Should I press charges against my student?
March 11, 2017 12:29 AM   Subscribe

Earlier this week, my phone was stolen from my high school classroom (dumb on my part; it usually stays in my pocket). One of my students from another class recognized it and identified the suspect. The school resource officer confirmed the SN, and the student was suspended. I declined to press criminal charges against a student for the second time this year.

The phone was jailbroken. All data was wiped, the screen was cracked among other damage, and the SD/sim card missing. Apparently not the first time he has done this.

The student is a foster kid and I'm not looking to make his life any more miserable. I'll be in contact with his parents and request the missing SD card. I'll also request that he commit to an extra help plan so that he passes my course. I am considering finding him paid or volunteer work if his guardians agree; he obviously has too much time on his hands.

Earlier this year another student explicitly and publicly threatened physical violence against me because I confiscated his phone until the end of class. I again declined to press charges because I didn't think it would productively address his obvious psychological issues. This week he was involved in a drug-fueled drive-by shooting.

He caused $300 in damage, significant lost time and productivity. He seems unapologetic. Other teachers have recommended to press charges and I am torn.
posted by WhitenoisE to Education (27 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
 
Please don't.

I know that this can be a very difficult issue -- intracommunity support and mediation is atrophied to an enormous extent in America, and you're working a job that is underpaid, underserved and probably underappreciated for the day-to-day struggles you go through. Obviously, for this act amends need to be made and it isn't clear that there is any established authority or reconciliation process you can easily access (shared community orgs, church, etc) that isn't The State.

But the tragedy of a lack of choices doesn't make the remaining ones any better.

You mention that he caused $300 in damages, that is clearly terrible. To me, at least, that is a lot of money. But if you press charges and they lead to a conviction (the point of pressing charges), his average annual income in the future will be reduced by 40%. This will easily reach six figures of loss by his late 40s for the typical carceral survivor. We don't know his race, but the effect of incarceration on lost wages also increases markedly if this student is Black or Latinx. We don't know your location or his age, but in many places he is very likely to end up imprisoned with violent adults (both guards and inmates) rather than his peers. This imprisonment may precede any conviction -- if his parents don't have the substantial means necessary to mount the rigorous defense assumed by the legal system, it is very likely he'll experience the trauma of incarceration pre-trial, and/or be pressured into accepting a plea deal whose terms you won't have control over and whose aim is unlikely to be rehabilitation or the sort of "behavioral corrective" I'm sure you want in your heart-of-hearts.

What we do know from your description is that is that he is a foster. There is a strong connection between the school-to-prison pipeline and the foster care system. Whether your charges land him in the juvenile justice system for this behavioral infraction or the adult system for what will be treated as a potential for immense criminality, best case scenario he gets some help for which the price will be a record which will be used against him if he makes any mistakes again. Once he is marked, he is marked.

The cycle of poverty and violence very much requires these small decisions to continue. Large scale injustice is perpetuated by the complexity of each granular instance. In this situation, your individual pain is valid and your property loss is unfortunate, but the loss and pain he's likely to experience far outweighs it on balance. It is disproportionate to a hellish degree. I worry you'd betray yourself as an educator if you let yourself become the person who might ruin a life in retribution for ruining your day. Your colleagues that are pushing you toward this harm may be well-intentioned too, and definitely have a more full picture of this student on the individual level than I do. But incarceration isn't about individuals, and the system is no longer set-up to deal with persons in the way we were taught and you may be hoping. You'll be playing with his life, and reducing him to a number and a statistic -- its an act of violence to pursue, even if done apologetically or out of concern.
posted by Chipmazing at 2:11 AM on March 11 [109 favorites]


If it were me, and my job is very different, but there's a way I can see what this would be like for me--I would not. I think it would be hard after that to really feel 'in' the job, do you know what I mean? Once you were fighting a battle to punish one of the people who you are ostensibly trying to protect, or at least, to teach. I think the cognitive dissonance would be hard to manage.

I wouldn't blame you, but it sounds like that outcome would be worse for both of you and more of a burden-for you.

Is this normal at the school? Two instances like this in a year? Could the school have a policy of keeping phones in lockers? Because maybe there's a policy way to address it, through admin or through your own classroom policies.

And Chipmazing made a great case against it for the impact on the phone-eater's life, which really is the most important thing.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 2:31 AM on March 11 [8 favorites]


I'm a high school teacher who works with "the bad kids" and I know how terrible it is when kids steal from you or let you down in other ways. This kid isn't passing your class, you say? Interesting way for them to show their frustration at the situation.

As an educator, I strongly believe we're not faced with problems but we're given opportunities for action and a chance to creatively problem solve. Right now you have an amazing opportunity to have this kid learn that stealing isn't this disconnected act but involves real people and impacts their lives.

Sit this kid down and explain exactly how the theft affected you, the stress it caused and the potential financial cost, the feeling of comfort at work but also, your feeling of trust with this kid. Let this kid know that stealing really hurts people. Ask the kid what they could do to make it right with you. Help you decorate your room? Help you start a garden? I got some fairly aggressive and unpleasant ne'er do wells to happily sew baby quilts to donate to Children's Hospital in Boston.

Kids WANT to do the right thing. When they don't, they need help getting back on track. Seize this opportunity and help this kid get on track. You can be a positive force in making at least part of their life a bit better.

As far as making a plan to pass, I would tread very lightly and make an agreement that if the kid shows up, behaves, and makes some attempt to do the work, they will pass. I wouldn't get bogged down into, "You must learn all these things;" the kid either can't or doesn't want to. Show some mercy.

Lastly, I would NOT share stuff about specific kids with my coworkers; it can really color their impression of a kid and have them mentally file the kid as useless and unteachable. Have admins notify everyone to lock their stuff if needed, but don't single out specific kids. It can really screw them over with the more negative staff members.
posted by yes I said yes I will Yes at 2:47 AM on March 11 [49 favorites]


I think I'd ask that the parents make it right and pay for your damages and give your SD card back. If that happens, really I wouldn't see a need to press charges. It is unlikely to make him take his actions seriously, more likely to make him think "why even try". And I'm usually a hardass, but in this case, I just don't think you'd gain anything good.
posted by corb at 4:12 AM on March 11 [1 favorite]


Please, please don't press charges. I've been stolen from and I know how upsetting it is - but you are supposed to be protecting this kid. Involving the criminal justice system will do nothing but make it that much harder for him to get out of his shitty socioeconomic situation.

Depending on his home situation, I would also consider not mentioning this to his foster parents. Are they good, loving parents? If so, it might be okay. If you have any reason to suspect otherwise, please don't involve them.

It sounds like you are really, really burnt out. I get that. Maybe it would be best for everyone if you considered switching to a teaching post at a less-challenging school.
posted by schroedingersgirl at 4:18 AM on March 11 [5 favorites]


Leaving other things aside, how will pressing charges affect your relationship with your other students? It won't stay secret. On the one hand, never pressing charges might make you look like a little bit of a victim, but if you did press charges, would it really weaken your relationship with your other students to be known as the teacher who called the cops on a kid? I feel like it would reset things to "adversarial", and it sounds like that is not your natural setting.

I get a sense from your question that you're also asking "should I press charges about things because doing so will prevent my students from committing further and worse crimes?" As I'm sure you're aware, getting involved with the cops is unlikely to keep your kids from getting more involved with the cops.

I guess I would not press charges. If your student's parents can afford, without huge hardship, to fix your phone, that would seem a reasonable ask - but maybe they're in a situation where hundreds of dollars might not be easy to come by. And schroedingersgirl's point about maybe not telling them is a good one.

Here's something: are you angry? I would be really angry! When I was teaching, in a much more stable situation than you seem to be, I was sometimes really angry at my students. (Sometimes unfairly, sometimes because they were kind of being dicks.) If you are angry, do you have a good way to express and process that anger? Because frankly that kid acted kind of shitty, and it would make me mad - even at the same time as not being really mad in my heart because I'd recognize his vulnerability. [ETA: not suggesting that you express anger to students directly! More that dealing with it will keep it from coming out in counterproductive ways.]
posted by Frowner at 5:53 AM on March 11 [4 favorites]


if social workers do their jobs in your community he should get diverted out of court and get help. if social workers in your community exist just to give hugs, this won't help. I'd talk with your administration and see what they recommend.
posted by notjustthefish at 6:07 AM on March 11 [1 favorite]


The downside of pressing charges would be so disproportionate for this student, because of a category he's in through no fault of his own. I'm assuming he didn't put himself in foster care. If the school administration is not taking this seriously in terms of enforcing the action plan you have decided on, push them to do so! Feeling they really had your back would help more than diverting this elsewhere.

Also, people talk about protecting your students, which may not sound exactly right if it suggests you are protecting them from consequences. But not only do they need rational consequences-- which would not be the result of pressing charges here-- but bringing in the law on any one student will affect your relationship with all your students, I think.
posted by BibiRose at 6:43 AM on March 11 [1 favorite]


I can't see pressing charges, unless you have a much more positive view (based on much deeper knowledge) of your local juvenile justice system than I have of mine (which I actually think is far from the worst).

Ultimately I think we have both more and less power in our kids' lives than we realize. Probably there was nothing you could've done to keep that other kids from getting busted in a worse way later. That's a hard thing to live with and it makes sense to me that you'd want to try to do things differently this time.

But just because it didn't work out well doesn't mean you didn't do the right thing.

Work through your own feelings. Do the best you can for this kid and all your kids. Try to put all of that aside when you walk or off the building in the afternoon.

If it helps, I bet you this kid has been the victim of many more and worse crimes, without redress or 'justice' or any kind of rehabilitation for the perpetrators.

Whatever you do, make sure it really feels like your decision and you can own it. If you end up feeling like you did or did not press charges because of what your colleagues or friends or union or metafilter told you, that is a sure path to angst.
posted by Salamandrous at 6:46 AM on March 11 [2 favorites]


This is a real dilemma.

If you don't press charges, you are enabling these youths into thinking they "got away" and are smarter than the adults, and what they will do later is going to get worse. No one is going to be thankful that you spared them. They will think you are a lesser who was put in your place.

It does not matter if they are well-to-do -- or poor -- a lot of kids used the pity card to get away with bad things. It is no excuse and they have to learn to rise above and not think the world owes them something.

If you do press charges, there are other issues they will have to contend with and there is no guarantee that they will get more than a slap on the wrist as your time and resources are drained.

But I would not let this go, as inconvenient as this situation will be to you either way. You are teaching the wrong thing, and then the message you are sending is that people are suckers, cowards, and chumps prime for exploitation, and that will screw up their lives. I would speak to the police and see what your options are -- perhaps you can forgo pressing charges if there is some sort of financial renumeration for what they did -- if they are made to feel the consequences of their behaviour, you are forcing them to think twice before they think they can do very selfish and destructive things.

It is also important to put something on the record in case their behaviour starts to get out of control. Bad behaviour progresses and if there is evidence of that progression, it is easier to get intervention.

Do you want it on your conscience that one day one of these kids kill someone in, let's say, a robbery because no one ever introduced them to consequences or tomorrow?

Or, if you get labelled easy prey because you kept silent, are you willing to have more of the same plaguing you from now on with these little brats trying to one up each other at your expense? There is nothing wrong with putting your foot down forcefully. Compassion doesn't mean retreating -- it means facing someone and making them understand it is not okay to do whatever they want.

Good luck.
posted by Alexandra Kitty at 6:49 AM on March 11


I can't speak to what things are like where you live. But here's what would happen if this child got arrested where I live. Also, I'm going to presume for the purpose of this answer, that this kid actually did steal your phone. For all you know, the other kid is mistaken or lying, in which case everything below would be happening to a child who is innocent. And definitely don't assume that the juvenile justice system will figure that out. Almost everyone who is accused of a crime Nds up pleading guilty. It doesn't matter whether they did or not. But I'll assume for this answer, that the other kid is telling you the truth and that this kid is actually guilty.

Here's what "pressing charges" would mean where I live: The police would come to his home or to your school or just find him on the street and they would arrest him, in front of whoever happens to be there. Depending on who the police officer was, that arrest may or may not be violent and cause injury to him. If he had an injury chances are it wouldn't be treated. He would be handcuffed, and there would be very little consideration for the fact that he's a child. He'd be taken in handcuffs to the police station where a detective would take him into a room by himself. He wouldn't be allowed to call a parent or guardian, and in fact would be told that the only way he would be allowed to make a phone call is to waive his legal rights and submit to interrogation. All of this would happen while he was still in handcuffs, and probably also wearing ankle shackles. Sometimes they even use a belly chain and attach the handcuffs at the waist. This could all be happening in the middle of the night. And no one would tell him what's going on. He would be fingerprinted, strip-searched, sometimes body cavity searched. He would be placed in a cell overnight, with sometimes other kids who are bigger than he is, or mentally disturbed, or violent. He wouldn't know whether or not anyone had called his parents, and he wouldn't have the chance to talk to anyone he knows.

The next day, he'd be brought to court. He'd come to court in handcuffs chained to his belly, and ankle shackles. He would wait wearing those shackles for approximately eight hours, sometimes longer if court is crowded. And this is if he was arrested on a weekday. If they found him on a Saturday he'd be held for two days before he got to court. Then a total stranger (this is my job) would meet him in a holding cell where he be separated from everyone else by bulletproof glass. Still in the shackles. That person would tell him that she's his lawyer. His first question 95% of the time would be, is my mom here? And his lawyer doesn't know the answer to that question. The second question, again the overwhelming majority of the time, would be, when am I going to get to go home? And again his lawyer doesn't know the answer to that question. For a kid in the foster care system, where I live, the chances that he would get go home or close to zero. The judges here believe that if you're already in state custody, and you're getting in trouble, you can't be trusted to be in the community. Also, and my jurisdiction, kids with criminal records, sometimes even just arrest records, even if they're later found not guilty, become ineligible for family-based foster care, meaning that he'd live in a group home or a facility until he turns 18 or 21 regardless of the outcome of his delinquency case, even if he's innocent.

If he is released from court after arraignment, the child would be essentially put on probation prior to his trial. He would have a probation officer, and he be required to report to the probation officer once a week until his trial. He might be placed on the electronic ankle monitor, meaning that he'd have a plastic device strapped to his ankle, and anyone he meets would know that he's involved in the criminal justice system, because you can see it. He also would likely have to take a supervise urine test, peeing in front of a stranger, once a week. Kids in the juvenile justice system, on average, miss about 10% of school days where I live. Because they go to court so often, and because the court puts responsibilities on them without regard for school hours, they miss a lot. If he's failing your class now, I can virtually guarantee you he'll be failing more classes than that by the end of this year. Dropout rates are astronomical. If this kid has any extracurricular activities– sports, arts etc. – that keep him motivated or even just make him happy, he will likely be forced to drop out of them because he'll have probation requirements that will conflict with the times. He may be placed on house arrest. That all will probably result in him being removed from his foster family. That's the best case scenario. And remember, this is all during the phase of his case where he hasn't taking a plea or gone to trial yet. This is the period of his case where his presumed innocent.

The other pretrial option is for the judge not to let him out at all. In my experience, that happens to most foster kids. Then he would go to the juvenile detention center. He could be held there for several months, all prior to his trial. And when I say juvenile detention, I mean a jail for kids. The only difference between the juvenile jail and the adult jail, is that in the juvenile jail everyone has single cells, and they have, in theory "school," which mostly consists of a bunch of kids of different ages, grade levels, and IDEA needs, watching YouTube videos and filling out crossword puzzles. Oh, and there are murals on the walls of smiling happy children playing outside. These kids don't get to play outside much. It's a jail with bars and shackles and heavy metal doors that make an ominous sound when they slam shut. If this kid currently has visitation with his biological family, that will likely be cut off. He'll also likely lose his foster family because the state will want to fill that bed with another kid pretty quickly. Foster kids hardly ever get visitors in juvenile detention because it's so hard to get on the visitation list if there's a question of who has custody or who has rights. And all of this happens prior to his trial. And if he has biological family who are trying to regain custody of him, the fact that he's been arrested may cause the judge in that case to interrupt those proceedings, on the grounds that he's too out of control for his family to take care of. I see it happen in most of these cases.

Depending on how well your jurisdiction respects due process for juveniles, it's possible he may be pressured to plead guilty right away, without understanding what that means. In some cases, kids don't get a lawyer if their family can't pay for one, meaning that a foster kid wouldn't have the advice of a lawyer and would be pressured to plead guilty by the judge, the prosecutor, or both. A juvenile guilty plea can have enormous lifelong consequences. For example I always explain to my clients that pleading guilty, even to a very minor offense, could keep them out of college, prevent them from ever joining the military, get them deported If they are not natural born citizens (especially in this current environment I tell all of my undocumented clients that any plea could very well lead to deportation even if it's later sealed or expunged.), or have other consequences that may not pop up until years or decades in the future. In a case like this one, I might encourage the kid to go to trial, because the consequences for him even for a misdemeanor plea are huge. That means more time in juvenile detention, and then several days of sitting in court through a trial. It also means that you would have to testify against him. People tend to think that juvenile records are confidential, and to some extent they're right. But for a felony, which theft of an iPhone is in my jurisdiction, the records are not confidential. And for stuff like military service, they stay on your record for life. One conviction for stealing an iPhone means that this young man will never be eligible to join the military, which is a big deal especially for kids for whom, for better or for worse, the military is often their best or only reasonable path to a middle-class life. It also means that for the rest of his life, if he ever gets in trouble again, police and prosecutors and judges, will all be able to see that he was a juvenile felon. And people assume that means he's a bad seed, which means he never gets the benefit of the doubt again.

If found guilty either by plea or by trial, a judge could sentence him to a further period of probation. More court and urine tests and missed opportunities for a real childhood, but at least he's not locked up. Or the judge could decide that he needs to go to what is essentially juvenile prison. It's a prison. For kids. Bars and shackles and the whole bit. Definitely don't assume that that won't happen to him because the crime was non-violent. I have a kid in a juvenile detention facility right now for jumping a subway turnstile. The courts don't care as much what the crime was, as whether they think the kid is a bad kid. And a lot of people will make the assumption that he's a bad kid because he's in foster care, even though that's an absurd assumption to make. Especially if he doesn't always have a charming, polite, adult-friendly attitude, which it sounds like this kid doesn't. The juvenile detention facilities talk a lot about rehabilitation, but I haven't seen it. Most of the rehabilitative programs in most of the facilities that I've examined, and I've looked at a lot of them, are based on 1970s era psychological theories that say that shame is the best way to build moral character. A curriculum I looked at recently requires that, in order to graduate and be released, the child has to admit that he's a bad person with bad character. All of the juvenile psychological literature says that requiring such an admission and requiring kids to internalize that idea is extremely psychologically damaging. Much of the time these programs make things worse. For a foster kid, the likelihood is that he won't see his parents or anyone else who cares about him for months sometimes years. He'll become institutionalized. Kids who go to these facilities are overwhelmingly less likely to lead productive adult lives later on. A lot of them have PTSD for the rest of their lives.

All of this makes an assumption that may or may not be true for your kid: namely that he gets treated as a juvenile. Many states have mandatory prosecution as adults for children as young as 13 for what they term "serious felonies." And sometimes a serious felony includes stealing an iPhone, because the list value of the phone is over $500. I'm lucky to live in a jurisdiction where you have to be at least 15 to be prosecuted as an adult, but that's not true everywhere. And if prosecuted as an adult, he'll face adult consequences, including possibly being locked up in an adult jail or prison. That would be the end of his childhood. The one foster child I've represented who was charged as an adult has spent the ensuing years bouncing around between homelessness, jail, and psychiatric facilities, because by the time she got out of lockup, Not only has she lost access to most of the foster care services she otherwise would've been entitled to, because they terminated transition services at 18 instead of at 21, but also she was so traumatized that it was hard to get her to trust any adults to actually help her. She preferred living on the street to being a part of the system. And then she ended up engaging in a series of survival crimes – shoplifting toiletries, and prostitution, primarily – that landed her multiple concurrent prison sentences. She'll be 24 by the time she gets out of prison.

All of this also assumes that even if treated as a juvenile, everything basically goes "right." I've had a child get his clavicle broken during what the staff at his facility termed a "nonviolent restraint." He needed four surgeries and still has only limited use of his hand. That staff member is still employed at his inpatient facility. I've had multiple children get assaulted in detention. I've had kids with serious psychiatric disabilities lose access to their medication. Almost all kids who end up in the criminal justice system lose access to any therapy or counseling they were previously getting, because Medicaid rules mean that the therapist who was seeing them in the community can't go into the locked facility to meet with them, so they have to start over with a new therapist, assuming that an individual therapist is even available in the facility they get sent to. Therapy at our local juvenile jail basically consists of a daily 20 minute group session in which a person with an Associates degree in criminal justice sits all the kids down in a circle and asked them, is there anything that anyone wants to talk about in front of the group? I can't even count the number of suicide attempts I've seen. Suicide attempts are treated as a disciplinary violation, which means a loss of privileges, including privileges like visits with your family, if you try to slit your wrists or swallow bleach.

It is entirely possible that this kid will turn out just fine no matter what you choose to do. The psychological research shows that kids are actually pretty resilient if we don't traumatize them any more than necessary. Even kids who exhibit violent or otherwise problematic behavior – such as stealing – overwhelmingly grow out of it by the time they're about 25, regardless of whether they get any treatment at all. The literature seems to suggest, honestly, that the best thing that we can do for young people is love them, and show them that they are safe, and show them that they can trust adults to talk honestly with them and take care of them. I can't make a promise to kids in the juvenile justice system that they are safe or surrounded by adults who love them. Because it's just not true. There are aberrations, of course, adults over the age of 25 who commit crimes or have other such problems, but despite what the news media would have you believe, that's the exception and not the rule. And there is absolutely no support in the juvenile psychological literature that suggests that being put through the juvenile justice system is a net positive for any child. I've represented several hundred kids, and followed pretty closely the cases have at least 1000 more, and I have yet to meet a child who is better off for his or her contact with the juvenile justice system. And again that assumes that your kid would be charged as a juvenile and not as an adult.

All of this is to say, as a general rule, I don't blame victims who choose to cooperate with law-enforcement. I understand that you're doing what you think is best for yourself, for your community, and in some cases even for the child involved. But I really think – or maybe just hope – that if people knew what actually happens to kids after they get arrested, many fewer people would make that choice. It's not a system that is designed to help children, despite lip service to the contrary. It's not even a system that is especially good at protecting Public Safety, given just how much being put through the system hurts kids, making them more likely to engage in dangerous behavior in the future because of the trauma that they've been through. I'm not making excuses for kids to get in trouble. I'm saying that we have good data to suggest that the things that we do in the name of helping kids in the criminal justice system makes their lives a lot worse, and makes it a lot harder for them to do the kind of normal adolescent development that eventually allows their brains to mature to the point where they can make reasonable, ethical, adult decisions. Adults I meet who have spent substantial time in the juvenile justice system often strike me as exceptionally immature, and I suspect it's because their normal socialization and maturation process get stunted by being locked up and caged when their brains are too young to process what's happening to them.

If I were you, I would let this go. Full stop. I know you probably see some of the suggestions such as restitution, or community service, as helpful. But remember that all of those come with the threat of prosecution behind them. If the kid doesn't get a job, will you choose to go to the police then? My guess, and it's a pretty get educated guess, is that this kid already has an immense amount of responsibility on his shoulders, far in excess of what would be reasonable to ask if a child his age. If he's not living with his biological parents and has spent any substantial time in the foster system, my guess is that he probably has very little time, or space, even mental space, to himself. He also may not be ready for counseling; kids who are in the middle of a traumatic experience such as living in foster care often can't process what's happening to them, I'm trying to make them talk about it can make it worse unless you can get them out of the traumatic situation which you don't have the power to do here. ( it is also entirely possible, maybe even likely, but his foster parents don't have the power to do the things you're asking them to do. He may not be able to get a job, if he can't get the required signatures from the required people. He probably can't pay restitution, and there are regulations about what his foster parents are allowed to do in terms of their involvement. It may be that something like a request for restitution or community service or a change in his school rules will result in him being pulled from that foster home. Which I know isn't your intention, but the system doesn't care. I once saw a kid taken from a foster family he had lived with for eight years and out into essentially an orphanage, because he couldn't pay $25 in restitution. That kid is a runaway now. I don't know what happened to him. He would be 15 now.)

If you have any trust at all in the system – the foster care system – that is taking care of him, please trust that they will take care of giving him any help that would be beneficial to him. And if you don't have any trust in that system – which would also be a reasonable position to take – please don't trust that an even more harsh and punitive system, the juvenile justice system, will do a better job of taking care of him. Assume that the SD card is gone. He probably sold it for $50 the day he got it. There's not going to be a way for him to get it back to you, more than likely. And any requirements you put on him, even requirements for positive things, are likely to make his life harder, put him in a situation where he can't complete the requirements, and land him in the justice system if he's not able to do what you ask. If I were you, I would absolutely let this go. Ultimately, the choice is yours. But I just thought you should know what some of the possible outcomes are, so that you can make an educated decision. I would urge you to talk to juvenile justice experts – especially on the defense attorney and juvenile service provider side rather than the police or prosecutor side (mostly because they have no idea what actually happens after a kid is arrested or prosecuted; they don't see it) – in your jurisdiction, to find out what things are really like where you are, and what the likely outcomes are, before you make your decision. Sit in on Juvenile Court for a few days and watch the proceedings. Take a tour of your local juvenile jail. Ask questions about what the short and long term outcomes are for children who are put through the system where you live. Make your choice based on actual data, rather than based on promises made to you by people who likely don't have the power to keep them.
posted by decathecting at 7:33 AM on March 11 [147 favorites]


Updated to say, as someone who has spent the majority of my time for the last several years working with court-involved children. I couldn't disagree with Alexandra Kitty and folks like her more. Not sure what her experience is, but my experience is, and the extensive data I've read back up, that involvement in the juvenile justice system increases rather than decreases recidivism rates. And I think if you actually read literature on juvenile brain and moral development, you'll see that those predictions are not backed up by any science. Super-predators, especially juvenile super-predators are a wholesale myth. Kids absolutely do not think about consequences, or about adult behavior, and the way that adults predict that they would. If you've never actually talk to a kid about a criminal offense they've committed, I don't know how you can say that you know how kids think about criminal offenses.

We tell ourselves a just-so story about why we jail children, but that story just isn't true if you actually look at the data. Again you have to make your own decision, but you should make your decision based on actual information, rather then what are often dangerously wrongheaded assumptions about what might be true about how kids' brains work. I can almost 100% guarantee you, this kid isn't laughing at you. He doesn't feel like he got away with anything. He feels shame. Even if he's not able to express it, the fact that he's in the situation at all, even if he doesn't go to jail for it, is a trauma in and of itself, and one he'll carry with him for years. Unless he has a major psychiatric illness, that's simply not how children think. (And if he has a major psychiatric illness, I can virtually guarantee you that the justice system will make it worse.) Happy to suggest some reading if you're interested in learning more. But some of the comments in this thread sound more like a monologue from a bad TV crime drama than anything resembling real life data about child and adolescent psychology.
posted by decathecting at 7:44 AM on March 11 [41 favorites]


I believe that you can press charges without feeling bad about your decision. Your job isn't to protect these children, it's to educate them. Teachers aren't martyrs and they aren't parents to their students. When we as educators let too much slide, we create a terrible learning environment for all the kids that are there hoping to learn. You say that this isn't the first time he has done this? Well, someone else "let it slide" and he then did it again to you. Some of the responses irk me in that with any other profession, the advice to essentially "let it go" wouldn't be recommended. Robbed on the street? Have your car or home broken into? Few would suggest you let those incidents go.
posted by Nightman at 9:07 AM on March 11 [2 favorites]


From what I can tell, Communities for Restorative Justice [local, if you're in the Boston area] may be able to provide some guidance or help in other ways. Specific to such incidents in schools, C4RJ wrote A Restorative Practices Guide: How Schools Can Build Community and Address Conflicts [PDF], and it offers a workable alternative to the presumed "let it go" vs "lock them up" dichotomy and the systemic problems others have referenced above.

Not affiliated with C4RJ, know of them through my workplace from a decade ago.
posted by Pandora Kouti at 9:26 AM on March 11 [8 favorites]


Assuming the kid does return the SD card, I'd vote against legal charges.

But physical violence, or even a serious threat of physical violence (like the first kid), should however get charges made against him.
posted by easily confused at 9:36 AM on March 11 [2 favorites]


If you do nothing it shows the other kids that it's fine to be a thief. He will run around boasting about what he did and how he got away with it. It also specifically shows that it's safe to commit crimes against the teachers in your school, which is dangerous for you and the other staff.

You need a punishment which does not permanently ruin the kid's future, but which still teaches him and others a lesson. Something that makes him look uncool but is useful, like cleaning the toilets before school for a month.
posted by w0mbat at 9:45 AM on March 11 [1 favorite]


I think the restorative justice Pandora Kouti mentioned is your best approach here. But it will require buy-in from your entire school, especially the administration so that you and others are supported. It's not a quick fix, but I think if implemented and committed to, it can be a powerful tool for change. But you as an individual cannot carry the entire burden for this.

As PK said, this is a third alternative to the "lock them up" or " let it go" dichotomy. That alternative is for the child to see how he has harmed you, the school community, and himself through his actions. I think that if done properly, this approach will have a longer lasting, more beneficial effect that you pressing charges. But he does need to understand the harm he has done.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 9:50 AM on March 11 [5 favorites]


I already declined to press charges in both cases because I do understand something of the criminal justice system. I believe that the resource officers at the school have good intentions, and aren't just there to focus their careers on preying on juvenile offenders, and I wouldn't presume to know any more about their job than I would that of someone who worked in social services or foster system. But of course I understand that he may not have influence on what happens to the child after he is put into the criminal justice system (if he's not already there).

There are several things that made me even pose the question in the first place. First of all, I am a new teacher and less than 10 years older than some of my students. The student I didn't press charges against, this same week had his grandmother's house riddled with bullets from a gang-related drive-by shooting, which thankfully did not but easily could have resulted in the deaths of not only his grandmother and himself, but innocent bystanders including children. I have to consider That, coupled with the fact that both the SRO and the teacher with 30 years of experience who I also trust both expressed surprise at my decision not to do so made me have to question whether both of these more experienced people know something I don't.

No, I don't go gossiping around about my students and rather resent the insinuation; the teacher involved knew what happened because she watched my classroom while dealt with admin to keep the kid out of prison. I also want to make it clear that while I am a scientist and understand the concept of skepticism, it's pretty clear that the child did do it and was not deviously framed by the other student who has shown nothing but integrity in the face of diversity this entire year. My phone went missing on Monday right after his class, and he had the phone hidden in his pants today fully jailbroken. It is my phone because it has the same SN. I understand that I am not omniscient, but I'd say it's rather reasonable to conclude that he was not just keeping it safe for me this week.

No, I am not angry at the kid. I know his life is already not good. I have a hard time being angry even in situations that would make most angry. I have a reputation as being too soft on my students, and am under intense pressure from admin to address this. I am new to the profession and have to question whether my gut feeling is always right.

Am I "burnt out, stressed"? Yes. Not particularly because my phone was stolen though, even though it made it harder to contact my mom diagnosed with cancer who lives 3000 miles away or because I lost hundreds of hours in productivity even though most data was backed up. I'm burnt out because I am an new teacher in an urban school with large class sizes. I am burnt out because I am being given conflicting advice from my advisors and bosses on how to deal with these behavioral issues. I am burnt out because in this one week, I had one student who threatened to stab me get sprayed with bullets, one student arrested for murdering an infant under the influence of meth, two students in the next class over that were reported for threatening a school shooting and not even missed one day of class over it.

We are all stressed because of this because we deal with this as educators not for the money, and the responsibility for 180 students is enormous. Are there any first or second year teachers that don't get burnt out, especially in these situations? Maybe I would do better if I took the job offered at the rich private prep school across the street? Yeah, I am sure it would be at least a little easier, but it feels like selling kids here short.

My thought was never to press charges to get money back or get revenge or have him traumatized. But I have to make judgements like this often and even though it happens, I feel like I am not doing my job if I ignore the advice of way more experienced professionals on either side of the argument. I have a passion for my job but it is not easy, nor did I ever expect it to be or have any illusions going into it. I have low-self esteem and know I am not always right so my gut feeling (in this case to let the incident go) might not always be right. Maybe if the other kid who came within an inch of dying this week had more of an intervention he would have been less likely to steal drugs from a gang? Am I too naive and setting a bad example for other students in my class who will inevitably know about the situationI don't know man.

decathecting, thank you for your offer. I would indeed appreciate send me any resources you think might be helpful. I have taken college courses in childhood development and criminal law but am far from an expert in either field. I always look for an opportunity to educate myself. That's why I enjoy working as a scientist and a teacher.

Pandora, thank you for the links.
posted by WhitenoisE at 10:09 AM on March 11 [24 favorites]


Sorry for the couple of embarrassing typos I missed. I am sleep deprived because I spent the last week working 90 hours teaching 14 year old kids and carrying the burden of being responsible for helping dozens of students through hundreds of different difficult life events, being negatively evaluated on not being strict enough. I know it is not a dichotomy, but sometimes it feels like it is when making the slightest misstep could end my career and all I've invested as well as negatively impacting a child's life.
posted by WhitenoisE at 10:42 AM on March 11 [2 favorites]


Speaking as someone who works with high risk young adult learners, there is only so much you, alone, can do. It sounds like you are already doing what you can, and making good choices. But I firmly believe that systems and institutions have to change as well. You can't be solely responsible for your students' fates (and I know you know that, but just to reassure you that you're doing your best). Take care of yourself too--working with high risk youth is a "put your own oxygen mask on first" situation. Good luck and I hope you get some rest and self care soon.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 10:49 AM on March 11 [8 favorites]


Your job sounds enormously difficult and you sound like a good person who is making a positive difference in your students' lives. I spent a couple years working at a nonprofit with very low-income people who had really tough lives, and the stress that kind of job carries with it is very real. Please take care of yourself and and know that you are doing good things and making a difference, and no teacher is ever going to be able to save everyone. All that you, or anyone, can do is make the best decisions you can given the information and resources you have (and taking into account your own mental health / wellbeing).

I'm glad you've decided not to press charges - I agree with the comments you've selected as best answers. I also want to comment regarding these statements of yours:

The student I didn't press charges against, this same week had his grandmother's house riddled with bullets from a gang-related drive-by shooting, which thankfully did not but easily could have resulted in the deaths of not only his grandmother and himself, but innocent bystanders including children.

Maybe if the other kid who came within an inch of dying this week had more of an intervention he would have been less likely to steal drugs from a gang


It's possible that if you had pressed charges he might not have done that and the drive by shooting might not have happened. It's also possible that if you had pressed charges he could have been sent to jail and had terrible things happen to him, leaving him with lifelong PTSD and an inability to get a job. It's possible that if you had pressed charges he could have been out on some kind of pretrial supervision and done the exact same thing he did or something much worse / riskier / harmful. You'll never know for sure what might have happened, but declining to press charges was still the right thing to do.

When I was working at the difficult job, I found it was really helpful to have other people with similar jobs to commiserate with and help me keep perspective. Black humor (the kind that really does not translate well online) was also really helpful. Good luck w everything - it's hard, and you're doing a good job.
posted by insectosaurus at 12:38 PM on March 11 [3 favorites]


I have to make judgements like this often and even though it happens, I feel like I am not doing my job if I ignore the advice of way more experienced professionals on either side of the argument.

As a social worker, I've felt this! But remember that because you still have idealism, you're not wrong. Compassion fatigue gets us all, even, and maybe especially, more experienced professionals. Make your own decisions and have confidence in them.
posted by corb at 3:05 PM on March 11 [2 favorites]


WhitenoisE, I'm so sorry both of these things happened to you. I have no idea about the juvenile justice system in the US, so I won't comment on that. However, since we're talking about burnout etc, I can only imagine that a situation where your life can be threatened and your precious possessions stolen with impunity is making it less sustainable for you to stay in your role long term. The fact that you do seem to care about the students you're working with makes you a huge gift to these students. It would be better for the world for you to be able to continue doing that.

So I'm wondering, what do you need to feel safe in the current situation? And what separates something that is annoying and that you can shrug off from something that requires a school discipline response or something that requires a legal system response? To be honest, as much as it would grind my gears to have my phone stolen, a plausible threat of violence seems to me to be something requiring a greater magnitude of response than theft. (I do hope there are other effective forms of discipline available within your school so that pressing charges isn't your only available remedy, and that your supervisors back you when you need to use these.)
posted by Cheese Monster at 5:01 PM on March 11


Now that I think about it -- I don't like that the school is putting teachers in this position. The crime happened on their property. They should decide to press charges or not because ostensibly the SRO and admins already have a policy in place for criminal behavior. And as others noted, if students know the school doesn't apply consequences equally, it creates a culture of uncertainty and mistrust. Also, it's unfair to put this on you because it not only unfairly personalizes the crime but furthers the notion that the school doesn't have standard rules -- consequences depend on who a kid robs. So if the kid commits another crime, it's on you? I would ask this teacher why the school is letting you make this call.

...both the SRO and the teacher with 30 years of experience who I also trust both expressed surprise at my decision not to do so made me have to question whether both of these more experienced people know something I don't.

Undoubtedly they do and you should ask them. It's possible they've seen plenty of kids escalate from petty crimes to far more serious crimes VERY QUICKLY and think it's best to get kids fed immediately into the court systems. They want to create a paper trail in case the kid escalates. It's also entirely possible they know the local judicial system well and know this kid is not facing anything more than a few hours of community service in a record that will be expunged once he's 18. I would ask them about their perspective, especially from someone who has managed to stay with it for 30 years.

No, I don't go gossiping around about my students and rather resent the insinuation...

I apologize if I appeared accusatory; that was NOT my intention. I was assuming you are a relatively new teacher and I was sharing a good practice that we don't learn in teaching college. Teachers can be terribly and inappropriately gossipy about kids. It would be completely normal to talk to co-workers about this, but you undoubtedly work with a few who will look down on a kid and view them as not worth their time (I know that I certainly work with teachers like this).

I would pick the brain of that veteran teacher. In 30 years, she's learned a lot and will probably love to share.
posted by yes I said yes I will Yes at 4:41 AM on March 12


Not sure what her experience is, but my experience is, and the extensive data I've read back up, that involvement in the juvenile justice system increases rather than decreases recidivism rates.

Then why don't you just ask me, because I can tell you. My experience is one where I have been a college teacher who has seen students abuse teachers (such as physically attacking them, and not only not get expelled, but not even charged*) and students, and as a student who had her life threatened by a bully who had teachers too afraid to do anything to stop him.

I have known many people in my actively social life who were in juvey -- and contrary to the doom-and-gloom horror stories people have told -- every single one of those people turned out to be good, decent, and law-abiding citizens who had jobs and families. Many of those people never told their spouses, children, or friends that they served time, but they did. You have know idea how many people spent time as teens in jail and they could be your boss, your best friend, your professor, or your wife. People don't advertise it, and I really wish they did to wake up the misguided who think that experience damages you beyond repair.

Getting caught, for some, was the first time in their lives something called consequences hit them in the jaw and mommy and daddy could not bail them out. It was a terrifying experience, but it did something most adults who pretend to be authority figures never did: showed that you are not always the most cunning or strongest one in the world. It humbled those people, and many of those people told me that was the wake-up call that put life in the perspective that they needed. So the idea that a teen going to jail will ruin their lives is rubbish.

But a teacher is an authority figure who absolutely has to lead -- otherwise, he must resign from his post and stop being a fraud.

And the reason is simple: bullies know you have to take down a leader first to get the flock to himself -- in this case, a teacher is the target to neutralize.

What message does that send to the other students if the teacher lets it go?

That there is no safe place. If a thug can steal from a teacher, what happens if that same bully steals from you, beats you up, or even rapes you? You can't go to a neutered authority because he is looking after his own backside. That is how you create monsters, and shame on any teacher who allows that to happen.

When I was a kid, a bully decided to pick on me. He called me sexist and degrading names in front of the whole school, got other boys to do the same then kept revving it up until he threatened to kill me. Teachers did nothing as they saw everything, but my mother finally decided enough was enough and went to the principal and told him she was going to do more than just sue the school if they didn't put a stop to it immediately.

They knew now they had to weigh the threats, and the enraged adult was going to cause more damage than a little unimaginative, feral brat who made up a laundry list of excuses why he was mean, but no one else's feelings mattered to him.

Lo and behold, the school did finally find their courage. He was removed from the school for the rest of the year, and he never bothered me again after that. The kids were all terrified of him because the teachers allowed him to do whatever he wanted, and he got off on creating terror.

But my mother showed authority to him, and he all of sudden could act like a human being in my presence. Suddenly, all his excuses were gone.

There is a big difference between being compassionate and being spineless, and I do not allow the spineless to pretend they are compassionate. Some people naturally do not harm others. Some people have to be taught. Some people have to be yelled at -- repeatedly. Some people have to have nice things taken away from them.

And some people have to be placed in same position as their victims to be forced to understand that making other people helpless is a very bad thing.

A teacher has an absolute obligation to report crime. All citizens have a duty to report crime. Yes, I know it is work and an inconvenience, but you cannot let cancerous behaviour go untreated.

Ideally, the kid should have parents who nipped this troublesome behaviour long ago. When that fails, the teachers are next ones in line. You don't want juvey, then make sure parents are held accountable for their children's behaviours.

And statisticians would better serve society if they stopped hiding behind numbers they can manipulate to say whatever ideological claptrap and unrealistic sophistry they fantasize as being reality and actually go live among the dispossessed before they crunch another number and pretend it means something.

The teacher must report the crime, or find another line of work that does not require to lead.

(*This was a student I had in my class and no one told me he had assaulted a professor. The student gave me lip and excuses, and I put him in his place, but it was not until after the semester when other instructors expressed shock that I stood up to him...because of his temper. That should have never happened, yet he assessed me the way he assessed the other one he slapped around and he did as he was told. I am not some Amazon warrior, but I understand my job -- I am in charge of a flock, not just me).
posted by Alexandra Kitty at 3:08 PM on March 14


Alexandra Kitty, I'm glad that the people in your life have recovered from (and it sounds like, in some cases, even reported some benefit from) being jailed as children. That's not the case for the overwhelming majority of children. It is especially untrue for children who, like the child in question here, don't have a stable home life. I'm sorry for the things you've been through. None of those things change the science of what children are cognitively capable of, or the effects of psychological stress on children's developing brains. I hope that you'll be able to find peace for the things you have experienced in your life. I hope you'll be able to consider that yours is not the only point of view, and that the overwhelming majority of experts on child development have come to view the punitive model of dealing with children to be out of line with our growing understanding of the human brain, and now view those methods as at best ineffective, and at worst terribly damaging. I don't know that I'll be able to convince you, and I'm not going to try, but I do hope you'll look into the issue further and consider other perspectives. But I truly am sorry for what it sounds like is some serious trauma that you yourself experienced as a child and have continued to experience throughout your life.
posted by decathecting at 3:53 PM on March 14 [2 favorites]


I am just reading this thread, whitenoise, and I just want to say that I have been a similar position to you, a new teacher whose students needed a lot of support in a school environment where I was criticized for not being "strict enough." I hope you are doing okay. It does get easier. As difficult as this advice is to follow, what usually helps me when students do something very serious (like stealing) is to spend more time building a relationship with that student. Eating lunch with them, finding "jobs" for them to do for you around the classroom, and just talking to them.

Regarding being "strict" enough, I think having a confident tone matters more than anything - *you* have to feel comfortable with the way you are setting and enforcing limits. The well-meaning advice of the other teachers in your building is probably based on *their* style and may not work for you.

Two good resources: No Drama Discipline and Janet Lansbury's Respectful Parenting approach: link. Both are about parenting, and Janet Lansbury is actually talking about parenting toddlers, but the advice applies surprisingly well to teaching middle schoolers in a lot of cases.
posted by mai at 9:56 AM on April 30


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