The Truth about Teenagers Today
Defying Conventional Wisdom
Dana Heitner embodies two truths about teenagers. The first, the one that tends to surprise, is that in most ways that can be measured, today's teenagers are doing extremely well. Juvenile crime rates have dropped dramatically in the last 20 years. In 1981, teenagers committed serious crimes at a rate of 40 per 1,000 kids, according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics. By 1998, that figure had dropped to below 30 per 1,000. As a group, teenagers are smoking and drinking less than their parents did at their age. Between 1974 and 1994 (the latest dates for which figures are available), smoking among kids ages 12 to 17 dropped by 60 percent, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Between 1979 and 1998, alcohol consumption among that age group dropped by more than 62 percent.
And they're good in a host of other ways as well. According to the Points of Light Foundation, a volunteer organization in Washington, D.C., some 59 percent of teenagers volunteer more than 3.5 hours per week (as compared to 16 percent of baby boomers when they were in high school). On IQ tests, they score on average seven points higher than their parents and 14 points higher than their grandparents, and today the highest percentage of high-school students ever -- more than 63 percent -- is going to college. It's also true that the best high-school students are expected to take far more difficult classes than their parents did, and that many kids do extremely well (last year, Harvard University rejected 1,000 high-school valedictorians). Teenagers today are also more accepting of ethnic differences, with American Demographics reporting that today's teens are "the least prejudiced about race" compared to previous generations. They have the lowest teen-pregnancy rate of the last 60 years, a 20 percent drop just in the last decade, according to The National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy.
But the second truth Heitner demonstrates is that our society has failed to grasp just how good our kids are. More and more, we're treating them as if they're out of control. We've cracked down in small ways -- requiring school uniforms, raising the driver's-license age in many states, passing restrictive curfew laws -- and in large ways by instituting zero-tolerance policies for minor offenses at school, and trying and sentencing kids as adults.
The zero-tolerance policies grew out of an understandable impulse: to try to prevent tragic school shootings like those at Littleton, Colorado, and elsewhere. School boards became intent on intervening before kids opened fire, and so they instituted policies mandating suspension or expulsion for a wide array of misbehaviors, such as making threats, bringing things on campus that could be used as weapons, or using drugs or alcohol at school-related, off-campus events.
Some who advocate these policies say they are working in ways that are impossible to measure. "Schools are safe places for kids, and they're becoming safer every year," says Bill Modzeleski, director of the U.S. Department of Education's Safe and Drug Free Schools program. "Part of the reason is that the procedures we've adopted are working."
But there is a dark side to the new rules: They've caused a lot of anguish for scores of ordinary, pretty good kids and their families. The stories often seem ludicrous. Last May, Lindsay Brown, an 18-year-old Fort Myers, Florida, honors student and National Merit Scholar, was kept from attending her graduation after a school official noticed a table knife on the floor of her car, which was parked on campus. She explained that it must have fallen out when she was moving, but school officials would not make exceptions.
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. Modzeleski believes zero tolerance is "most often reserved for the most serious offenses," but acknowledges that "fine-tuning is needed" on some programs. In the meantime, many school authorities find themselves in an awkwardly hypocritical position: At the same time that they're trying to teach kids to be tolerant of others, they're proudly touting zero tolerance for the smallest slip-ups.
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