Your Perfect Little Mold

Alternative high schools. What an absurd idea. “Let’s take all of the kids who struggle in school, and socially isolate them in a room. When they continue to act out because they just spent an entire day with other children who have behavioral disorders, let’s socially isolate them in building of their own, where they can learn and feed off of one another.”

Sure, I get it. Education is precious, and we don’t want difficult kids taking all of the attention and time from teachers. In special education and for children with learning disabilities, this is essential for some kid’s success.

But why is it the solution for kids who don’t haveĀ  a learning disability, they just had a particularly tough time dealing with the divorce of their parents, or fell in with the wrong crowd, or had a horrific childhood and lack proper outlets?

I have a kid on my caseload who is good at basketball. I mean really good. He’s 6’3″, and knows how to play ball. He was removed from the public high school in the boundary zone of his home (for misdemeanors) and placed in an alternative school almost entirely lacking any extracurricular activities whatsoever. Because of the State we live in, he is still eligible to participate in extracurricular activities in the public school that is in the boundary zone of his home. Too bad this is the school that rejected him and kicked him out.

Basketball tryouts are today and tomorrow, and this kid has to meet with the principal before the school will allow him to even tryout. He has the paperwork done, he is ready to go. They don’t even remember this kid and don’t trust him. None of his charges are against the school. They are making it near impossible for him to even try to have this opportunity as he fights to be perfect so he might be allowed to re-enroll in their perfect little school.

I wouldn’t be so angry if this wasn’t the second kid on my caseload to be pushed so far to the limit and tested so heavily that the teen is given no choice but to cave in. When you look hard enough for flawed behavior, you will find it eventually, even if you are creating it in your mind.

Teenagers are amazing. They are unique, they are dangerously individualistic, they are hilarious, they are curious, and they are messy. Teenagers who are on probation are no different. They may be rougher around the edges, and lack trust in adults who say they care about them. They may need a few extra chances, and they may just need a little irrational hope to scoot them through their days. The kids on my caseload are no less valuable than the non-probation kids who are simply interrogated less, luckier, live in a wealthier neighborhood, or wear less baggy clothes. They still dream, they still have goals, and they still have some hope left in them for their future – until a school says “we don’t trust you enough to let you play ball, and by the way you cannot play anywhere else either.”

Sorry my kid doesn’t fit your perfect little mold.

Instantaneous Authority

The last six years of my life include school, one year of work experience (outside of random college jobs where I came home smelling like various foods with residue of cranky customers), and then I was promoted to Juvenile Probation Officer. Let me tell you, there was an abrupt transformation in the way people handle themselves around me.

The strangest thing about this instantaneous authority is the default that people have to automatically lie to me. Arresting people is really hard, actually, as a probation officer. We do not have the authority to just slap handcuffs on a person solely because they are being a dick. We also do not have authority to arrest anyone that is not on probation. It’s even against policy for us to detain as a first response- it is required to try “detention alternatives” first. They hand me a badge and then, all of a sudden, I am seen as a threat to people and they fortify invisible walls all around themselves.

I can understand this, to an extent. I report to the judge, and even people who have never even tickled the court system with acts of rebellion want judges to approve of them, generally. There seems to be a sad reality of masks and deceit that initially shape the relationships that are created between my probationers, their families and myself. Not exactly a platform for reformation and restoration.

I am fighting against this stigma of “Officers are out to get you”. When addressing a kid, I try to fill our conversation with empowerment. The kids I work with are smart, often times hilarious, loving, loyal, living life to [their idea of] the fullest, and are dreamers. Regularly I encounter kids who are unaware of any of these facts about themselves. Their parents or guardians are just as much a part of my mission. They have been fighting this fight longer than I have, and usually have fought the battle in their own lives, too. Parents are usually the support that breeds success, and sometimes the tools that destroy. I get to intervene and converse with the entire family tree to identify gaps that are essential for these kids to discover and then meet their goals. I wanted to say dreams, but the sad reality of the typical probation demographic is that they need to know they are capable of reaching a goal before they can conceptualize dreaming for their future.

Sobriety and change cannot happen without honesty. Honesty requires trust. This is the epitome of “easier said than done”, and I will continue to fight against the systematic current of “us and them” to foster change and hope within the criminal justice system.