The Truth about Teenagers Today
Why the Disconnect?
People who study kids all have theories about why we're unable to see that kids are actually doing pretty well. Some blame the media for perpetuating misconceptions. A recent report by the Public Health Institute's Berkeley Media Studies Group, in California, cited research showing that in that state, in 1993 "nearly seven in ten news stories on violence involved youth, while youth arrests made up only fourteen percent of arrests for violent crimes that year." The group cited another study that found "more than half of TV news stories concerning children or youth involved violence, while only two percent of young people were either victims of violence or violent offenders that year."
But perhaps the main reason we've cracked down on kids is a sort of "do something, anything" attitude on the part of policy-makers. We have no idea if zero-tolerance policies will work, but at least legislators can't be accused of not acting. It's much harder to legislate solutions to the real problems kids face. In 1998, the latest year for which statistics are available, more than 10,000 people between the ages of 15 and 24 died in automobile accidents. Another 4,000 killed themselves. Only a handful -- still too many -- died in school shooting sprees.
Nevertheless, legislators, under intense pressure to act, have drastically altered public policy toward teenagers in the wake of rare incidents of school violence. Modzeleski sees the policies as necessary, believing that excesses can be corrected, but that it's important for kids to feel safe at school right now. "The flip side of all these incidences of supposed overreaction," he says, "is that one kid's fun is another kid's hardship. Something that seems very minor may end up robbing kids of important learning time."
If the get-tough mind-set has created problems for elite students like Dana Heitner, it has been even harder on those not at the top. A report last year by Harvard's Civil Rights Project and the Advancement Project, a Washington, D.C.-based legal-action group, concluded that in many cases zero-tolerance policies "defy common sense," and that "children in kindergarten through twelfth grade receive harsh punishments, often for minor infractions that pose no threat to safety." Furthermore, the report noted, "African-American, Latino and disabled children bear the brunt of the consequences," because they represent a disproportionate 32 percent of out-of-school suspensions.
In the end, says Vincent Schiraldi of the Justice Policy Institute, a Washington, D.C., think tank, we need to stop and analyze whether the policies we're instituting are the best way to invest in our children. "When the baby boom kids came along, the nation stopped and said, 'Oh, no, we've got a lot of kids coming along. We'd better build schools.' Now we're saying, 'Oh, no, we've got a lot of kids coming along. We'd better build prisons.'" --Sue Horton
Sue Horton was supported in her research for this report by the University of Maryland's Journalism Fellowships in Child and Family Policy, where she was a Foundation for Child Development Fellow.
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