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Decriminalizing childhood
It’s never too early: Middle schoolers explored college and career options at the Civic Center last week.

IT'S A well-known fact that middle school is just the worst.

All those prepubescent hormones festering with algebra and training bras and horrific cafeteria food—it’s enough to make a kid a little crazy.

Maybe even inspire some bad choices.

It’s been a minute, but I remember. This is when my peers began to wander off the straight and narrow path, some fooling with drugs, others becoming preoccupied with the opposite sex. Me, I decided to call in a bomb threat to my junior high.

Though I had harbored rebellious tendencies ever since I had listened to my parents’ Joan Baez albums, I hadn’t actually acted upon them. Then one morning, when my brother pleaded to stay home with a cough (faker!), I realized I had an opportunity to free my classmates from the strangling oppression of The Man—in this case, a Civics quiz in Mr. Coffinger’s class.

After my parents left for work, I gave my pajama-clad bro strict instructions to call the school office at exactly 1:45 and tell nice Mrs. Louise at the front desk that he was going to blow her and everything else to hell.

I figured she would follow the protocol—call the police, evacuate the building and let us all go home since it was already so late in the day.

“It’s no big deal,” I said breezily as I strapped my French horn to my bike basket. “Stacy Estrada has her sister call every time she’s supposed to make a cake in Home Ec.”

Mrs. Louise followed the protocol all right. She also traced the call. After my poor sniffly brother was interrogated, my parents were called into the principal’s office. I got suspended for a week and grounded for the rest of eighth grade.

This was way back in the 1980s, before all of the awful things happened that now require us to take bomb threats and youth violence and school safety so much more seriously. Most states didn’t even have seat belt laws yet, let alone concerns about misanthropic band nerds with test anxiety.

If my stupid self tried to pull that kind of nonsense today, it would not be a charming anecdote my parents still love to tell about their budding anarchist but an incident that would landed me in juvenile jail. Even then, however, my parents’ professional status and the privilege of having the right skin color might save me from playing in the detention center marching band (is there is such a thing?)

Their advocacy would have probably also steered me back to the right track, one that leads to college and paying taxes and becoming a mostly productive and upright citizen. (Thanks, Mom and Dad.) But those without the same benefits are far more likely to drift further away from the path and be scooped into the juvenile justice system.

“Most of juvenile crime is just kids doing dumb things and not having the advantage to get out of it,” explains a staff member at Chatham County Juvenile Court.

“It shouldn’t screw up the rest of their lives—our job is to make sure it doesn’t—but it’s not someplace you want to end up.”

Nowadays, a single “it’s no big deal” bad choice spurred by the chaos of eighth grade can mean irrevocable consequences—especially if you’re poor and of color. Once in the juvenile justice system, a child is 30 percent less likely to graduate from high school and 22 percent more prone to finding their way to prison as an adult.

So it makes sense to help our kids take a longer view instead of letting them Snapchat themselves into a stupor. A high school diploma is the number one predictor in social and economic success, but guiding kids to the podium hasn’t been easy around here:

Savannah’s alarming dropout rate may have diminished since 2012, when 54 percent of Chatham County high school students didn’t cross the diploma line, but the county’s 70 percent graduation rate is still far below the country’s overall average of 80 percent. That’s one in five American kids not making the good choices.

To keep our kids in school, the City of Savannah recently partnered with America’s Promise Alliance, D.C.-based non-profit seeking to boost the nation’s graduation rate to 90 percent. Together they hosted a GradNation community summit at the Civic Center last week, where 400 middleschoolers and their parents heard presentations on how to plan for college and explore career options.

Call it early intervention.

“They’re just in middle school, so they might not understand why they’re here exactly,” said APA’s director of media relations Daria Hall as gawky kids in braces tried chiseling blocks of wood at the Savannah Tech Historic Preservation Dept.’s tool table.

“But the idea is that the more times they hear the information, the more graduation becomes a given.”

For those who still grumble about their tax dollars paying for public education, Hall notes that when the U.S. reaches the 90 percent GradNation goal, those additional graduates will add an extra $6.6 billion to the GDP.

But Hall’s colleague Bill Carpluk acknowledged that while gatherings like last week’s summit are useful, there are still those families who can’t or won’t be reached.

“The hope is that these parents will take this information home and share it with their neighbors, with their community,” he said. “It starts with people knowing that the resources are there.”

There’s no doubt that parent involvement in their children’s education is crucial, but not everyone has a mom or dad with the time/wherewithal/desire to attend workshops and PTA meetings.

That shouldn’t keep kids from success, but it often does. The powerful school-to-prison pipeline remains a heavy reality here in Savannah, and no one is quite sure how to break the cycle.

“The school system blames the parents, who are products of the same school system,” points out a juvie court advocate.

As an amateur social scientist with absolutely no formal academic background in such things, I say we just get rid of middle school altogether.

Or as former Louisiana school superintendent Cecil Picard once referred to it, “the Bermuda Triangle of education.”

K-8 models have been a great start—I haven’t seen any statistics on high school graduation rates, though a Johns Hopkins study suggests that keeping sixth, seventh and eighth graders with the younger kids instead locking them up in the same petri dish has positive effects on reading and math achievement scores.

We also must keep our collective eyes on the continued reformation of the juvenile justice system until it reflects more “justice” than “system.”

Most importantly, we need to remember that middle school is already hard enough without criminalizing every tiny misstep (fake bomb threats notwithstanding.)

How else will all the vulnerable young anarchists learn to make good choices instead of bad?