Friday, August 27, 2010

"Rich Kids, Poor Kids: Same Stress, Different Packages"

Today I attended an MIC clergy luncheon at which the speaker, Don Carney, addressed the problems of Marin County teens, rich and poor. (Contrary to the impression some readers may have that Marin, because it is one of the wealthiest counties in the U.S., has no poor people, it does. And just like in other regions, the ranks of the less privileged are expanding while the middle class is shrinking.)

The speaker shows an obvious passion about the work he does with youth. He spoke mainly about youth courts in the U.S. today, and more specifically about the Marin County Youth Court, run by the YMCA and the Marin County Superior Court and the California Administrative Office of the Courts. Only a few years ago there were about 70 youth courts in the country and now there are 1,350.

Youth who have admitted guilt to a misdemeanor are eligible for this program, which focuses on the principle of restorative justice. In adversarial cases, the offender is prosecuted and defended by youth attorneys, before a youth jury. An adult judge presides and a youth bailiff supervises the process, with adult caseworker support for the youth and his or her family. If the offender completes the program within three months, he or she leaves with no juvenile record. The focus is on healing the harm done to the victim, the community, and the perpetrator.

Mandatory aspects include serving two to five times as a juror, providing 10 to 80 hours of community service, and taking a prevention class. Discretionary sentences imposed by the youth jury include restitution to the victim, letters of apology, reflective essays, anger management class, theft awareness class, drug education class, prevention class, additional counseling, and mentoring.

Seventy percent of the kids in youth court are from white, upper middle class families, and 90% of the offenses involve substance abuse. The pressures on kids to achieve often unrealistic goals contribute to their stress levels. Family dynamics add to the pressure and confusion. Marin has the high rate of binge drinking for both teens and adult, and pot smoking is twice the national average. The good news is that youth involvement in AA is enormous, some arising from sentences imposed in youth court.

Kids with what are known as "surplus assets" do not present like less privileged kids do. High achievers can be as drugged and drunk as lower achievers. Underneath are substance and family issues. He cited Madeline Levine's book, The Price of Privilege: How Parental Pressure and Material Advantage Are Creating a Generation of Disconnected and Unhappy Kids. Dr. Levine is a clinical psychologist here in Marin.

Mr. Carney also showed a TV news feature about the Marin Youth Court and recommended a documentary film called "Race to Nowhere: The Dark Side of American's Achievement Culture," made by Vicki Abeles.

A third resource he recommended was Hold on to Your Kids: Why Parents Need to Matter More Than Peers, by Gordon Neufeld, Ph.D., and Gabor Maté, M.D.

The emphasis on cooperative education rather than competitive education that the youth court espouses can lead to lowered stress for teens. Mr. Carney said that we need alternatives to suspension for students who violate school rules. He said this leads to dropping out of school, when in fact the practice really pushes the kids out of the system. He believes the system should bear the onus, not the kid. As an example, he cited a good student found carrying a Swiss Army knife in his pack. With a zero tolerance policy in effect, this student was sent to a program with chronic offenders. He also said it's not helpful to mix middle school offenders with high school offenders. Whether an offender is put with peers or peers and older teens, the fact that he or she is in any kind of punitive environment leads to more alienation and the potential for greater offenses.

The irrefutable value of youth courts shows in the recidivism rate of kids who've gone through this process: 13% nationally and only 5% in Marin.

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Among the more compelling upcoming events announced at this luncheon:

  • International Day of Peace on September 21, 2010, celebrated at Peace Pole at Dominican University, sponsored by the Dominican Sisters of San Rafael. This year they will be adding a fifth plaque in the language of the Coast Miwok, the original human inhabitants of this area (see Big Time). I'm hoping to participate in this, as I did in 2007 when my friend Sister Marion chaired the Sisters' Social Justice Committee.

2 comments:

Cat said...

Living in Orange County, one of the other wealthiest counties in the U.S, and working as a teacher in a probation run residential drug rehab. I see a lot of the kids you speak of. Sadly our kids are more meth oriented than pot which adds a whole other dimension to their healing process. It's so sad.

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