Monday, May 02, 2005

Kids in Cuffs

William Raspberry takes on the question of a handcuffed five-year-old, but from a different perspective.
It's funny how the videotapes have divided us. Some of us saw the footage of the 5-year-old girl gone berserk in her St. Petersburg, Fla., classroom and decided we'd been too harsh in our judgment of the school officials for calling the police. Others saw the cops handcuffing the tiny child and decided it was the grown-ups who had gone nuts.

I look at the tape and tremble for fear that I'm looking at a fledgling outlaw whose path, if uninterrupted, could land her in jail -- or worse. And it can't be a 5-year-old's fault.
And yes, if you talk to elementary school teachers, you will learn that those on track to do time in jail or prison are usually identified at a very early age. But efforts to formalize the identification, channel the kids or their families into counseling programs, or to otherwise provide the type of support and intervention necessary to prevent that outcome are typically rejected as too costly or too controvercial. Or both.

I'm not ascribing any particular brilliance or insight to teachers. It is just that they happen to be exposed to their students (and their student's behaviors and attitudes) on a daily basis for the majority of the year. If you think about people you knew who dropped out of school, or ended up in jail or prison, how old were they when you first recognized that something was wrong?

Of course, there's another problem with intervention - with the minimal resources we have put into this issue, even if we correctly identify the kids we seemingly have no knowledge of what type of intervention will be helpful, and what type will be counter-productive. Despite the pouring millions upon millions of dollars into our nation's child welfare systems, there seems to be a general disinterest in finding out what actually works. I guess, as opposed to finding and implementing what is likely to work, it's bureaucratically easier to set specific hurdles in front of parents - parenting skills classes, anger management classes, periodic home inspections, drug and alcohol testing - to see who trips, with "foster care" as the "solution" when the parents are deemed inadequate.

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