Experiences in a Juvenile Justice System

by Joan P. Kelly

You're going to teach WHERE?Why would you want to teach THOSE kids?Isn't that DANGEROUS?

These were some of the reactions from friends and family when I told them I was going to teach in New Jersey's juvenile justice program. As a twenty-year-old college senior, I was double majoring in English and secondary education, and had already taught in four high or middle schools in northern New Jersey. No one understood why I was placed in a juvenile justice program. Least of all, no one understood why I specifically requested to be placed in such a program. I explained that I wanted to understand more about at-risk students; I was curious about what it would be like to teach in an urban setting with kids who faced problems many people only hear about on the evening news.
The program to which I was assigned is run by the State of New Jersey as an alternative to juvenile detention centers. It concentrates on educating and rehabilitating minors convicted of crimes, and incorporates academic learning, counseling, and vocational training. I was to teach fourteen male students, all between the ages of 14 and 17. My students would have academic classes in the morning, and a work-study program in the afternoon where they could practice their vocational skills.

I walked in the first day with a feeling of determination and what I hoped was a look of professionalism. I had tried to prepare myself mentally for what I was about to face. I knew from studying their case files that the students in my class had committed a variety of offenses, such as drug possession, shoplifting, car theft, and assault. I was expecting a group of unresponsive and unfriendly young men.

I arrived in the classroom before the students and, when they walked in, greeted each with a handshake. Looking back, I see that I was trying to be as formal as possible, in order to gain respect from the students. I was afraid that this might be hard to achieve, since I was only a few years older than they, and not their regular teacher. As the weeks went by, I maintained my professional attitude, but learned to relax somewhat more with these students.

The students were nothing like what I had expected. To me, they were polite, candid, and usually cooperative. I reciprocated with my best efforts at kindness, patience, tolerance, and encouragement. This may sound very idealistic, but it truly is what happened.

I learned that my students typically came from homes, neighborhoods, and schools where they had been labeled "the bad kid." Some of the students had rarely experienced any kindness at home; at the least, they were belittled, while the majority had been neglected and/or abused. School, too, had not encouraged these students, nor always treated them kindly and respectfully. I gathered this information by studying their case files, talking with their teachers and counselors-and from the boys themselves. As adolescents, these boys lived up to the low expectations they experienced and eventually committed crimes.

I am not excusing the behavior of these students. They were wrong to commit crimes, and they were told this from day one. The sad thing I learned was how little most of them understood about how to live in society and become productive persons. These students lacked the essential, formative knowledge-not to steal, not to use drugs, to go to school everyday, to be kind and helpful-that I was fortunate enough to learn from my parents. What they did have was a street mentality-rules that constituted their own moral code-which, needless to say, was deviant from society's norms and a self-destructive code to live by. It is this which makes rehabilitation such a long and arduous process.

During the course of the program, I taught a course about life skills that centered on changing this street mentality by demonstrating how it was ultimately self-destructive. The course also aimed at improving students' self-confidence and self-image in order to help them succeed on a higher level. I concentrated on teaching authentic skills, such as how to fill out a job application and how to read the want ads. I also taught a current events class that centered around reading the newspaper. As students learned about world leaders and events occurring in our country and abroad, many interesting class discussions ensued.

It was not always easy to student teach in this program. Aside from their academic difficulties, these students were often resistant to changing their attitudes. As nice and polite as they were to me, they were often horrible to each other. Physical altercations were a common occurrence, as were verbal attacks.

I listened to every conversation they had in my presence-in the classroom, in the cafeteria, even in the hallways. If I heard something I didn't like, I would immediately confront the student(s). Verbal attacks between students set off most of the problems. One day, a student was making fun of another student, and a physical fight began. I sat them down with me immediately and discussed the conflict. Later in the day, the counselors also worked on this problem with the students, and it was eventually resolved.

I ate lunch with the students every day and encouraged them to talk to me. I asked them about their plans for the future. I asked about their families and their hobbies. I asked how they felt about being in this program. Most students responded very positively. They felt comfortable talking to me, and liked having someone listen as they spoke about themselves. I felt that I gained their trust be learning to see the individual behind the criminal record.

Student teaching is supposed to be a learning experience. This field experience provided me with much knowledge that I can use in the classroom. I may not have encountered the finest textbooks, or the most sophisticated teaching strategies, or the greatest implementation of technology in this classroom-but I did learn a great deal about students as individuals, and about the psychology of adolescents.

I learned why teenagers sometimes think the way they do. More importantly, I learned that there is always a reason behind a student's bad behavior. Whether triggered from something outside of the classroom that was bothering the student, or directly related to the program, no behavior happened "just because." It was up to me, as the teacher, to find out what was bothering him.

It is harder to do this in a regular classroom, with so many students in and out of classes each day. It is time consuming to find out what is bothering a student, and teachers may not want to become emotionally involved in their students' lives. And, of course, adolescents can be resistant. But even if the adolescent won't cooperate and tell what is wrong, isn't it worth it that he or she knows there is someone ready to listen? Teachers must be nurturing, caring counselors for their students. Hard as it may be, and naive as I may sound, I plan to use this strategy in my own classroom 100 percent of the time.

Teaching in a juvenile justice program was much more emotional than I expected. It was hard to see students not improving, whether academically or behaviorally. Progress was very slow, with the greatest challenge being to help students change their negative attitudes. Academic and behavioral progress was much faster and better when students relented and let go of their street mentality. It was extremely difficult to hear the tragic stories of students' backgrounds and family situations. But there were the sweet moments, as when a student gave me a notebook full of poetry that he had written. It was a cause for celebration when a student received a good grade, and a good day when everyone got along and actually helped and encouraged each other.

The success rate of this program depends largely on the individual student. If a student, after leaving the program, is able to use his new skills and willing to rely on his new positive attitude, then the program is a success for him. If, after leaving the program, a student forgets what he has learned and falls into the same trap of drugs and gangs and crime, then obviously it was not successful for him. We stressed with students how easy it would be to fall back into the old negative lifestyle, and how they must rely on the strength of their own character to succeed. And, we urged them to make good use of after-care programs, including counseling, to help them upon their release.

I think what prepared me best for working in this program were my education courses, and especially my educational psychology course, at Seton Hall University. My own stable and values-oriented upbringing also helped to prepare me for this new situation. Last, the teachers and counselors in the program helped me immensely. I wholeheartedly admire the teachers and counselors who work with these students full-time. They have unending patience, and are doing tremendous good in a job that is sometimes thankless and most often ignored by society.

My experience in the juvenile justice program was overwhelmingly positive. It was also frustrating and draining at times. Fortunately, the boys were always there to pick me up.

"That was a great class today, Miss K.," said one student with a smile.
"Thanks," I said. "I needed that."

Joan P. Kelly is a recent graduate of Seton Hall University, where she majored in English and secondary education.