Risky children: rethinking the discourse of delinquency and risk.

Author:Jordan, Adam


The word delinquency is a harsh, stigmatizing word. While the word has lost some frequency of use lately, underlying concepts of the word remain strongholds of educational conversations. The word serves as foundational rhetoric for more modern, yet equally stigmatizing language used to marginalize youth and families. Still, the word's origins, underlying meanings, or historical usage are useful in understanding the modern discourse of risk and they are rarely considered in professional circles. Delinquency is, in fact, a difficult word to trace from a historical perspective. The act of delinquency is not the typical subject. More often it is the individual involved, or the delinquent, that is the focus. Many words may be used to describe someone who is delinquent, with each word offering a slightly different spin or twist. Someone who is considered a delinquent may also be considered a troublemaker or a "problem."

When there is an attempt to be cordial, or even professional, the phrase "at-risk" is used. This phrase has taken a stronghold in the language used across multiple disciplines of education and particularly with youth marginalized by modern schooling initiatives intent to reform "failing" schools and "failing" teachers. Regardless of the exact phrasing, an underlying commonality in all of the modern usages of these terms and phrases exists. Almost always, the label of delinquent or one of its derivatives is reserved for youth who are typified as struggling in traditional public schools. The label is reserved for students who place the school at risk of low progress based on standardized testing measures.

In modern American culture, it is quite common to hear a discussion of children who are at-risk of failing within the system. Some folks used to call those children delinquents. Hang around the field of education very long and you will hear plenty of discussion of "those kids." "Those kids" are the kids who cause trouble, the kids who disrupt, and the kids who do not play by the rules. "Those kids" do not usually do very well on standardized tests, they do not typically do their homework, and they are not the kids you typically see in the back seat of suburban minivans laden with "Honor Student" bumper stickers. "Those kids" often exist on the fringes of the traditional public system, othered and segregated in many ways.

Developing a better understanding of the idea of students existing on the fringes of the system and typified through risk rhetoric requires a better understanding of the delinquency language that is used to discuss these students. This conversation is timely and necessary. In the current era of American schooling we find ourselves at a political crossroads for rethinking inclusion over division and understanding over fear. In order to further explore the historical concept of risk and delinquency as related to school children, delinquency will be defined in this paper and situated in a modern historical context. The history presented is just one history told through just one lens and should be received that way. The previous works highlighted are pieces that have been influential in my own construction of the idea of delinquency and are not to be considered as a comprehensive collection. The reality is, the history of "othering" is long and complex and should be pursued from multiple angles and by each individual engaged in this type of work. My own history as an educator includes teaching in public alternative schools with high school students who have now grown to be adults and friends. The history and subsequent request to reform risk discourse is presented in defense of them and is a reflection of my own journey of understanding that kids are not risky, but instead are full of potential and brilliance.

In many ways, the hope of this article is to extend the conversation enriched decades ago by Swadener and Lubeck (1995), as well as many others who have fought for equity discourse because of the recognition that words and language matter. As Sleeter (1995) stated, "the discourse over 'children at risk' can be understood as a struggle for power over how to define children, families, and communities who are poor, of color, and/or native speakers of languages other than English" (p. ix). The 2016 presidential election in the United States has served to, at the very least, reveal a country divided over issues of race, class, and gender. Perhaps more than any other time in the twenty-first century, our populace is realizing that the ideas of a post-racial society are ridiculous notions. Instead, we realize that we have deep and difficult work that must be done and must be done quickly and reverently. Part of this work is rethinking our language and, in order to do that, consider some of the origins for the language we use.

Who's Delinquent ... And Why?

While defining delinquency is somewhat difficult, it is apparent that delinquency and the label of delinquent both carry negative connotations. While the word delinquent may be used playfully, rarely is this term used with endearment. To gain a better understanding of how the term is conceived today, just take a look at the dictionary. The term delinquency is defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as, "The condition or quality of being a delinquent; failure in or neglect of duty; more generally, violation of duty or right; the condition of being guilty, guilt" (Oxford English Dictionary, 2015). This begs the question, what exactly is a delinquent? According to the Oxford English Dictionary, a delinquent is, "One who fails in duty or obligation, a defaulter; more generally, one guilty of an offence against the law, an offender" (Oxford English Dictionary, 2015).

As the discourse of delinquency and risk moves throughout time and culture, it is clear that it exists in order to categorize. As the definition suggests, not being delinquent seems to mean a successful fulfillment of a duty or obligation. When writing about individuals with disabilities in the newly formed republic of the United States, Nielsen (2012) wrote,

In the decades following the American Revolution, the new nation sought to define and distinguish between good citizens and bad citizens. Democracy was a grand and potentially dangerous experiment that presumed its citizens could and would make reasoned political decisions. How could the new republic survive unless the bodies and minds of its citizens were capable, particularly its voting citizens? (pp. 49-50) Nielsen's work is focused on the history, and gross marginalization, of individuals with disabilities, but it is clear that by today's standards, we now considered delinquency to be a form of disability, both through formal categories of special education such as children with emotional/ behavioral disorders as well as through the practice of a general school culture that is not welcoming to those who exhibit behaviors outside of the status quo norm, which is usually reflective of stereotypical middle class, white values. As Nielsen raises the point of the idea of a "capable" citizenry, she brilliantly introduces the idea that this conversation is about what's good for "us," and not "them."

This concept demonstrates the functional definition of delinquency. Delinquency describes the behaviors of a certain subset of the population that, through abnormal behavior, places something at risk for the rest of "us." But as Polakow (1995) stated, "And who is at risk? Them? Us? All? Who belongs in the gray zone between normality and abnormality, health and pathology? Or put a little differently, upon whose contested terrain does the at-risk child walk?" (p. 263).

One society's delinquent may not be delinquent in another's, but it seems clear that the language exists in order to intentionally "other" someone outside of the status quo. Also, it seems that the idea of a delinquent fluctuates with time and place as visions of place and space move and shift. In order to better explain this idea, and provide some continuity to the term delinquency and the delinquent, a succinct and selective historical approach to the term will be presented.

A Succinct History of Delinquency

Depending on what version of human history an individual ascribes to, delinquency may have been around since the beginning of humanity, which would entail that so has the delinquent. Certainly, human beings have continually engaged in mischief. Of equal certainty is the fact that human beings have sought to place...

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