We are the Voices for Children

By Clayton County Juvenile Court Judge Steven C. Teske

I met him after only a few weeks on the bench.  His name was Johnny and he was thirteen. He had been detained for disorderly conduct and disruption of school charges.  He mouthed off at a teacher using what we call in the legal arena “abusive, profane, and opprobrious” words. In other words, he said “F— you.”

Johnny was of average stature for his age. He didn’t smile, but then again who does while shackled sitting in a courtroom? I was new at this and still trying to get a grasp on this judging thing. After eleven years in a robe, I look back and can confidently say that no one is truly prepared to take the bench-especially the juvenile bench.

Johnny’s mom was upset and crying.  “I don’t know what to do with him, she said.  “Johnny is so quiet at home.”  She described him as a good son who does his chores, stays at home, and obeys her rules. “I just don’t understand why he is so bad at school,” she cried out in frustration, tears streaming down her face.

She broke down and with a painful and broken voice she explained how she asked the school to test her son; that she thought he may have a learning disability, and “they just tell me Johnny is a bad kid and making poor choices.”

Not knowing what I know today, I did the only thing I knew to do – the only option available for me – I found him delinquent and placed him on probation.  That didn’t stop Johnny from returning to court, in shackles once again, with mom crying and asking for more help.  I was frustrated with Johnny at first. Every time it was for Johnny mouthing off, threatening someone, or refusing to follow instructions from a teacher, principal, or the school police officer.

This went on for over a year until one day, during another one of his detention hearings, a seasoned intake officer made an observation – “Johnny is on case 14 and they are all school related!”

I took radical action and decided not to certify anymore complaints from the school system. This led to a showdown with the principal. No testing—no complaints!

The principal agreed—Johnny was in the 8th grade and reading on the first grade level.  Johnny had a learning disability. How does a student make it through several years of school, when he cannot read and not a single teacher notices?

An IEP was in the works for Johnny. We were in a celebratory moment. It took us nearly three years, but Johnny is finally going to get the education he needs – a smaller class, less stress and anxiety, and an opportunity not to be embarrassed and act out.

You see, in talking with Johnny, and after looking back, we discovered that Johnny was embarrassed that he could not read.  When called out in class, he would get scared.  When he got scared, he lashed out.  He did the only thing he knew to do to avoid the embarrassment. He would threaten someone, yell at the teacher, disobey an instruction, and even raise his hand, or strike the student next to him.  Johnny did not want his peers to know he was “stupid.” In those moments of fear, Johnny wanted to get out of the classroom.  No matter what it took – no matter where he ended up – he just wanted to escape. The system accommodated him.  I unwittingly accommodated him.

Not too long after our celebration, an intake officer called and said, “Hey Judge, I have bad news.  Johnny was arrested for murder.”

My heart fell. Johnny was with an adult, a former juvenile delinquent.  Someone whose personality had sociopathic traits, who required detention for the safety of the community – someone Johnny had met in the RYDC during one of his stays there.  A stay I allowed to happen – and for what?  Johnny never committed a burglary, a car theft, or any crime in the community.    It was in lock up that he met the person who put the gun in his hand – the gun that killed a man who surprised Johnny during a burglary.

Johnny is serving a life sentence. He was 15, shackled in an adult courtroom, with a serious learning disability, a first grade reader, being told he will spend the rest of his life in prison. It has been difficult to let this go. It will haunt me forever.

This haunting was the beginning of my advocacy for change in our juvenile justice system—beginning at home in Clayton County. Developing collaborative partners in both the public and private sector, we created an array of tools from detention reform to a system of care to receive chronically disruptive students in need of assessment and treatment—to prevent the next Johnny from sliding down that slippery slope and into oblivion.

The system is not the obstacle to doing what is right—it is us. When we fail to change the system—we become the problem. All of us—judges, attorneys, court officers, administrators, and politicians—are the voices for children!

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