I recently heard an NPR segment called “Teenage Mischief Can Lead To Jail Time In Tennessee,” which is only about a 8 minutes long, if you want to listen to it here. The interview is with Susan Farriss, a writer for The Center for Public Integrity, which has been running a series focused on the Tennessee juvenile justice system.
The radio program is part of a larger NPR series about inequity in the court system, but this segment concerns minors who are charged with status offenses – charges that only apply to those under the age of 18, like tobacco possession, truancy, or running away from home. The Center for Public Integrity reports that young people in Knox County, TN are routinely given high fines or even jailed for these offenses without being provided legal representation.
I’m not involved with the court system in our county, so I don’t know if my students get representation when they appear in court, but I do teach many young people who spend their after school hours and weekends completing community service and working long hours to pay high court fines for status offenses. They lose school hours to appear in court and leave my afternoon tutoring early to report to their probation officers. I’ve even been to the county jail a few times to teach students behind bars. So I was especially interested in the following statement by Farriss, that one solution was to…
“…perhaps look at what was going on at their school and if their school could be doing more for them because some of the kids I spoke with had never been tested for special needs – never been offered some sort of alternative plan inside their school to help get them through this time.”
My first objection is that Tennessee special education systems are routinely criticized for over-identifying students as having special needs, not under-identifying. So I wonder about the basis of the statement, and am also concerned that the speaker seems to imply that being identified as having special needs somehow shields students from criminal charges. That certainly isn’t a conclusion that can be drawn from evidence. I do, however, agree that there should be a partnership between schools, and have tried to establish one in our community.
Last year, I served a young woman who was 17, pregnant, and a senior in high school. I wanted to help her complete her credits before she had her child, since I doubted she would have access to childcare once the baby was born. She had a significant learning disability and was a second language learner who struggled with academic vocabulary. She had failed her English III course, partly due to high absenteeism – both because of doctor’s appointments for her pregnancy and because she had been regularly skipping school since middle school. To explain her chronic truancy, she told me that she didn’t think she would ever be able to earn a high school diploma, so she didn’t see the point in coming to class. I had worked on and off with her for months and finally thought I had convinced her that earning a high school diploma was possible, and that she owed it to her soon-to-be-born child to work toward earning it.
She began working with me on literacy and English III credit recovery after school, until one afternoon when I had a lesson planned and ready, but she didn’t show up. I waited for 30 minutes or so and then gave up. Since she was the only student I was expecting that afternoon, I decided to head to our district’s teacher center to laminate some classroom materials. I arrived at the center to find this same young woman sitting there cutting the edges off laminated shapes.
I was puzzled. When I asked her what she was doing there, she answered “community service.” She had been sentenced to well over a hundred hours of community service by the juvenile court because of school truancy. Many of the other young people I teach tell me about the hours of community service they are sentenced to perform picking up trash on the side of the road or helping at the city dump. Since this young woman was pregnant, she was given the lighter assignment of helping prepare elementary school cutouts at the county Teacher Center.
I was really frustrated. If the court had been concerned about her truancy because it would impede her learning progress, why wouldn’t they have sentenced her to extra hours at school? That would seem to be a punishment that would fit the crime.
I called the young woman’s probation officer to ask if extra school time to make up the lost hours from truancy could be assigned in place of some of the community service hours. The probation officer responded as though I was trying to give this young woman a break from her punishment. Believe me, from the student’s perspective, an afternoon cutting out shapes was much preferred over a grueling reading lesson in my classroom. The probation officer offered to move the girl’s community service to the weekend so that she would be free to attend my tutoring, but I knew the likelihood of her showing up for me was low if all her other free time was taken up by community service, especially since she also worked long hours as a waitress in a local restaurant, partly to pay her court fines. I was right. The girl never completed the credit recovery, and dropped out of school when she turned 18, just after her baby was born.
I decided there had to be a way the school system could work with the juvenile court to avoid this happening again, and made an appointment to speak with the juvenile court officer. I told him about my program and my idea for sentencing students who were struggling in school to extra after school tutoring sessions in place of some community service hours. He agreed that the courts should work more closely with the schools, and that education is a better way to help young people out of the court system than unrelated community service.
Although we made the agreement to work together, the court never followed up by referring students to me and I continue to serve several young people who would have benefitted from this kind of partnership. I know a young man who is working at the city dump at this very moment, who could be at summer school recovering his failed senior classes and earning a late diploma at the end of June. I suspect that diploma would reduce his chances of continuing to churn through the criminal justice system, but doubt it will happen since there simply isn’t enough time for him to complete both the diploma requirements and the mandated community service hours before his court ordered deadline.
I haven’t given up. I’ve talked with an administrator in our school system to see if someone with more influence could push a partnership through more effectively. I will meet with the court officers again. I have to continue to believe that education and a high school diploma are the best answers we have for offering a better future for the young people with special needs who cycle through our county’s courts, probation centers and jail.