Helping Kids Through the ‘Age of Stupidity’

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Judge Steven TeskeSome things in life can't be explained.

Whether it's the Bermuda Triangle, the origin of the "Big Bang" or the construction of Stonehenge, we come up with theories but the truth escapes us.

My wife sometimes asks, "Why do you love me?"

I recite the litany of things about her that excite me, but the truth—I don't know. I can't explain the chemistry between us; it just is!

It used to be that way explaining why teenagers do stupid things. We assumed their immaturity stemmed from their short stint on this earth—lack of brain development.

As technology advances, so does our understanding of the once unexplainable. The adolescent brain is one of the theory-to-fact instances proven by technology—magnetic resonance imaging of the teenage brain. The teenage brain is under neurological construction through age 25.

We hug our kids at high school graduation, send them to college proud of their achievement, but are dumbfounded when they call for help. Whether it’s a fraternity hazing incident, disorderly conduct arrest during Spring Break or the credit card companies found your child, parents don’t stop parenting at age 18.

Parents of teenagers are scared. They just want to get their kids through the “Age of Stupidity”—but so many adults over our children view stupidity and criminality as synonymous when other alternatives would suffice.

It causes me to wonder if these adults have not yet left the “Age of Stupidity” themselves.

You know what’s sad? These adults know that kids are immature, that their brains are still developing. They know kids make poor choices--that they get into fights, get mad and cuss, throw stuff across the classroom and a bunch of other really dumb things.

These adults also know that with age comes growth. With growth comes maturity. With maturity comes fewer stupid stunts.

We call this "aging out," and this is why progressive juvenile justice systems emphasize restorative justice approaches in the handling of these stupid stunts. These same systems work collaboratively with schools and police to find alternatives to arresting the kids that make us mad, reserving the strong arm of the law for the scary kids.

I recall fights at my school in the early ‘70s. A student brought a gun to school. Marijuana was the drug of choice and the cafeteria was the venue for buying a joint for dessert. I recall my principal chasing a student down the hallway or outside my classroom window, always in awe of how this man of small physical stature possessed so much athleticism. I once saw him catch a student twice his size running across the baseball field. The kid didn't stand a chance.

Most of these pot smoking, fisticuffing and class disrupting clowns went on to graduate and do well in life and the police were never involved. They didn't go to juvenile court.

How is it different 40 years later? We still have the pot smoking, fisticuffing and disruptive classroom clowns. True, there is more of it, but that’s about math. Our population has grown exponentially, as evidenced by the construction of five more high schools.

But our juvenile justice system has grown along with the population—not just in numbers, but in understanding adolescent development, identifying delinquency risk factors and the best practices in re-directing kids.

One thing is for sure: we had to stop treating every pot smoking, fisticuffing and classroom disrupting clown like a criminal and devote our resources to the kids that scare us—the burglars, the car thieves and those wielding guns. They were not getting the supervision and treatment necessary to stop their reoffending because we were spending more time watching the kids that make us mad.

And there are still some who say, "But Steve, don't most of these pot smoking, fisticuffing and disruptive classroom clowns become the scary kids?"

The answer is the same as as it was in my day: "No."

I negotiated a protocol to stop most misdemeanor school arrests and created a “Restorative Justice” division in my court devoted strictly to diverting delinquent acts that can be classified as "typical juvenile behavior."

Recently, a three-year recidivist study was performed on kids diverted from the court using restorative programs in the community. In 2010, 714 kids were diverted into restorative justice programs. We never saw 528 of them again. Of the 186 that returned most were misdemeanors typical of juvenile misconduct. Most of them were diverted to other restorative justice programs and the vast majority we have not seen again.

This system has allowed us to devote all of probation to only the scary kids and this is critical knowing that these kids make up the bulk of juvenile crime in the county. The creation of our Restorative Justice Program is an essential element to a 60 percent decline in juvenile arrests—we are spending more time with the scary kids!

Like Elizabeth Browning's poem, I can easily explain how I love my wife by counting the ways, but I still can't explain why. It's just magical chemistry.

But there is nothing magical in the treatment of our kids, we do know the how and whys of effective treatment—some of us choose to ignore it.