BY: JACK HOBSON
The world has changed…
Teenagers exist in a different world than you grew up in. Video games, gun violence, sexting, and bullying have all exploded onto the scene, leaving many parents shut off from their children and vice versa. In that vacuum, too many kids gravitate toward darker temptations, but there is hope.
You are not alone.
Come behind the scenes and walk the halls with school resource officer Jack Hobson, Ed.D. Firsthand he witnessed the scenarios that caused good students to turn bad or troubled teens to clean up their act. Sometimes, the difference could be a few simple words from the right person to stop the dangerous drift toward delinquency or worse.
Some students drifted back. Others did not. These are their stories.
TAYLOR JONES SAYS: In Drifters: Stories from the Dark Side of Delinquency, Dr. Jack Hobson gives us an intriguing look at high schools today and what really constitutes school security. I was impressed with the way Hobson handled the problems the students presented and the way he interacted with the kids. They had nothing like this when I was in high school, but with all that has been happening in schools lately, I am glad to see they are taking security seriously.
The book has tons of good information in it for those of us who have to deal with teens on a regular basis and spend most of our time scratching our heads over the things they do. Drifters is timely, thought-provoking, and informative. It is also very entertaining.
REGAN MURPHY SAYS: Drifters: Stories from the Dark Side of Delinquency by Jack Hobson, Ed.D. is a fascinating read. The book is overflowing with useful information on dealing with teenagers, as well as giving us a glimpse into what these kids go through during their high school years. It’s written in first person and is a combination of case studies and the personal experiences of the author who worked for 30 years as a police officer and school resource officer.
Hobson uses the stories of these kids as examples of how to handle problem kids. I found myself caught up in their stories, rooting for kids I’ve never met. I thought Drifters was insightful, well-written, and a pleasure to read.
A Glimpse Back Through My Rearview Mirror
Aristotle once said that to understand anything, you look at the beginning.
My grandfather once told me that if you find a job you love, make it a career, and you’ll never work a day in your life.
September 1976: My journey to find that special job took me to a university in Miami, Florida, where I learned about the effects of beer, sun, and beach sand on my naive eighteen-year-old psyche. It was my first time away from home. Nevertheless, in my spare time, I studied the Administration of Justice.
January 1979: I entered the Massachusetts Department of Corrections Officers’ Training Academy. I graduated and, at twenty-one, five-foot-six and 125 pounds soaking wet, I found myself pacing within a maximum security cell block. It was a solitary job, except for my 24 friends who called Block 16B their home. I was called a hack, a hog, a pig, a screw, and a bull. They watched me, and I watched them plan and scheme. That’s the way it was.
January 1985: I entered the Police Academy and took a job with a small town police department. I loved everything about law enforcement, and I knew that time spent with maximum security inmates gave me a unique perception of street patrol. But I had an affinity for education, so I became a DARE (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) Officer.
September 2007: I became an SRO (a school resource officer). I patrolled the high school hallways looking for “Knuckleheads,” my slang for kids who did stupid things, said stupid things, and cruised through high school by making stupid decisions. They represented that one percent of trouble-makers, my bad seeds sprouting toward delinquency.
July 2011: After more than three decades in criminal justice, I retired as a police officer. Long before bullying became a tragically iconic buzz word, and long before school shootings rocked the consciousness of the nation, I wanted to write a book about juvenile delinquency–a book about high school and those who inhabit it.
I hope you enjoy reading Drifters as much I enjoyed writing it. Fasten your seatbelts. — Dr. Jack Hobson
Girl fights, boy fights, sex in bathrooms, classroom rebellions, pranks, drugs, and alcohol. In three decades of working as a police officer and being an integral part of a school system south of Boston, I saw it all.
In 1999, the Columbine tragedy–something that nobody ever guessed would happen in this country–changed the way schools looked at security. That year, the necessity of a School Resource Officer became apparent. A school was now officially part of a cop’s beat. It was part of mine. The same year as Columbine, I wrote my doctoral dissertation on bullying, long before that term became a buzzword.
So there I was, quite an anomaly, an experienced and unpretentious cop with a doctorate in education, working in a new cutting-edge high school. This book covers those years and those students. Most of all, it deals with those who drifted across the line toward juvenile delinquency, and with my efforts to push them back.
There’s a myth among cops that they know everything, that working the streets and dealing with people in crisis, over time, gives them an edge, a second sense, something more than a hunch. I never bought into that myth, and I dismissed it altogether after my first day as an SRO.
On that day, a sunny September morning, school had been in session for twelve minutes when a girl was choked and knocked to the ground by her boyfriend. Fifty-nine minutes later, I arrested him. For the next almost seven years, the pace never slowed down. I made more arrests at the high school than I had the previous fifteen years on the street.
Whether I was patrolling a neighborhood, walking the halls of a school, or doing my professor stand-up at the university I was fascinated by the psychology of causation, what stages a person went through to become what they are now. To that end, I studied the many ideas considered within Drift Theory of Juvenile Delinquency. Drift Theory contends that impressionable kids drift this way and that, good and bad, until they’ve committed an offense, or until someone like me comes along to reel them in.
Delinquency prevention begins with two people: the kid who is drifting and the person who recognizes the drift. Two people–the kid and whoever he or she is going to have first contact with. For many in that new, four-story high school, I was that contact. I was the first roadblock on their arduous trek through adolescence, a bumpy and dangerous road littered with bad behavior.
At that school, on a daily basis, it quickly became apparent to me that a considerable amount of juvenile delinquency prevention is just listening. I would very often tell my wayward young friends that their problem was that they talked when they should be listening. I said the same thing to myself–just listen to the kids. My goal was to bring all of the theories I had learned into practice. I used one-on-one intervention–frequently under the radar–based on what I knew about juvenile makeup and on what I believed were the needs of each kid. Frequently, it worked out. Sometimes not. However, I believe we were all better for having had that contact. I was often successful because I learned how to make connections with kids who were drifting, and I tried to be there when they veered into the darkness of dangerous and unhealthy decisions. I dealt with each student as an individual and focused on their singular behavior or questionable decisions. The school viewed students through a broader telescope. I weighed my options within what I considered was in a student’s best and future interests, according to my plan and all of its fifty-one shades of discretion.
Sometimes they liked me, sometimes they loathed me. But more ran toward me than away. I did everything I could to keep these kids out of trouble. I tried to think ahead for them.
Most would greet me respectfully, others–my works in progress–would acknowledge me as the cop, Jack, Fuzz, Mr. Jack, Five-O, Dude, or with the contemptuous question: “Hey, Jack, do you smell bacon?”
I would reply, “Did you just call me a pig?” Then I would explain that PIG stands for pride, integrity, and guts. Those were the words I needed them to hear.
If they’d committed a minor violation of school rules, I would often ease up a bit on the consequences. I respected and admired the school’s administration, but I thought many of the rules were outdated and petty–somewhat trivial in the way discipline was handed out so quickly and by-the-book. I was no stranger to swift justice. I mention this only because prior to my SRO assignment for the school district, I worked in a different world, an alternate universe. I was a patrolman, a street cop, where reality ruled and consequences were often dire. Debates about guilt or innocence happened within the theater of the courthouse. This was the adult world.
But with budding delinquent behavior, consequences might affect future opportunities, including matters pertaining to trust and character, so if I could help it, I preferred to hold court in my office. My jury often consisted of guidance counselors or teachers and, at times, if the behavior was a serious breach of the schools code of behavior, a parent. I practiced restorative justice–the art of the deal–using compromise and leverage, but there was always a price to pay: punishment consistent with the particular school rule violation.
I didn’t want a kid to check that box on a job application that started with, “Have you ever been convicted?” I didn’t want one of them, on their first job interview, to be excluded because of a past indiscretion. Stealing hotdog or a cookie from the cafeteria was hardly worth the black mark of a larceny charge on a student’s criminal history. I knew they’d be applying to college. I didn’t want a stupid decision in high school to stop them from getting what they deserved in life.
The principal, vice principals, and faculty played by the rules, and they excelled at keeping all the plates spinning. I had some latitude, although I dropped a few plates. My juggling act was less complicated. I was always trying to think ahead for my drifting students. They were my chess pieces, and I studied them carefully. I didn’t enjoy losing.
How easy would it have been to insulate myself behind the badge and project my ideas–and ideals exclusively from a law enforcement point of view–a view that considered arrest as the only option? How seamless and unforgiving would it have been to take the law into my own hands and pass off misbehaving kids to the juvenile court? Let the court figure out their personal and intricate malfunctions. But I knew that the court system doesn’t work that way, and painting juveniles with that metaphorical big brush often paints over the problem. It leaves the surface clean, but the damage underneath survives. I understood that, and I loved a challenge.
Many police officers measure their job performance and success statistically: number of arrests, court appearances, calls for service. In this sense, their worth is judged procedurally. And it’s linear. I just wanted to help struggling kids, one at a time. I wanted to recognize their behavior before their personal and unpredictable drift began. Measurements and statistical data do not work well in assessing the overactive and ever-changing teenage psyche. Statistics don’t have a pulse. Children do, and their hearts beat with zeal and anticipation to different drummers. They are anything but linear, hence their drift.
If I saw kids doing something they shouldn’t, I’d steer them into my office and deal with their behavior through mild persuasion, hoping they’d feel a little guilt or shame. I understood that if they were sent to the principal, vice principal, or adjustment counselor, they would be dealt with more harshly. For them, it could mean detention or suspension. More likely than not, parents would become involved. That could result in misunderstandings, each side calling foul. That’s why I rarely added parents to the equation.
Teachers, principals, assistant principals, guidance counselors, and adjustment counselors are the life blood of any school. I never envied them their jobs. I had my own style in dealing with kids causing trouble. I was always big with handing out notes, nothing lengthy, just one word, such as Knucklehead. I’d give the student one of my small notices, and that would usually stop the trouble. I was no angel in high school, either and, in some strange way, I felt connected to those students, having been in their place thirty-five years before.
Columbine was always tucked back into the dark places in our minds. We were trained to know what to do in the event another school shooter struck or critical incident happened. It was called active shooter training. Take the fight to the suspect. Eliminate the threat with great prejudice. Fast, instinctual, and brutal, if necessary. I checked doors and made sure cameras were working. But prevention was still the best course of action. In concert with emergency services and first responders, we would conduct training exercises–hard lockdowns and soft lockdowns–out in the open, in plain view of students and staff. And we would coach them. We would help them practice their specific roles and responsibilities in the event of a critical incident within the school, like an active shooter. I earned the trust of students and teachers alike because we were bound to a common cause and that cause was our safety. This holistic approach to prevention training was a shared experience.
I always talked to everybody and listened to them. I would tell stories and stupid jokes. Earning the trust of my young rebels gave me instant membership in the confession club. Not the spiritual type. Instead, it was the Okay, Officer Hobson, I did it, but I can explain club. As a member of the club, I was entitled to hear all about their problems at home–too many problems, out of the mouths of babes, so to speak. But I listened viscerally and absorbed everything. We got used to each other as our common goals became aligned.
These kids don’t spell the word LOVE the way the dictionary does.
They spell it TIME. Almost all of the characters in this book spent too little constructive time with a parent or guardian. Most craved attention and demanded to be recognized, to be heard. When these basic needs were not realized, their personal delinquent-drift began as they traversed that rocky road through adolescence.
For many, I became a surrogate for attachment lost. They saw me as a concerned adult–reliable, and ever-present. And, because I was a police officer, they gravitated slowly to me. I was strict but fair, and I always listened. I would mediate the most absurd differences with understanding, humor, and a grain of salt. “A modern day Solomon,” I was called once–probably because in a fit of exasperation, I threatened to tear a boy in half and give equal parts to his warring, jealous girlfriends.
Beginning in the early 1990s, as a DARE Officer and Instructor, I was trained to facilitate parent workshops. I would create age-appropriate sessions for concerned adults in many areas, ranging from adolescent drug use to issues dealing with the teenage rebellion and/or their problems with self-esteem. I would talk about the best practices from selected research, and we’d discuss to how to act and react to deviant and defiant children. This was intended to help empower parents as they navigated their way along the often bumpy road through their children’s adolescence. I would suggest to my parent groups that, when their kids were having problems, it might be because they weren’t given the time they needed when they needed it, during critical developmental periods in their lives. But the critical periods, the ones that scream “teachable moments,” are elusive. So we would discuss how to be a consistent presence in every aspect of their lives.
Consistency and awareness is a two-way street. Doing nothing to correct insolent or defiant behavior only reinforces it. I would have parents dissect their day from the time they got up then dissect their kids’ day. Many didn’t really have a grip on their kids’ daily in-school routine, from the time they got on the school bus until they came home for supper and got yelled at because Dad or Mom had a bad day. Many parents were overscheduled, and their children suffered for it. Children were overscheduled, and their parents suffered for it. A circular problem–different characters, same result.
Many students were latchkey kids, with no adult to greet them or supervise them after school. They were on their own and wandering, like helium balloons, untethered, waiting to drift. I told parents that they needed the ears of a therapist, the eyes of an artist, and the heart of a friend. They had to be strict, fair, and flexible. They had to be a safety net for their kids. They needed a short rope and the skills to use it. We talked collectively but made personal plans for individual problems.
Juveniles drift in and out of deviance, bouncing back and forth between conventional and delinquent lifestyles. Sometimes delinquents feel guilty about their actions and, for the most part, they admire and respect honesty and law-abiding behavior. The lack of social controls in their teenage years allows experimental drifts of activity, good to bad, bad to good. Most grow out of this behavior and level off. Others drift away, and their problems become exponentially criminal. The onset of juvenile delinquency is often subtle and furtive.
This book is a chronicle of sorts, a year in the life of an ordinary American High School. As a school-based police officer, my days were never dull, and I kept a diary of my experiences at school with students, faculty, and staff. Students who earned a place in my journal, and in my consciousness, were the characters that brought life, laughs, and stress into every school day.
We professionals know them as the ones who doddle in notebooks, scratch up desks, stick gum where they shouldn’t, create drama, cry wolf, and bring fresh ideas to the title of class clown. They tested the strength and the resolve of teachers and parents and me–the school cop. They are the ones that lived internally in yearbooks and ones we never seemed to forget. Regardless of time and generation, they are our usual suspects, the ones who could never stay out of the spotlight, the ones who broke the law and broke hearts. Their stories are the life blood of this chronicled, roller-coaster school year.
Drifters is a collection of stories about my most memorable characters and their tumultuous drifts between the worlds of right and wrong and good and bad. This book is literally about their trials and tribulations, their punishments on a school level and, for some, their follies with the juvenile court system.
But Drifters is not only for my Knuckleheads, or their parents. It’s intended to be a glimpse of everyday high school life through my eyes and my perception of things. It’s about how I acted and reacted to bad behavior.
This book is for everyone and anyone who struggled to survive high school, and it’s for those who spent the glory days of high school taking up space in detention or in the principal’s office.
There were two classrooms on the third floor that I affectionately called the Zoo. Rooms 324 and 325 contained a variety of students who repeatedly disrupted the school climate with their behavior. It was a refuge for underachievers, knuckleheads, drama queens, and rebels–with or without a cause–and because of their conduct, they were secluded from the mainstream. They were isolated because of deviant behavior, for not meeting their academic potential, or both. There in the Zoo, they would have to step up to the plate and prove their worth in order to return to a normal classroom environment.
Good behavior was rewarded by merit points received by following their individual education plan. Merits were their currency, their ticket out. The Zoo was located at the end of the hall. I don’t know if that was by design, or if those were the only rooms available. For a while, those students were banished to the land of misfit toys.
Public school policies, rules, and behavior codes intersect with criminal law and juvenile law in convoluted ways. It’s a delicate dance, more of a chess game really. These worlds collided precariously in that new high school on Massachusetts Bay south of Boston. Although I was at the school daily and witnessed all kinds of insolent behavior, I didn’t hand out discipline. I was there to protect, not chastise, but I always added my two cents worth, welcome or not.
As a police officer in full uniform, I did sit in on hearings. I aligned myself with the school administration and represented a useful deterrent in their tool box of discipline. When a situation crossed criminal lines, I got involved. Then words like compromise, probation, and the Zoo came into play.
Disruptive kids, when their social skills and academic achievements dwindled, would go into these classrooms for a tune-up, which could take months. The Zoo wasn’t entirely remedial. It was an attempt to restore a path of progress for these troubled kids.
In an educational setting, it’s called prescriptive teaching, a strategy designed to meet the individual needs of students with learning or behavioral problems. Students targeted for this type of intervention were administered both psychological and academic achievement tests, along with a complete review of the student’s case history.
It was to calm down those students who had trouble, were displaying warning signs, or cues of at-risk behavior, so that they could get back into the regular school environment. There were so many kids at one time, they actually had to open up other classrooms. They sat in assigned seats, and the structure was so rigid no one wanted to end up there. It was all about perception and, with this particular group, perception was not, in a word, good. Although they attended classes during the same hours as the regular school, the students in the Zoo had their own, separate lunch time and remained segregated until they wised up. It was much easier to watch them in one place than search for them in the jumble of the cafeteria.
A lot of them were on individual learning plans and in regular classes, but that wasn’t the norm. Many of these drifting misfits would have definitely benefited from a professional diagnosis, but their symptoms and behaviors and individual peculiarities, although observed, were only dealt with on a school level. In this sense, the primary focus in the Zoo was three-fold: re-build trust, behave, and learn.
I was interested in their disciplinary records for clues as to what motivated these students to act out. I would often ask students, “Hey, what’s your malfunction? Do you know what etiquette means, because you’re really bad at it?”
The most common response was, “What?”
Let me mention one thing here. The nickname I gave the Zoo was no reflection on the teachers who played a continuous game of tug of war to keep the peace, an exhaustive and emotional battle. These kids would threaten, swear, and taunt their teachers. They got into fights. They made text and Facebook threats. They perfected teasing and bullying. Even though they were in the Zoo because they’d caused trouble, they would use their cell phones and various other devices to text and instant message their friends in the general population, the way inmates do–until we changed the rules and locked up their gadgets. Many students were numb from the neck up and made little effort unless it was in being obnoxious and disruptive.
I once heard a psychologist disclose that many of our Zoo inhabitants experienced flare-ups of ODD, Oppositional Defiant Disorder. My translation: Bratty teenagers reliving their terrible twos who perfected tantrums and revolted against rules of any kind, so much so that even the most menial of requests became skirmishes. Through my eyes, they were Knuckleheads.
Just so you understand, here are a few credos–my precepts regarding that rare state. You might be a Knucklehead if:
* You’re a sixteen-year-old boy and, by mistake, take your baby sister’s Hello Kitty backpack to school and are forced to physically defend yourself against relentless taunts.
* You punch the emergency exit on the inside ceiling of the school bus, and it blows out skyward like a pilot’s ejector seat.
* You bring a whoopee cushion to class, one that actually smells like rancid expelled gas, and cause a mini laugh riot when the teacher becomes your first, and only, victim.
* You have to go to the school nurse because, on a dare, you rubbed Icy Hot on your private parts.
* You steal a tarantula from the biology department, place in on the shoulder of your ex-friend who, in a panic, brushes it off and stomps down hard, killing the two-hundred-fifty dollar spider.
* You throw a carton of milk down the staircase to trip someone and fall yourself, face-first, and need stitches.
* Between classes, you brush your teeth with hemorrhoid cream.
* While riding your skateboard in the hall, you fall off and, sliding, you become a human bowling ball, students and teachers become bowling pins, and for the first time in your life, you roll a strike.
Get the picture? Girls are as eligible for knucklehead status as boys. Life and I don’t discriminate. A Knucklehead girl might wear pajama bottoms and flip-flops to school regardless of weather conditions.
“What’s a few inches of snow on my feet?” was a common response. “Hobson, it ain’t nothing.”
Add to the female Knucklehead recipe a couple of Facebook hate clubs with a dash of social hostility. Combine a healthy dose of love and hate relationships–gender not specific–that burn hot on the school bus but fizzle to smoke by lunch time. Mix this with defiance, seasoned with a dab of apathy, and you have a dodgy, slightly undeveloped rebel princess. Priceless.
The Zoo residents were indeed Knuckleheads, and I was called there repeatedly to chat with my usual suspects. I would remove the obnoxious students, counsel the stupid, confine the aggressive, and compliment and reinforce good behavior. Always.
Arrest was a last resort, as in driving-the-angels-crazy last resort. I would take the accused for a walk, get some fresh air, and talk about what happened. I would buy him or her a soda, hand over a mint or a piece of gum, a gesture of inclusion, simple and innocuous.
We would talk about nonsense: the Red Sox, the weather, our favorite TV shows. By the time I brought the kid back, more often than not, he or she was calm again. I enjoyed their company and was always fascinated by their thought processes, their rationalization of decisions, wise and not so wise. Baffling sometimes, but never dull.
I had a lot of inherent authority in the schools. If something happened, the principal would often seek my advice. That was always a two-way street. They knew how to handle problems and issues from the school’s perspective of due process, and I knew more about the quagmire of the juvenile courts. We were successful in maintaining that delicate balance. Having the police and the schools reading the same book was triumphant, though getting us all on the same page proved daunting at times. But our tenacity and differences were not ego driven. Our energy was reserved for the students.
We had a truant officer who dealt with kids who came in late or not at all. Although we were allies, our roles were different. Every morning, after we shut the doors for the day, and all of the kids were supposed to be there, I’d tell the guidance counselor, “I’m going out fishing for a while. I’ll be back in about an hour.”
She’d smile because everyone knew what I meant. I wasn’t casting for fish. Instead, I’d go cruising, looking for the walkers. I was seeking out my usual suspects, many of them Zoo kids, an interesting and rag-tag mix of unmotivated travelers. The walking dead.
I would find them, looking like zombies in their pajamas, some in the same clothes they’d worn the day before, heading in the direction of school, some alone, some in small groups, drinking black coffee. I’d pick them all up. Sometimes, I’d have five kids in the back of the cruiser.
“What time did you go to bed? Why can’t you get up in the morning? Did you eat something? Did you all remember to bring your medication?” I’d ask. “Why can’t you get your ass here on time? Everyone else does. Stay awake, go inside, find a book, and open it–that would be an accomplishment. Learn something, for Christ’s sake. Don’t be a Knucklehead.”
They would smile and yawn and look at me with vacant eyes because they’d heard this rant before, many times.
I’d pull up to the front door of the school. The truant officer would be waiting. I’d let the kids out, and she’d let them in. A tardy they could deal with, but if they were marked absent, which they would be after eight o’clock, the penalties accumulated, and discipline was progressive and harsh.
“How many fish did Jack catch today?” someone in the office would ask the truant officer.
“Oh, he did pretty well. Four or five.”
That wasn’t part of the job. It was just part of what I did because my focus wasn’t just about preventing trouble. It was thinking about the kids.
Many of the young men and women you’ll get to know in this book spent time in the Zoo. Had it existed when I was a kid growing up in Brockton, I probably would have spent time there as well. When, years later, I wrote a grant for an alternative high school in our community, I was thinking about those kids, thinking about their limited opportunities. Knucklehead status isn’t terminal. It doesn’t have to be a life sentence. That’s what the Zoo–and the kids who resided there–taught me.
© 2013 by Jack Hobson, Ed.D.