Recently Fox News reported about a 12-year old student who was arrested for writing on a desk. Proponents of strict consequences for students who break school rules believe that if they are tough on early offenses, students are less likely to move on to more heinous crimes. Unfortunately, the opposite is true. Research shows that the best punishment is a punishment that fits the crime. Punishment that is either too lenient or too strict is not effective. When children are given punishments that are too strict they feel helpless and unsure of their environment. The world does not seem fair and ordered, it seems arbitrary and unfair. When children feel there is no fair justice or reasonable consequences they are more likely to act out.
This story reminds me of an incident with one of my own children many years ago. My child was in high school, and was accused of defacing a textbook. The book was shown to my husband and me and it had many words written in it, including quite a few offensive words. As a teacher I know this is not uncommon. Quite often I have students bring me books that have had inappropriate things written or drawn in them. As a teacher, I also know it is nearly impossible to catch the actual perpetrator of the act. Teachers are often in a room with upwards of 30 students (or more), and it is just impossible to monitor what each student is doing and continue to teach. Our child took some of the responsibility for the defacement, but not all, and the school proposed suspension. We felt that restoration of the item was a much more fitting consequence. The school agreed that if the book was paid for by all offending students that this would be sufficient. We paid the fee, and made arrangements for our child to work off the price.
A child who writes on a desk, or in a book, should be given a consequence that fits the crime. In my room, that student would stay after school and wash all my desks. This is a job that might take 10-15 minutes. Writing on a desk, or on any other item, is not a terribly heinous crime, it is more a momentary lapse in judgment. At some point in their childhood many of today’s upstanding citizens probably stooped to writing or carving their names into some surface. If this sort of action is dealt with early, chances are it will never escalate into more heinous activities, such as tagging or seriously defacing public property.
The other element of this story that is problematic is the fact that the girl was arrested. Some people in our society, including some parents, feel that if children get a taste of what it is like to be arrested early on they will be less likely to commit crimes. Research shows that the opposite is often true. Children who get a view of prison or prisoners up-close and personal, often start thinking that it is not really all that bad. Years ago there was an approach called “Scared Straight” where young people were taken to prisons and told all of the terrors of life in prison, by the prisoners themselves. It was thought that if prisoners told young people who were on a dangerous path just how terrible it was to be in their shoes they would change their ways. Unfortunately, that was not the case. Even though the program was touted as successful, and anecdotal evidence seemed to show promise, studies show that this was not true. Studies not only showed that the program failed to deter crime, some showed that it may have escalated the incidence of it.
The best road to help children behave appropriately is to hold them accountable for their actions, teach them correct principles and behavior patterns and require them to make appropriate restitution for damage that they inflict. This is true not only in school settings, but in family settings as well.