The factors that lead youth into juvenile crime are many and varied. Drugs, alcohol, and interpersonal violence are often cited as major contributors. However, in my estimation, one of the principal factors that may often precipitate a plunge into the juvenile justice system is the failure to maintain and succeed in school.
Today there is growing concern that the zero tolerance policies of many school districts are leading to unnecessary suspensions and expulsions-which place many youth out on the street and vulnerable to high risk behavior. The federal Gun-Free Schools Act of 1994 required school districts to adopt zero tolerance policies for firearms at school or lose federal funding. About the same time the crest in the wave of juvenile violent crime reached a peak and brought on paranoia about so-called "superpredator" juvenile offenders. Response to juvenile crime became increasingly more punitive and retributive.
However, the expansion of zero tolerance policies did not stop with weapons and assaults. In schools across the country, out-of-school suspensions have become the default punishment for truancy and non-criminal disciplinary infractions. Nationally, suspension rates have more than doubled over the past two decades. The line between crime and non-criminal misbehavior has begun to blur. Zero tolerance has become an easy way out for many school officials who would rather suspend or expel a student than intervene and deal with the behavior in a meaningful way.
As a juvenile court judge for over thirty years, I became more and more cognizant of the correlation between educational failure and juvenile crime. The vast majority of juvenile crime is property crime, and most of that occurs during daytime hours when youth are normally in school. As more youth were expelled and suspension periods grew longer, it became commonplace to see youth in court who were not in school and not performing at grade level. At one time in the recent past in the Anchorage Juvenile Probation Office, it was estimated that approximately 40 percent of offenders coming onto probation were not in school and many were not in any form of alternative programming or in-school suspension.
Suspension policies are usually graduated sanctions, with the length of suspension increasing as further infractions occur. A student on a 45-day suspension is in serious jeopardy of failure in that school year. Though alternative academic programming is available for less serious offenders, the loss of actual seat time in a regular classroom can be devastating. This in turn may drive the slippage in on-time graduation rates. A recent study of the Portland (Oregon) Public Schools revealed an astonishingly low on-time graduation rate of 63 percent. While numerous factors undoubtedly contribute to that figure, being driven out of a regular classroom and into an alternative school has been cited as a chief contributor. In the Portland study of 1,000 students in these alternative schools in the class of 2010, only 89 of them earned a diploma within five years of starting high school.
There has been increasing opposition to rigid zero tolerance across the country in recent years. The American Bar Association has gone on record as opposing zero tolerance policies. The American Psychological Association has publicly questioned their effectiveness. As egregious examples of even first and second graders being hauled off to juvenile hall have emerged, reactions have become understandably pronounced.
Nonetheless, the development of higher quality alternative programs for suspended or expelled students has been helpful in keeping some of these youth on track. The Anchorage School District, in partnership with the Alaska Division of Juvenile Justice and other key collaborators, developed a program called StepUp, which provides an educational environment for otherwise expelled youth. Within the district itself there has been more effort to create in-school suspension alternatives, which help maintain academic advancement. Many other efforts have been championed by Anchorage United for Youth, a United Way-led consortium of public and private agencies and individuals committed to raising the graduation rate for Anchorage students.
There is no question that school districts have an obligation to create, foster and maintain a safe learning environment for all students. Dangerous and disruptive behavior must be confronted. But kids make mistakes and act impulsively. The more we learn about brain development in children and adolescents, the more our responses and reactions to those mistakes must be tempered with a measure of common sense and reasonableness. I have faith that our educators can fit the right response to the wrongful behavior, but we must begin by removing the shackles of zero tolerance policies that often bind their hands. And we must encourage them to utilize other less draconian measures that preserve school safety while promoting educational success.
William D. Hitchcock served as Anchorage Children's Court Master from 1985 to 2012.