on in those conference meetings.  Nor is it a how-to.  The RJ techniques are hardly mentioned.

Instead, they describe certain fruits of their labors — the mutual understandings reached, as well as some hard, life-changing experiences they never anticipated.  Twenty-nine of the students, nearly the whole 4th-year class, took part in the process, along with some faculty members and facilitators.

Briefly, the facts are these:  For three and a half years, thirteen men had an invitation-only Facebook page that functioned as a raunchy boys’ locker room.  Their postings seemed almost competitive in their vulgarity, indulging gluttonously in the bad-boy culture of manly, randy men.  Mind you, in person and daily life, they were close friends with their female colleagues in a tight culture of young adults, most of whom were far away from home.  But in cyberspace their discussions of those very women were repulsive.  Finally one offender outed the page to one of its victims.  The screen shots leaked to the press were media red meat.  Scandal erupted.  The public demanded vengeance.

Most universities would have expelled the men and washed their hands of it.

Dalhousie is a rare standard bearer for restorative justice in their handling of student misconduct.  The University offered the victims the opportunity to face their offenders, to be heard by them, and finally, to decide the consequences.

In the victims’ section of the Statement, the women explain their decision: RJ “provided us with a different sort of justice than the punitive type most of the loudest public voices seemed to want.  We were clear from the beginning, to the people who most needed to hear it, that we were not looking to have our classmates expelled as 13 angry men who understood no more than they did the day the posts were uncovered.”

Take-away #1:  Bad-boy culture is alive and well among us.

No one makes excuses for the hurt caused.  But according to the participants, one tough lesson was that on Facebook the offenders were just manifesting an oft-tolerated boys-will-be-boys culture.  Again, here are the victims:  “We are part of a generation in which inappropriate sexualization is more common and widespread than ever before, and we have become used to this.  …  For example, we have always known about the men’s Facebook group.  …  It was only when we knew it was about us that we took real offense.  That made us realize that we, as women, also contribute to the culture and climate that allows Facebook groups like the one at issue to persist and flourish.”

Take-away #2:  Also alive is a revenge culture that believes in the virtue of hurt.

Besides the remorse marbleized throughout, the Statement exudes resentment of the pressure and outright meanness of those who wanted blood.  From the get-go, the press and social media insisted the men be expelled at a minimum, and taken to court and prison, if possible.  What empathy there was for the women was expressed as rage at the men.  The backlash against using restorative justice itself was hot and hateful.  Midway through the process, the victims pleaded with the public to let the process play out.  RJ was their choice, after all, but the public bloodlust continued.

The offenders say, “The efforts of some to gain information about us have resulted in significant threats and harms against us and our families.”  Their families?!  Wow.

Mind you, the victims were satisfied.  They wanted the right to determine how to resolve the matter.  The entire group negotiated consequences for the men.  The Statement purposely gives no specifics beyond that each man performed at least 150 community service hours.  And from the time the story broke, they’d been suspended from performing their clinical hours, delaying their graduation at best.

The statement by participating faculty members says:  “Many felt the issues around the Facebook incident were black and white — a group of students did a terrible thing and should be expelled.  However, first and foremost we are educators.  Punitive measures such as expulsion do not change attitudes or positively influence future behaviour, nor do they address underlying systemic problems.  [The women] saw restorative justice as the most promising path towards meaningful change.”

The establishment of guilt, and meting out of hurt, doesn’t change anything for the better.  It’s revenge, an eye for an eye.  The punished offender often grows more defensive, resentful, hopeless of redemption and incapable of improving.  For that reason, traditional justice produces high rates of recidivism.  If changing behavior really is the point, punishment is not working.

 

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist who also blogs about Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice. After serving on the Providence School Board, she became the Providence Journal’s education columnist for 16 years, and has written for many other outlets. As the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, she’s been building demonstration projects in Rhode Island since 2008. She analyses data and provides communications consulting on Information Works! and the RIDataHUB, through The Providence Plan. For more detail, see juliasteiny.com or contact her at juliasteiny@gmail.com or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.

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Recidivism is Expensive, Let’s Try Something Else

Published by EducationNews.org — Trying to punish people into compliance costs a lot, and more importantly, doesn’t work.

jail

This is our third look at how Judge Pamela Williams, in her mental health court in Nova Scotia, successfully kept offenders from further contact with police, courts, and jail.  Using the CoSA model — see last week’s column — she worked with experts in different fields to figure out how to “help them out of the place that they are in,” as she put it.

Today’s question is: CoSA works, but at what cost?

To set the stage, first conjure in your mind an Excel budget sheet.  Labels at the top read: Housing, Health, Mental Health, Prison, Courts, Children Protective Services, Schools, Higher Ed, Workforce Development, and I’m sure you can think of more.  Each of these state or city public services has its own mission, and not to confuse things, each has its own huge budget spreadsheet. Hierarchies, job descriptions, and business habits are baked into those budgets, leaving little flexibility.  So as we consider another of Judge Williams’ stories illustrating her Court’s challenges, mentally map where various costs might be posted, but remember that Judge Williams herself controls only her portion of the Excel column marked “Courts.”

A woman we’ll call Rosalie was “a very complex case.”

Rosalie had limited intelligence, schizophrenia, anxiety, depression and suicidal ideation.  Also, she was an unusually large woman, which added to the extent that she was hard to control at times.

Occasionally she’d sink into a depression so severe she became suicidal.  She’d sneak out of her group home and head for a particular bridge where she’d threaten to end her life.  Not that she did.  But the police couldn’t just let traffic flow by an apparent suicide in progress; they had to close the bridge.  Bridges over water, such as this one, have no side streets to which traffic can be diverted.

A competent bean-counter could probably arrive at a solid estimated cost for the small platoon of police needed to get her into an ambulance or patrol car… and the emergency efforts of the Department of Transportation, her subsequent hospitalization, public defenders, and so on.  However, it’s impossible to monetize the inconvenienced drivers who were late to appointments, no-shows at job interviews, or charged extra for late daycare pick-up.

Yes, of course they had tried to stop her.  Ferverently.  Rosalie had been in court repeatedly, jailed, on probation, back in prison — caught in an expensive, vicious cycle.  The Law could keep her locked up, but she was a wretched innocent, not a criminal deserving the punishment of prison.  The costs of punishing her into compliance were also not cheap, but more importantly, not working.

The traditional courts sent her over to Judge Williams.

Williams assembled her CoSA team of professionals, including the directors of Rosalie’s group home.  Obviously the directors had talked to the police and other agencies on her behalf.  But under what circumstances, other than a CoSA meeting at Williams’ court, would they sit down together to get it to stop?  Typically, the psychiatrist of record hardly talks to the therapist, never mind solves problems with a team that includes family and other stakeholders.  Where is the Excel column for cross-agency collaboration?

In any case, the group discovered that Rosalie absolutely treasured her home.  It was comfortable, with kind friends who took her back, fed and soothed her.  They concluded that her love of her home could be carefully deployed as leverage.  No one wants to do tough love.  But they worked with Rosalie to get a deal with her — if she did her bridge thing again, she would be banned from the home and need to live somewhere else.

Predictably, in time, it happened once more.  Williams didn’t say where Rosalie lived or for how long after her poor choice.  Wherever it was, she hated it passionately, as all had hoped.  Per prior agreement, and after a painful amount of time, she was allowed back into the home and never offended again.  It worked.

Williams says, “We have one mental-health court.  Even that court doesn’t have enough resources.  It’s expensive to restore broken people and relationships.  The people around those offenders are broken.  Victims are broken.”  Everyone involved in a crime needs the healing powers of restoration — or the problems linger, or worse, fester.

But only through sheer power of persuasion, and judicious use of scarce resources, did Judge Williams get experts from across the Excel spreadsheet to jump their column.  Who pays for that?  No group home runs on such a cushy margin, they can easily send people for team meetings.  Therapists and psychiatrists don’t work for free, so the entire spreadsheet would have to ease up so the resources are there to make up these teams.   Think of the cost savings to Police, Health, Transportation, etc.

Recidivism is absurdly expensive.  Rosalie’s trips to the bridge cost a fortune.  Stopping them, in a humane fashion, saved a lot of money for Police, Transportation, Emergency Medicine, and more, not to mention the taxpaying public.  If the real goal of Justice is to reduce recidivism, Judge Williams has excellent answers.  What we’re doing now doesn’t work for anyone.

 

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist who also blogs about Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice. After serving on the Providence School Board, she became the Providence Journal’s education columnist for 16 years, and has written for many other outlets. As the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, she’s been building demonstration projects in Rhode Island since 2008. She analyses data and provides communications consulting on Information Works! and the RIDataHUB, through The Providence Plan. For more detail, see juliasteiny.com or contact her at juliasteiny@gmail.com or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.

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#Cut50 Aims to Halve Prison Population in 10 Years

Published by EducationNews.org — Is record-breaking mass incarceration, mainly of men of color, really okay with most Americans?

Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard, Van Jones and Newt Gingrich. Photo: www.cut50.org

Photo: cut50.org — Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard, Van Jones and Newt Gingrich.

Van Jones is the President and co-founder of Dream Corps, a Civil Rights advocacy group.  Jones got his law degree from Yale, writes best-selling books, has served as an advisor to more than one U.S. President, and is a familiar liberal commentator on TV and radio.

Today what’s most impressive about him is that he stands shoulder-to-shoulder with the likes of Newt Gingrich, a conservative hardliner, in a bipartisian effort to end the scourge of mass incarceration in America.   Together and with other organizations, they hope “to safely and smartly reduce our incarcerated population by 50 percent over the next 10 years by convening unlikely allies, elevating proven solutions, and communicating a powerful new narrative.”  For short, the movement goes by #cut50.

How on earth are they going to do that?  Answer:  they just are.  It’s immoral not to.  Think of it as JFK declaring that America would have a man on the moon in ten years, and without any evidence of being on such a track, NASA did it anyway.

The lift will be epic, Herculean.

If America were even to get close to the rates of incarceration in Europe, for example, we’d have to get within spitting distance of 150 inmates per 100,000 people.  The UK, currently with the highest incarceration rate in Europe, is at 148 per 100,000.  (France, 100; Germany, 77; Finland, 58.)  We’re at 707.  Not a miss, but a mile.  War-torn Rwanda’s 2013 rate was 492 per 100,000, for heaven’s sake.  We’re not even in the ballpark.

Can we, as a nation, wrap our heads around the idea that our notion of discipline has morphed into cruelty?  Can we get over the “tough on crime” mantra?  Can we learn and practice empathy, so when offenders are sentenced, we’re actually unwilling to throw away the entire life of that 19-year-old car thief?  Is there any evidence anywhere that prisons improve behavior?  Or can we admit that the humungous size of our prison population strongly argues otherwise?  Interestingly, the most common demographic factor among inmates, including females and whites, is that they are high-school dropouts.  Can we help schools intervene when students seem headed for trouble?

It would take all that and more to cut the prison population from just under 2.4 million to under 1.2.

A sample of initiatives that could make #cut50 successful. 

We need all the good ideas we can muster to get us out of this mess.  A good start would be reversing the three big drivers of mass incarceration, according to The Growth of Incarceration in the U.S., outlined in last week’s column.

1.  End “life” sentences.  Remember, Europe considers 10 years to be a long sentence, even for violent crime.  After how many years does a sentence become vindictive, retributive and plain cruel?

One in nine U.S. prisoners is serving a life sentence.  Of these, roughly 10,000 were convicted of a non-violent crime.  Prisoners serving life without parole, those with no hope of being released even as decrepit old people, increased by 22% since 2008.  Most horribly, about 10,000 of the lifers were under 18 when they committed their crime.  Babies.  And about a quarter of them have no hope of parole.  Not that it excuses their crime, but the human brain’s executive function isn’t even fully developed until the early 20s, so they’re still paying at age 60 for what they did at 16.  These are your tax dollars at work.  To what public benefit?

2.  Vastly improve community sanctions.  Give judges the leeway to send offenders home to perform restitution under intensive supervision.  No one’s behavior gets corrected by Corrections.  If anything, prison makes it far worse.  Most inmates are coming out at some point.  You want communities to be fully equipped to handle them when they do come out.  Invest the resources into the community itself instead of ignoring the circumstances that produced an offender.

For example. an impressively successful technique, called “circle of support and accountability” (CoSA) was originally developed for sex offenders, long considered incorrigible.  It is now validated by research.  A CoSA case manager organizes an team of family, neighbors, friends and supporters who work with a team of professionals — social workers, psychologists, psychiatrists.  Together they wrap attention and services around offender as he learns to live, reliably, according to community norms.  If it works for sex offenders, it can surely work for the vandal, the drug addict and most especially the person suffering from mental illness.  CoSA is vastly cheaper than prisons, far more effective at reintegrating miscreants, and dramatically reducing recidivism rates.

3.  End the War on Drugs.  Period.  Why are so many people self-medicating?  Europe treats addicts.  Why do we punish them instead?  Let’s stop.

Do we have the political will to make such changes?  The #cut50 movement is sparking all sorts of debate on the subject.  Is record-breaking mass incarceration, mainly of men of color, really okay with most Americans?  God, I hope not.

 

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist who also blogs about Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice. After serving on the Providence School Board, she became the Providence Journal’s education columnist for 16 years, and has written for many other outlets. As the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, she’s been building demonstration projects in Rhode Island since 2008. She analyses data and provides communications consulting on Information Works! and the RIDataHUB, through The Providence Plan. For more detail, see juliasteiny.com or contact her at juliasteiny@gmail.com or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.

 

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What Does Mass Incarceration Say About American Democracy?

Published by EducationNews.org — How we chose to build up the largest prison population in the world.

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America’s torrid love affair with jails and prisons is hardly breaking news.  Since the late 1990s, academics called for the end of mass incarceration because their data revealed shameful racial disparities.  Fat lot of good it’s done.  Now we’re up to just under 2.4 million people behind bars, mostly men of color.  The U.S. has 5% of the world’s population and 25% of its prisoners.  The rate of incarceration is four times what it was four decades ago.

This phenomenon is both historically unprecedented and internationally unique.  Even the United Kingdom, with the next highest rate in the Western world, incarcerates only 148 per 100,000 people as compared with our 707 per 100,000.  The U.S. has more people behind bars than Russia or China.

America’s investment in punishment costs about $63 billion a year — $63,000,000,000.  And that’s not counting such social costs as ruined families, lost income, shame, and stigma.

How in God’s name did we get here?

Speaking recently, Jeremy Travis provided some answers to that question.  Working with the National Academies of Science, Travis is one of the three editors of The Growth of Incarceration in the U.S., which present the conclusions of a huge project that studied the issue.  Each chapter has 2-page summaries, and the whole book is downloadable.  Currently Travis serves as President of John Jay College of Criminal Justice in the New York City college system.  Previously he was the director of the National Institute of Justice and before that, the Urban League.

Referring to the events and racial tensions of Ferguson, Baltimore, New York and elsewhere, Travis says “The instinct of white people is to talk about the event.  Black people talk about history.  Now we all need to talk about history.”  The current that sparked these events is not recent, but generations old — what Travis calls “the failed promise of Emancipation.”

Let’s start with 1920, which is when incarceration data became reliable.  From then to 1972, we imprisoned roughly 100,000 to 110,000 people annually.  Humongous historical changes took place during that time, including the Great Depression and World War II.  Even Prohibition came and went without changing that number.

Then in the 1960s and 1970s came the social unsettling of America.  The Civil Rights movement exposed profound racial and social inequities.  We also had hippies, “free love” and the decline of traditional communities, as documented in Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone.  Crime levels rose.  The public felt unsafe.  So President Richard Nixon, among others, campaigned with slogans about being “tough on crime.”  Soon all politicians needed to be tougher than their opponents.  And tough meant punitive, retributive, primitive — an eye for an eye.

The bottom line, Travis says, is that, “We are here because we chose to be here.  Through our democratic process we elected these people — not that I voted for them — but we chose them.  Judges, prosecutors.  And they delivered on their promises by making more things criminal than before.  And by meting out longer sentences.”

The three drivers of mass incarceration:

1.  Legislators, and to some extent governors, got “zero-tolerance” laws passed, such as “three strikes and you’re out.”  “Out” means life without parole.  Lawmakers cared little about the specifics or degree of the offense, never mind the offender’s circumstances.  Just throw away the key.  By now we have what Travis calls “geriatric prisons.  Nursing homes behind bars.  What’s the possible safety benefit?  Zero or close to zero.”  (For the record, Europe rarely imposes life sentences, limiting even murder convictions to 10 years.  A mere decade in prison ruins an offender’s life, so “life” is just vindictive.)

2.  Again, it was elected officials who imposed mandatory minimal sentences, thereby removing judicial discretion.  With non-violent offenses, there’s no public safety benefit to sending a guy to prison when he can serve his sanctions in the community.  Let the judge decide if Johnny wouldn’t be better off living with his family, doing his restitution close to home.  Institutionalizing him in a horrible place won’t improve his behavior.  Indeed, all evidence points to the contrary.  Give discretion back to judges.

3.  By far the biggest driver was the War on Drugs. Drug convictions, which had been rare, grew nearly tenfold from 1980 to 2010.  Rather suddenly drugs became far more available.  Politicians took a zero-tolerance approach to addiction and self-medication, especially among the urban poor.

So people are eligible for prison for far more offenses; offenders serve more time, and they’re barred from humane judges’ wisdom, mercy or ability to consider circumstances.  We, the people, did this – mainly to young men of color.

Travis says, “I think mass incarceration is one of the most profound moral crises in America.  If this is the new normal, we have to be concerned about the value of our democracy and its impact on our communities.”

But now what?  How do we turn around the fearful, punitive, and oh, by the way, racist mentality that got us here?  More next week.

 

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist who also blogs about Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice. After serving on the Providence School Board, she became the Providence Journal’s education columnist for 16 years, and has written for many other outlets. As the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, she’s been building demonstration projects in Rhode Island since 2008. She analyses data and provides communications consulting on Information Works! and the RIDataHUB, through The Providence Plan. For more detail, see juliasteiny.com or contact her at juliasteiny@gmail.com or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.

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Punishment is Not Discipline

Published by EducationNews.org — The end result of bad discipline strategy is prisons stuffed with high school drop-outs.

punishment

Recently Eva Moskowitz took to the Wall Street Journal to blast New York Mayor Bill de Blasio for promoting what she calls “lax discipline” in City schools.  Her op-ed outright sneers at his efforts to expand disciplinary strategies beyond suspension.  As the founder of the Success Academies, famous for their high test scores and strict, traditional discipline, Moskowitz clearly feels she has the cred to malign discipline alternatives.

The problem is that she, along with so many others, confuse discipline with punishment and kicking kids out.  Discipline means to teach.  Yes, as a culture we’ve lost our compassion for children and developed zero tolerance for truly bad or even misguided behavior.  Suspensions teach intolerance of the behavior.  But where’s the lesson on how to behave cooperatively?  The practice sessions?  Is mere compliance good enough?

Moskowitz writes, “Suspensions convey the critical message to students and parents that certain behavior is inconsistent with being a member of the school community. Pretend suspensions, in which a student is allowed to remain in the school community, do not convey that message.”  The message is: you, Kid, are not welcome in our community.

Punitive methods ignore problems at the root of the behavior.

Punishing kids — yelling, berating, suspending — can teach some kids fear-driven compliance.  Certain kids become cowed into submission, which is convenient to authority figures, but disheartening.  Others temporarily stuff their desire to rebel and explode later on.  Still others get a whole lot worse right away.  Misbehavior often flags that the kid’s in trouble, so yelling at her misses an opportunity.  If Mom’s getting hit, or there’s no food in the house, Success Academies leave it to the kid to figure things out while hanging by the TV during a suspension.

Moskowitz writes: “Proponents of lax discipline claim it would benefit minority students, who are suspended at higher rates than their white peers. But minority students are also the most likely to suffer the adverse consequences of lax discipline—that is, their education is disrupted by a chaotic school environment or by violence.”

Agreed, disruptive behavior is a scourge on the schools.  It’s bad, getting worse and should not be tolerated.  But so much of it is learned and comes from home.  In order to avoid conflict, many parents don’t enforce bedtimes, homework, or chores.  Putting limits on violent video games?  As one parent told me, “I don’t roll that way.  He’d be so mad.”  So some kids come to school this side of feral, used to getting their way.  No question: something bold must be done.

Sometimes the only functional adults in a kid’s life are at school.

As research has argued for years, all kids, but especially “bad” kids, need to develop terrific relationships with caring adults.  Suspensions are fast and easy while creating relationships is time-consuming, labor-intensive, and therefore expensive.  Enforcing rules doesn’t require relationships; cooperation does.  Only the tugboat of a caring relationship can turn the Titanic of bad behavior.  Learning how to work well with others in a community setting is a critical skill for the low-income, minority children whom Moskowitz claims to hold dear to her heart.

In spite of the harsh stories about “no excuses” discipline, flocks of parents try to get their kids into such schools.  Last year Success Academies saw 20,000 applications for 2,688 seats in its 22 schools.  The test scores are attractive, but likely many parents are also hoping someone else will figure out how to teach their kids the discipline that they didn’t learn at home.   Success suspended 11% of their students last year, whereas the New York City public schools, where most Academies are located, suspended 4%.  Kick ‘em out; teach ‘em a lesson in intolerance.

Among the “lax discipline” techniques recommended by the Mayor are restorative practices.  Moskowitz says, “[Traditional] discipline also helps prepare students for the real world. In that world, when you assault your co-worker or curse out your boss, you don’t get a ‘restorative circle,’ you get fired.”  This is true.  But in the working world you’re an adult, not a kid.

What’s really lax is the ease of beating on a kid to get his compliance.  I marvel that few have a problem with “no excuses” schools being so proud of teaching compliance to children of color.  I see a this as a moral issue, given that middle class kids are more often coaxed into cooperation.  All kids need to learn to do the right thing because they see how it benefits them, and not just because it avoids emotional pain.

Sadly, building restorative relationships takes time.  And time costs money no one feels the taxpayer can afford.  Interestingly, the end result of bad discipline strategies — from harsh to neglectful — are prisons stuffed with high school drop outs.  Somehow we have no problem with finding tons of money for prisons.

 

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist who also blogs about Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice. After serving on the Providence School Board, she became the Providence Journal’s education columnist for 16 years, and has written for many other outlets. As the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, she’s been building demonstration projects in Rhode Island since 2008. She analyses data and provides communications consulting on Information Works! and the RIDataHUB, through The Providence Plan. For more detail, see juliasteiny.com or contact her at juliasteiny@gmail.com or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.

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A Punitive Mindset Ruins Good Testing Data

Published by EducationNews.org — Standardized tests are fantastically useful.  But schools can’t be harangued, threatened or sanctioned into improvement.

testing

The fault, dear Brutus, lies not in our standardized achievement testing, but in what we do with said testing.  Achievement data are fantastically useful.  These days virtually every industry collects and analyses the best information available to make smart decisions.  So the recent groundswell aimed at ending the flow of testing information is akin to insisting we all stick our fingers in our ears and holler:  We don’t want to hear it!

Easy now.  Let the data speak.  Just quit jumping to ill-considered actions.

But the situation has gotten so bad, parents are refusing to allow their children to take standardized achievement tests.  Congress, seemingly stuck in brute partisanship, is arming for war over the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, known since 2001 as No Child Left Behind (NCLB).  One huge battle will be testing versus no testing.  Likely it will focus on money, although the $34 per kid for state and federal testing seems a small price to pay to find out if the taxpayers’ $600 trillion dollar annual investment in public education is getting results.  That’s trillion with a “t.”  We can spare $1.7 billion, with a “b,” to do a check-up.

How testing became a monster.

The one great thing NCLB did for the nation was goad states into building robust data systems.  Though far from perfect, even state-designed testing programs surfaced glaring racial and socio-economic disparities.  Tests revealed that special-needs children and non-native English speakers often languished in segregated programs, “protected” from higher expectations.  It wasn’t pretty.  Still isn’t.  But sunlight on the plight of the underserved inspired a lot of creative thinking about how to narrow the gaps.  As a nation, we’re grown uncomfortable with these disparities.  And that’s a good thing.

A very bad thing, though, was that punishment was baked into NCLB from the get-go.  In the name of “accountability,” the 2001 law disciplined failing schools with an a menu of escalating sanctions including humiliation and threats of state takeover — as if states had the capacity to take over schools.  Annually, all schools had to meet rising achievement benchmarks with goal of having all students “proficient” by 2014.  Each year that a school bombed its benchmarks, the feds and states had license to trumpet failures in the media, impose insulting oversight, and force the schools to write the parents about their failures.  NCLB was a big, bad Dad that believed he’d get results by yelling louder and getting meaner.

Everyone knew that achieving nationwide proficiency in 2014 was statistically impossible.  But oh well.  States issued new naming-and-shaming reports anyway.  Adding insult to injury, those most affected were low-income kids, segregated in forgotten, ill-supported schools where staff already felt punished enough.  Partly to protect their vulnerable kids, school staff began gaming the numbers, or even outright cheating, to avoid further demoralization.

Eventually, increasing amounts of school time were devoted to test prep, effectively passing the pain on to the kids.  Neither the feds, states, nor researchers recommended becoming test-prep factories.  Sure enough, test-prep barely budged academic performance.  But many schools argued that they had no choice but to focus on the test results because of perceived threats to their jobs.  Then situation made the parents crazy.  All parties blame the tests themselves.  And here we are.

Exactly who is responsible for kids’ learning?

Currently Finland’s high-performing schools are Education’s darling.  Interestingly, their students are tested constantly, but to good effect.  As Anu Partanen writes in a recent Atlantic piece about Finnish schools, “teachers are trained to assess children in classrooms using independent tests they create themselves. All children receive a report card at the end of each semester, but these reports are based on individualized grading by each teacher.”  At the end of high school, students must pass nationally-mandated high-school exit exams, so there is a goal and objective measure of success at the end.

How schools get there is their business.  The Finnish feds regularly check up on schools across the country with tests, but their purpose is to make sure the schools and kids are doing well.  It’s not in their culture to think that the way to produce improvement is to get all nasty at schools that struggle.

On the contrary, the Finns have the attitude that testing provides superb data to help teachers collaborate with one another, along with the child and family, to ensure each kid’s success.  Teachers have enormous responsibility for student learning, but they’re not alone; they lead a circle of adults who own that child’s success, as defined by observation as well as objective data.

By all means test, and even publish the results.

But for the foreseeable future, the feds and states need to rethink their get-tough relationship to school improvement.  NCLB made it painfully clear schools can’t be harangued, threatened or sanctioned into improvement.  (People can’t either.)  So for now, collect data on the kids’ achievement.  And publish it.  But then study it carefully, discuss it, take responsibility for it.  Make sure the data becomes useful wisdom, and quit using test scores as billy clubs.

 

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist who also blogs about Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice. After serving on the Providence School Board, she became the Providence Journal’s education columnist for 16 years, and has written for many other outlets. As the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, she’s been building demonstration projects in Rhode Island since 2008. She analyses data and provides communications consulting on Information Works! and the RIDataHUB, through The Providence Plan. For more detail, see juliasteiny.com or contact her at juliasteiny@gmail.com or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.

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