Crime and Punishment?

Brookline Tab, March 1999

The anniversary of the Columbine tragedy is now upon us. Sadly, the newspapers continue to report similar incidents of juvenile aggression with alarming frequency. We live in an increasingly violent society, and we are becoming both more aware and more frightened of this. The clamor against violence in our society is certainly getting louder, and that is a very good thing, especially when it is expressed in events like next month’s Million Mom March Against Guns. Yet there is the potential of going too far with our justified outrage against children who commit acts of violence.

How can a movement against juvenile violence go too far? By not understanding enough about prevention and treatment; by focussing instead on the sensational aspects and punishment. By listening only to our desire to eject the rotten apples, and not see them as people who need help. When we start to look at the children themselves who have committed grievous acts of violence and aggression, to look beyond our anger and fear, we begin to ask questions like: were there psychological disorders that could have been treated? Would family counseling have helped? What, for example, could the schools have done?

The schools could play more of a central role in prevention of violence, if our focus were on prevention, early detection of problems, and treatment, rather than on punishment. All too often, schools do not deal competently with the problem of even more run-of-the-mill behavior disruption. The Federal law allows for schools to suspend children for behavior that violates a school’s disciplinary codes. Special needs children can be suspended for up to ten days per disciplinary incident — even if the behavior is due to their disability. Yet what does suspension accomplish, other than to relocate the problem? Perhaps in some cases the child feels the shame, and learns something positive, as intended. But in many cases, suspension provides escape to the child, which is more likely what he was looking for in the first place. Thus suspension can act as a reinforcer for bad behavior.

The law encourages school personnel to implement behavioral interventions, yet schools do not always follow these guidelines, opting to suspend and leave families with the burden of responsibility. Families of children who “act out” may already be under an enormous amount of stress and often need help outside of the family. But if the school is unwilling or unable to deal with the behavioral child, the family may have nowhere else to turn, and the problems get worse.

The law allows much discretion to schools to decide who can and cannot attend them. In some cases, that is necessary. We all wish that the children who pulled the trigger at Columbine had been identified and prevented from entering the schools with guns. But many of us also feel that if they had been identified long before their sociopathic behavior erupted, and then given the intensive therapy they needed, we would never have gotten to the gun stage. If school personnel were better trained to catch this sort of profile, and had the funding to treat, or if insurance companies paid for more than eight visits to a psychologist, maybe tragedies like these could be avoided. Some of us are luckier in that our children get into the right program early enough. I know several Brookline parents who are currently very grateful for their child’s intensive school program because now their child has a chance to become something other than a criminal statistic.

Does it do any good to keep kids out of school for difficult behavior? I suggest that it does not. Where should they go? Home? The streets? How can they then get help? All expulsion does is move the problem to someone else’s shoulders like the parents (who are not professionals). There is no real safety net out there for children who present challenging behaviors. I fear that with the growing wave of anger around violent children, there will be fewer and fewer constructive alternatives, less help available, and more lives ruined. We must remember that children with violent behaviors need help, not punishment.