Chronically Misbehaving Kids Suffer Mental and Social Disease

(Photo: Pixabay, Creative Commons)

(Photo: Pixabay, Creative Commons)

By Julia Steiny

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.

Julia Steiny
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 RIDataHUB. For 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 in the US and internationally.
Julia Steiny