The Clampdown 

Teenagers are better than ever. So why are we treating them like criminals?

Wednesday, Mar 21 2001

On March 5, the bodies of five teenagers arrived for autopsy at the San Diego County Medical Examiner‘s Office. Two were victims of student gunman Charles Andrew Williams at Santana High School in Santee. The other three died in more typical ways that teenagers die: Two were killed in automobile accidents; the other has not yet been officially classified, but she was a 14-year-old who’d been depressed. Authorities are investigating the possibility of suicide.

In 1998, the most recent year for which statistics are available, more than 13,000 kids between 15 and 24 died in automobile accidents. Another 4,000 killed themselves. Only a handful died in school shooting sprees. As the congressional Bipartisan Working Group on Youth Violence reported in February 2000, “It is important to note that, statistically speaking, schools are among the safest places for children to be.” During the 1998-99 school year, even with Columbine High School‘s toll of 12, violent, school-related deaths totaled 30. Last year, that number was just 16. In an average year, nearly a hundred people are killed by lightning.

While it’s easy to see the absurdity of re-shaping public policy to prevent anomalies like lightning strikes, legislators have not hesitated to drastically alter public policy toward teenagers in the wake of far rarer incidents of school violence. “Authorities seem to lie in wait for suburban youth killings, months and thousands of miles apart, to validate a false hypothesis of generational disease,” wrote Mike Males, senior researcher for the Justice Policy Institute and author of Framing Youth. Ignoring in their legislative agendas things that might prevent the very real threats to teenagers of auto accidents and suicide, and ignoring the fact that teenagers are getting less, not more, violent, legislators have passed a raft of punitive and ineffectual laws clamping down ever more tightly on youth. “They can‘t seem to do anything that would really help,” Males says. “They can’t fix the fact that one-third of kids in Los Angeles County are growing up in poverty. They can‘t fix family violence. So they decide to do something, even if it’s stupid.”

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In the aftermath of Santee, proposals for new laws are already surfacing and even passing. In Sacramento, Assemblyman George Runner Jr. (R-Lancaster) says he will introduce a bill to provide legal protection to students who report school-violence threats. Locally, county Supervisor Mike Antonovich is leading the charge. Last week, he introduced a motion (passed unanimously) setting up a program in which youths convicted of making threats would tour the county morgue “to see the results of gun violence.” Kim Brooks, executive director of the Children‘s Law Center in Covington, Kentucky, sees the law, which has received worldwide attention, as grandstanding. “There have been so many overreactions to school-shooting incidents,” she says. “But this is one of the most absurd.” Such “scared straight” programs have been shown in numerous studies not to work. “I can’t believe that the Columbine kids, say, would have been the least deterred by this kind of program,” says Males. Moreover, they may do more harm than good. “I would have extreme concerns about exposing children to morgues and the kind of psychological damage that could cause,” Brooks says.

The last decade has brought a surge in laws that punish kids in ways large and small. Cities have passed ever-more-draconian curfew laws to keep kids off the streets not just at night but during the day. States, including California, have passed laws mandating that children committing certain crimes be tried and punished as adults. An increasing number of schools require kids to wear uniforms. States across the country are raising the driver‘s-license age.

Among the more odious tools for cracking down on kids are the zero-tolerance policies now in wide use at schools across the country. In the mid-’90s, after the first couple of widely publicized school shootings, many states adopted policies mandating automatic suspension in certain circumstances, usually for criminal offenses or serious threats to the safety of other students. Since that time, however, school districts have expanded zero-tolerance policies to include a broad swath of behavior. Depending on the school, kids can be automatically suspended for making threats, tagging, possessing drugs or alcohol, being under the influence of alcohol at school functions and carrying weapons.

While the laws have not demonstrably prevented a single school shooting, they have resulted in legions of children being removed from school for minor offenses. Students sharing drugs such as Midol and aspirin have been suspended, as have kids carrying such dangerous “weapons” as paper clips, nail files and scissors. And the policies have put school authorities in an awkwardly hypocritical position: At the same time they‘re trying to teach kids to be tolerant of others, they’re proudly touting “zero tolerance” by the school for the smallest slip-ups.

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