“He has turned the tables in a very important way,” says Lisa Thurau, executive director of the nonprofit group Strategies for Youth. Teske gets attention that others might not, she says, because “he has the legitimacy of being a judge.”
Before his North Carolina audience, Teske cites research showing students who get arrested are twice as likely to drop out of school and those who appear in court are four times more likely not to graduate.
He says students who get suspended are at a higher risk of dropping out.
He feigns incredulity.
“Who would ever think that keeping kids in school would increase their graduation rates?!”
It’s not about blame
Teske, now chief juvenile judge in Clayton County, is dressed in bluejeans and a mandarin-collar shirt and seems outgoing as he greets people at a reception. Later, he explains his views in a blaze of ideas — what the goal is, what it is not. “It’s not about blaming the police,” he says. “It’s not about blaming the schools.”
Teske says he doesn’t hear from many critics, in person or through his blog.
But zero tolerance still has supporters. “Some people equate zero tolerance with lock-’em-up-and-throw-away-the-key,” says Charles Ewing, a law professor at University at Buffalo Law School, State University of New York. “To me, zero tolerance means safety first in the school.”
To Teske, it all too often means overpunishment for low-level misdeeds.
Three years ago, Teske found his judicial match in Birmingham, Ala., where Jefferson County Presiding Juvenile Court Judge Brian Huff replicated Clayton County’s approach. Huff, 42, had gone to Georgia to observe Teske’s method.
He was convinced.
In the Birmingham area, he says, community leaders deliberated about a year, then adopted an approach similar to Clayton County’s.
“These are offenses that need some sort of disciplinary action, but kids just shouldn’t be arrested the first time something like this happens,” Huff says.
Huff says his data shows strong results: In 2007-2008, Birmingham schools sent 528 offenses to court. Last year, 174 cases went from school to court. Now Huff travels the country to speak, too; the two judges have coauthored articles.
Both men admit to their own teenage trouble.
Teske recalls pulling a prank at age 13 that set off his school’s fire alarm. He recalls the mass havoc that ensued. The threat of arrest. The terror he felt.
His principal prevailed in insisting the school system would mete out the punishment. “Would I even be a judge today had I gone to jail that day?” he asks.
Teske and Huff brought their ideas and data last fall to Connecticut, where two communities are now adopting similar approaches and more are interested, says Lara Herscovitch, a juvenile justice advocate. “The beauty of the model is that the ‘how’ gets defined locally,” she says. “It’s not a cookie-cutter approach.”
National interest is at a high point, says Teske, who often travels with a technical team to answer nitty-gritty questions of implementation. His model — a “multi-integrated systems approach” aiming to reduce recidivism — was developed with inspiration from a juvenile detention reform initiative of the Annie E. Casey Foundation.
“He’s very passionate and challenges many of the assumptions the system has worked with for years,” says Michael J. Rieder, deputy secretary of court services for North Carolina, where Teske has appeared five times to fire up a statewide reform effort. In North Carolina, more than 40 percent of juvenile court cases start in the schools.
Teske may soon speak in the District, where advocates want to pursue new approaches to discipline with school and court officials. “We are hoping to the tap the same kinds of strategies,” says Cynthia Robbins, co-founder of the nonprofit Racial Justice Initiative.
Police say most cases of the nearly 600 District students who were arrested last year were diverted to mediation or other programs, rather than sent to court, with no arrest record for those students. They say arrests are a last resort and that disciplinary action by school officials is used when possible.
Teske pushes to keep students away from arrest and court altogether. But he says certain offenses — involving drugs or guns, for example — should lead to arrest.
He does not urge police be removed from schools, as some advocates do.
The change he’d really like to see, he says, is data collection. Many districts say they have no problem, but without numbers on students arrested or referred to court he wonders: How do they know?
Talking to a rapt audience in North Carolina, he lets them know his vision of change is no simple fix. “I like to tell people, repeat what my mama told me growing up,” he says, “. . . ‘Son, the quickest way is usually the wrong way.’ The right way is the way that takes longer, more investment, more time.”