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 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.
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.