Education Opinion

Grand Jury

By Suzanne Tingley — April 21, 2004 6 min read
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Reflections on schools and children—from the jury box.

I have been called for jury duty.

I sit with 22 fellow jurors, two days a week for two months, and listen to story after story, woven together by defendants, witnesses, police, and prosecutors. The stories are sometimes simple, other times convoluted, complex, and contradictory.

This is grand jury, so our job is not to determine guilt or innocence, but to decide whether there is enough evidence to substantiate the charges and thus move the case forward to trial, or perhaps plea bargain. We are exhorted by the district attorney that if a “reasonable” person would find enough evidence to proceed, we must vote to do so. We are all reasonable people.

On the first day we report for jury duty, the judge asks me to be the foreperson, explaining that he often chooses educators because we are used to working with groups of people to get a job done. Grand jurors are not like students, however, and at first, it’s a little like herding cats. It takes me a few cases to establish a format that allows everyone to ask questions or express his or her opinion without allowing anyone to monopolize the discussion or bully others into voting a particular way.

In the beginning, I wonder if some of the jurors have watched too much Court TV. Some want to increase the charges or indict people they think the police may have overlooked. Some take notes and ask copious questions. Most are silent, but attentive. As a whole, this jury of ordinary citizens is impressive in its desire to do a good job. Every juror is unambiguous about the seriousness of our responsibility. I am, at times, moved by our collective respect for one another, for the people appearing on the stand, and for the truth.

Over the course of our empanelment, the alleged actions of some of the defendants are disturbing. So is their youth. Among the witnesses are 13-year-old girls with the worn demeanor of much older women. There is a 5-year-old who is more knowing than any 5-year-old should be. There is a 19-year-old working on his prison GED; we are instructed to ignore the fact that he arrives in the courtroom to testify already clad in an orange jumpsuit and shackled. There are high school dropouts who are unemployed. I am appalled to learn that a particularly unsavory robbery was allegedly perpetrated by a couple of 17-year-olds. Despite assurances from the prosecuting attorneys, I am not convinced that all the defendants, nor the witnesses, can read and write well enough to understand the documents they are asked to sign. But only one actually admits with embarrassment that he is illiterate.

As the days wear on, I begin to understand the popularity of Judge Judy and her ilk. I experience at times an undeniable urge to turn to some of these young defendants and say in my best teacher voice, “What were you thinking? What in the world made you think that was a good idea? Didn’t anyone ever teach you better than that?”

Teaching, in the sense of what we do in school, appears peripheral to the point of view of many of the people we see.

And that, of course, is the problem. Teaching, in the sense of what we do in school, appears peripheral to the point of view of many of the people we see. The real lives of these young people exist someplace entirely outside of school. One young man, for example, who should have been in high school himself, explained to the jury that he had hid the gun in a bag “like those kids use for gym.”

As I watch the parade of young people on the witness stand, I begin to wonder, when did we lose them? Was it in high school, when it became clear that they would never acquire all the credits necessary to graduate? Was it in middle school, when they had already been held back and were now a couple of years older than their classmates? Maybe it was in elementary school, when they fell behind in reading and experienced greater and greater frustration with school tasks. Or the worst possibility of all: They were lost before they started, victims of poverty and neglect.

No child left behind? Whom are we kidding?

Between cases, I begin to consider which of the recent initiatives passed by state or federal governments would have been most effective in keeping these young people in school and out of the judicial system. Higher standards? Yearly testing? Notices to parents about whether teachers were “highly qualified”? Fingerprinting school workers? “Adequate yearly progress”? Vouchers? School report cards? High- stakes tests for graduation?

On a day that the jury isn’t in session, I attend a general meeting of superintendents, school board members, and elected state and federal representatives. This gathering has come to be a local rite of spring: the grim exchange between elected officials and school people about next year’s funding for education. The officials tell us to tighten our belts; school board members make their annual plea for no more unfunded mandates. This year, an assemblywoman tells us that currently pending in the state legislature are hundreds of bills that begin, “School districts shall …" The great majority of them, she assures us, will not pass. Among those bills doomed to defeat, she adds, is one that would require the legislature to fund any mandate issued by the state board of regents. She thinks we will be disappointed.

Hardly. The prospect of the legislature being forced to fund any mandate the regents come up with is not comforting, but chilling. The problem with unfunded mandates can be either the “unfunded” part or the “mandate” part. It isn’t just about money; it’s about time.

Despite the assemblywoman’s assurances, I suspect that this year, like every other year, will bring another round of directives that are perhaps well intentioned, but poorly planned and hastily implemented. The No Child Left Behind Act leaves us wryly wondering how a school can be deemed “excellent” by state standards and “in need of improvement” by federal standards. A big-city mayor, ignoring years of research on the negative results of retention, declares in front of a bank of microphones that all failing 3rd graders will be held back. Across the country, politicians and appointed officials insist that frequent and arduous testing has shown improved results in the statistics they keep. I unfortunately do not see those results in the children I keep.

Education officials encourage school people to pressure their legislators for more school aid; legislators exhort us to tell education officials we need a moratorium on new requirements. It is a game of keep-away, with schools caught in the middle.

In the jury room, the checks and balances of the judicial system are a thing of beauty. I wonder if it would work for children?

Back in the jury room, in a brief lull while the accused meets with his public defender, I wistfully imagine a “grand jury” that would evaluate new education initiatives and decide whether to move them along or to return a no bill. If a politician or an education official came up with a new idea for schools (like holding 3rd graders back, for example), he or she would have to present it to the educational grand jury—a group of ordinary citizens and reasonable people. He would have to convince us that there is strong and abundant evidence that his idea would improve student learning. He would have to tell us where the idea had been piloted, and he would reveal the significant positive data he had acquired. He would tell us how he had consulted with people in the field. He would bring to the jury witnesses who could attest to his character, so that we would know that the plan would actually benefit children, not just himself. He would speak to the effectiveness of his idea and its academic, social, and financial impact. He would explain his plan for funding.

And then the jury would vote.

Of course, these are only the whimsical musings of a common citizen called to do her civic duty. In the jury room, the checks and balances of the judicial system are a thing of beauty, even if the prosaic implementation is not. The system ensures the rights of individuals and restrains the whims of government. It works for accused criminals. I wonder if it would work for children.

Suzanne Tingley is the superintendent of the Sackets Harbor Central School District, in Sackets Harbor, N.Y., and writes on educational issues.


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