Minors are still being incarcerated in New York. Every year, some 2,200 of them throughout the state are released back into the community. Within three years, 75 percent of these young people are rearrested.
It was this depressing statistic that inspired 16 teenagers to spend the better part of the year studying the problem of what is bureaucratically referred to as “juvenile reentry,” interviewing officials, experts, young people and their families to try to figure out what could be done.
The result was “Stop The Revolving Door: Giving Communities and Youth The Tools To Overcome Recidivism” (full 60-page report here in pdf format; or the four-page executive summary, also in pdf format.) Among the recommendations in their report, released earlier this year, were to create Connection Centers (transitional facilities) and Welcome Centers (places where young people could go “to get reliable information about services and opportunities” such as job training and peer support groups.) They suggested that the New York State Office of Children and Family Services institute a uniform system to track the warning signs â€“ truancy, etc. â€“ to intervene before the behavior becomes bad enough to require arrest.
This was the first project of the Youth Justice Board, a program launched by the Center for Court Innovation that gathers a group of high school students from around the city to spend a year studying a single criminal justice or public safety issue.
For the second year, the new members of the Youth Justice Board are studying school security.
Overhearing A Discussion On School Security
There probably always has been tension between order and liberty in the hallways of New York public schools. But it is not just students who resent the presence of a school security force composed of armed police officers even as statistics suggest a decrease in crime in schools with a strong police presence.
Earlier this year, when an officer went inside a classroom at Bronx Guild High School to arrest a student, it was the school’s principal, Michael Soguero, who wound up arrested, for allegedly assaulting that officer.
Partly in response to that incident, Bronx Councilmember Annabel Palma sponsored some community meetings at which students complained of school security officers â€“ commonly called SSO’s or SSA’s â€“ routinely harassing students.
As a result, in May, Palma decided to set up a hotline for students in her district to call in and complain if they have a problem with how they have been treated by school security. (Calling (718)589-9166 will get a message machine, not a live person; the number also currently doubles as a place to lodge complaints about a turkey plant said to be a big polluter.) The council member’s office has been able to follow up on 12 complaints phoned into the hotline, ranging from verbal abuse to violence.
The hotline was one of the topics of a freewheeling discussion at a recent meeting of the Youth Justice Board, where 15-year-old Jordan Rivera, a student at Mount St. Michael Academy in the Bronx, wondered whether any student would really call.
The discussion turned to an interview some of the Youth Justice Board members had done with Emily Merrill, chief of staff for Councilmember Eva Moskowitz, about the status of the proposed city legislation on bullying. This in turn led to a debate over how schools should handle students with a habit for getting into fights and not following school rules.
“It’s like cancer, you have one thing and then it spreads,” said 17-year-old Victoria Richardson, a student at Mother Cabrini High School.
George Espinal, a graduated senior at Washington-Irving High School, advocated a tough-minded approach to problem students.
Other students talked about alternative high schools, so-called “second-chance schools”, where students with behavior problems can end up.
Rivera said he had friends who were sent to second-chance schools. “It was like nobody paid them any mind there, and they was like, â€No one cares for my education, why should I?’” Rivera said.
Reynold Martin, a student at the Academy of Urban Planning, wondered about the root of the students’ behavior. “What if the reason they were acting bad was because they weren’t getting an education?
“You can influence somebody positively,” said Martin, and then spontaneously came up with an idea: “Why can’t they try putting one so-called problem student in a class of honor studentsâ€¦see how their grades areâ€¦I think they’d like it.”
Kids These Days
Kids!/ I don't know what's wrong with these kids today!/Kids!/ Who can understand anything they say?/â€¦Why can't they be like we were,/Perfect in every way?/ What's the matter with kids today?”
Paul Lynde sang these lyrics in Bye Bye Birdie, on Broadway in 1960, and it’s the tune of many adults then and now.
But over the past decade, there has been a trend toward the creation of youth civic groups looking to solve the problems of youth â€“ and of government interest in hearing what they have to say, according to Wendy Wheeler, president of the Innovation Center for Community and Youth Development, a national organization that helps youth advocacy groups get started.
Wheeler said that there have been cases where policies advocated by youth wound up being largely adopted wholesale, such as the guidelines for foster care residents proposed by the Young Women’s Project in Washington, D.C.
This year, Dory Hack, who is overseeing the Youth Justice Board, said the group will be making its recommendations on school security in October to a host of city officials. Organizers understand that the recommendations the group makes might not directly lead to policy changes. But Tabetha Cody Ritter, a ninth-grader at ACORN High School for Social Justice in Brooklyn, said that what she has learned in the meetings has sparked discussions among her friends who aren’t in the program.
“They’re interested,” she said, when she explains to them some of the details of school safety policy. If other students are having similar experiences, then the program may have a far-reaching impact after all.Â