Judge Steve Teske seeks to keep kids with minor problems out of court

Steve Teske doesn’t hold back. He’s a Southern judge, with the boom and flair of a preacher, who has risen to national prominence arguing that too many students get arrested or kicked out of school for minor trouble.

“Zero tolerance is zero intelligence,” he likes to say.

His plea for common sense follows two decades of increased police presence at schools across the country, including in the Washington region, and coincides with a growing concern nationally about campus arrests and suspensions.

Teske wants people to know that students regularly show up in the courtroom who shouldn’t be there. That a schoolyard fight or a moment of mouthing off at a teacher is no reason to pull out handcuffs. That African American and Hispanic students are sent to court in disproportionate numbers.

“Kids are wired to do stupid things,” he tells a North Carolina crowd here one fall day. “Hello? Right? How many of you in here committed a delinquent act at any time when you were a teenager?”

Some raise a hand. Others don’t budge.

“Don’t be afraid,” he thunders. “Confess now. Confess now!”

They laugh.

They know Teske is no ordinary evangelist. His success as a juvenile court judge in the outskirts of Atlanta has propelled him to the forefront of a national debate about the effects of harsh approaches to student discipline.

National appeal

He has inspired believers in Connecticut and Indiana, in North Carolina and Kansas. One September day, he advised two Los Angeles judges by phone; a week later, he hosted a contingent from Kentucky in his courtroom. Last year, he spoke in Baltimore, where reforms were underway. Recently, District advocates invited him to speak in a city where police data show nearly 600 public school students were arrested last year.

“He is very charismatic, but what is causing people to sit up and take notice is that it is all based on data,” says researcher Russell Skiba, of Indiana University, who has written extensively on school discipline.

Teske’s quest for change hits many of the same notes as widely noted research from Texas and a new federal discipline initiative created in July by the departments of Justice and Education to help address the so-called “school-to-prison pipeline.”

For Teske, 51, an energetic personality with a scruff of beard and a bent for bowties, the problem became clear during his early days as a juvenile judge in Clayton County, Ga.

School-based offenses were sharply on the rise in the late 1990s — jumping from 46 incidents in 1995 to more than 1,200 in 2003. These were years when sworn police, called “school resource officers,” were assigned to middle and high schools.

Ninety percent of cases were misdemeanors, Teske says, mostly for the kind of trouble once handled by school principals.

“I thought, ‘This is ridiculous,’ ” he says. “They weren’t delinquent kids. ”

Teske brought together educators, police and social service and mental health counselors, parents and students. After nine months, leaders settled on a new protocol for four misdemeanors: fights, disorderly conduct, disruption and failure to follow police instructions.

Now, instead of making arrests, police issue warnings for first offenders. Repeat trouble means workshops or mediation. Only then may a student land in court. For chronic offenders, a system of care is in place to help resolve underlying problems.

School referrals to juvenile court fell more than 70 percent from 2003 to 2010.

“The cases we have in court now are the burglars, the robbers — the kids who scare you, not the kids who make you mad,” Teske says.

Police were wary of the change at first, says Lt. Marc Richards, then assigned to a middle school where he averaged 100 arrests a year. “Police officers are A-type personalities, black and white, by the book,” he says. “With this initiative, there was a lot of gray.”

But over time, he says, “it became an extremely effective tool.” With fewer arrests and a more preventative focus, police-student relations improved, he says. So did tips about serious offenses.

School leaders had an adjustment curve, too, says Luvenia Jackson, then an assistant superintendent in the 52,000-student district.

“What we do more of now is looking at causes of the behavior and what we can do to prevent or eliminate causes,” she says. “The school social workers are involved more, and the school counselors are involved more.”

Teske says schools are safer — and students are better off.

Serious weapons incidents on campus have dropped nearly 80 percent since 2003. Probation caseloads that once numbered 150 per officer have fallen to 25 cases, allowing more focus on serious offenders, Teske says.

Perhaps most striking, graduation rates have risen in Clayton County — up more than 20 percentage points in seven years.

“He has turned the tables in a very important way,” says Lisa Thurau, executive director of the nonprofit group Strategies for Youth. Teske gets attention that others might not, she says, because “he has the legitimacy of being a judge.”

Before his North Carolina audience, Teske cites research showing students who get arrested are twice as likely to drop out of school and those who appear in court are four times more likely not to graduate.

He says students who get suspended are at a higher risk of dropping out.

He feigns incredulity.

“Who would ever think that keeping kids in school would increase their graduation rates?!”

It’s not about blame

Teske, now chief juvenile judge in Clayton County, is dressed in bluejeans and a mandarin-collar shirt and seems outgoing as he greets people at a reception. Later, he explains his views in a blaze of ideas — what the goal is, what it is not. “It’s not about blaming the police,” he says. “It’s not about blaming the schools.”

Teske says he doesn’t hear from many critics, in person or through his blog.

But zero tolerance still has supporters. “Some people equate zero tolerance with lock-’em-up-and-throw-away-the-key,” says Charles Ewing, a law professor at University at Buffalo Law School, State University of New York. “To me, zero tolerance means safety first in the school.”

To Teske, it all too often means overpunishment for low-level misdeeds.

Three years ago, Teske found his judicial match in Birmingham, Ala., where Jefferson County Presiding Juvenile Court Judge Brian Huff replicated Clayton County’s approach. Huff, 42, had gone to Georgia to observe Teske’s method.

He was convinced.

In the Birmingham area, he says, community leaders deliberated about a year, then adopted an approach similar to Clayton County’s.

“These are offenses that need some sort of disciplinary action, but kids just shouldn’t be arrested the first time something like this happens,” Huff says.

Huff says his data shows strong results: In 2007-2008, Birmingham schools sent 528 offenses to court. Last year, 174 cases went from school to court. Now Huff travels the country to speak, too; the two judges have coauthored articles.

Both men admit to their own teenage trouble.

Teske recalls pulling a prank at age 13 that set off his school’s fire alarm. He recalls the mass havoc that ensued. The threat of arrest. The terror he felt.

His principal prevailed in insisting the school system would mete out the punishment. “Would I even be a judge today had I gone to jail that day?” he asks.

Teske and Huff brought their ideas and data last fall to Connecticut, where two communities are now adopting similar approaches and more are interested, says Lara Herscovitch, a juvenile justice advocate. “The beauty of the model is that the ‘how’ gets defined locally,” she says. “It’s not a cookie-cutter approach.”

National interest is at a high point, says Teske, who often travels with a technical team to answer nitty-gritty questions of implementation. His model — a “multi-integrated systems approach” aiming to reduce recidivism — was developed with inspiration from a juvenile detention reform initiative of the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

“He’s very passionate and challenges many of the assumptions the system has worked with for years,” says Michael J. Rieder, deputy secretary of court services for North Carolina, where Teske has appeared five times to fire up a statewide reform effort. In North Carolina, more than 40 percent of juvenile court cases start in the schools.

Teske may soon speak in the District, where advocates want to pursue new approaches to discipline with school and court officials. “We are hoping to the tap the same kinds of strategies,” says Cynthia Robbins, co-founder of the nonprofit Racial Justice Initiative.

Police say most cases of the nearly 600 District students who were arrested last year were diverted to mediation or other programs, rather than sent to court, with no arrest record for those students. They say arrests are a last resort and that disciplinary action by school officials is used when possible.

Teske pushes to keep students away from arrest and court altogether. But he says certain offenses — involving drugs or guns, for example — should lead to arrest.

He does not urge police be removed from schools, as some advocates do.

The change he’d really like to see, he says, is data collection. Many districts say they have no problem, but without numbers on students arrested or referred to court he wonders: How do they know?

Talking to a rapt audience in North Carolina, he lets them know his vision of change is no simple fix. “I like to tell people, repeat what my mama told me growing up,” he says, “. . . ‘Son, the quickest way is usually the wrong way.’ The right way is the way that takes longer, more investment, more time.”

Donna St. George writes about education, with an emphasis on Montgomery County schools.
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