Young men need help in righting their wrong

By Dr. Christine Lynn Norton, LCSW
Texas State University

“I don’t understand why kids don’t think everything through.” I’m sure all of us have shaken our heads and asked this same question, especially those of us who are parents or teachers.

This question was asked recently on the Hays Free Press website in response to the story about three high school students charged with vandalism at Johnson High School. It is an earnest and appropriate question that deserves an answer.

Why don’t kids think everything through? The neuroscience of child and adolescent development provides an answer. During adolescence, the social-emotional part of the adolescent brain actively seeks rewards and sensations, is emotionally reactive, and pays a lot of attention to social cues; hence, why young people are so easily influenced by their peers.  At the same time, the frontal lobe, the part of the brain responsible for mature decision-making, problem-solving, impulse control, and anticipating consequences is not fully formed until the age of 25. This mismatch often leads to poor choices.   

According to the American Bar Association, there is an ethical need to apply neuroscience to juvenile culpability. In other words, there is a strong argument for trying anyone under the age of 18 as juveniles, especially in cases that involve no personal or bodily harm.

Clearly, what these boys did was an act of immaturity and thoughtlessness, and it makes sense that many people in our community feel violated and angry. However, we are the adults in this situation, and must role model both accountability and compassion.

Yet, in reading the other comments posted on the Hays Free Press website in response to this news story, I was deeply concerned to see members of our community dispensing harsh blame and criticism, engaging in name-calling and expressing a complete lack of sympathy.

As hurtful as these comments are, sympathy is not what these boys actually need. They need justice, and so does our community.

The question is how do we get there? How do we move from a place of anger and blame to a place of healing and growth, both for these boys and for the community?

Based on my work as a clinical social worker in schools, outpatient mental health and juvenile justice, the answer involves restorative justice. Restorative justice includes victim reparation, offender responsibility, and communities of care that can promote reconciliation. The goal of restorative justice is to repair the harm done, to foster greater empathy and maturity, and to prevent future acts of crime.

According to the Institute for Restorative Justice and Restorative Dialogue at the University of Texas, school-based restorative discipline practices, as well as restorative justice practices in our juvenile and criminal justice system, can lead to greater accountability and decreased recidivism. These practices ask the people who broke the law to acknowledge the harm done, take ownership and accountability, and help to facilitate the healing process for both victims and offenders.

Trying these boys as adults, publishing their photos and names in the newspaper, and ostracizing and shaming them, versus engaging them in righting their wrongs by implementing a developmentally appropriate legal consequence, will do nothing but fuel the cycle of anger and isolation. If this happens, these boys – who committed an act of vandalism, not assault, not drug dealing, not murder – risk becoming wasted human capital. But if they learn and grow from this, if they are given a second chance by the criminal justice system and if they are welcomed back into a community of belonging in their schools, they can go on to become more mature, productive and empathic members of this community.

Moving beyond this situation, Hays CISD and the communities of Kyle/Buda/San Marcos have an opportunity to think about youth in our midst who get lost along the way, and ask ourselves, what potential is underneath those poor choices. Bryan Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, said “we’re all more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.” I hope we can all help each other remember that.

Christine Norton is a Certified Clinical Trauma Professional and Associate Professor at Texas State’s School of Social Work.

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