Dani Robbins

Discretion and Discernment: A Call to Action on Behalf of Our Young People

In Advocacy, Community Strategy, Leadership, Lessons Learned, Organizational Development on February 24, 2019 at 12:07 pm

I’ve been thinking a lot about discernment and discretion in the past few weeks. I’ve been thinking about 9/11, Sandy Hook and Parkland and about the processes we put in place since then. I’ve been mulling what happens in the worst cases and the best cases of our policies being realized.

After Sandy Hook, schools across the country became lockdown facilities, even though Sandy Hook was a locked facility and it didn’t help. We had to do something! Hand wringing, prayers and fear weren’t getting us anywhere and many of us were devastated. Locking the doors was one roadblock we could erect.

After Parkland, many schools put in school resource officers even though Parkland had an officer outside who did nothing AND there’s ample evidence to suggest that the introduction of a school resource officer criminalizes behavior that otherwise would stay at the school level. It’s another roadblock, though I’m not convinced it’s the right roadblock.

We have reporting policies and after 9/11 have “see something say something” policies. We need those policies. We also need discretion and discernment in assessing the information that gets reported.

In an era when we have police officers being dispatched because there’s a random black person in someone’s neighborhood or a college student asleep in the common room of his own dorm, we have to have a conversation about discretion and discernment.

Sensitive content warning:

Many years ago, when I ran a program for school age youth in Texas, I had a young staff member who heard the youngest of three boys in a family use the word blowjob. She immediately decided that that meant that kid was being sexually abused at home and she called Children’s Services.

This is one of those (countless) incidences when where you sit determines where you stand. She was young, right out of college and new to the field. Would a more experienced staff member have read the situation the same way? Would you have?

What happened when Children’s Services showed up at that family’s door? Does a kid with two older brothers using the word blowjob automatically indicate sexual abuse? How could that family prove the absence of child sexual abuse? Children’s Services had to make that call. They have processes in place to help them to do so. It’s an impossible position.

The law requires staff that work with youth be mandatory reporters of suspected child abuse or neglect. We have to report and we should!

But there should also be some discretion on the part of the person who takes the call of asking follow-up questions before they deploy resources.

This is hard. I don’t harbor any illusions that this is not hard. How do you decide from a phone call what’s really a threat and what is not? How do you decide who is in danger or who just has older siblings or was allowed to watch a show that perhaps he shouldn’t have been?

After that incident we added an addendum to our reporting policy that employees should speak with a supervisor before they made such a call. That policy (and the law) was very clear that the final decision was still the employee’s and we would never stop an employee for making that call but we did want to have a conversation around discernment.

Every time we deploy police officers, children service workers or security staff, we disengage the people whom they’re questioning. We put those people in the position of defending themselves, sometimes rightly; sometimes not.

We know that once the door opens to the criminal justice system, it can be a one-way door – especially for families that are already living on the edge.

How do we not get to that door for people who don’t need to walk through it? How do we protect the kids we are entrusted to serve, and hold accountable the people who are trying to hurt them? How do we respect the dignity of visitors and not feed the racism or fear of those who want to decide who “belongs?”

How do we protect our young people – and everyone – by putting in place the right policies to keep us safe, while also protecting people’s dignity and right to be heard? How do we not create spaces where fear breeds and every stranger is a danger?

We have to figure out how to deploy our resources in the right places, for the right reasons and not further alienate those we are also entrusted to serve. We have to build policies to take into account and discern actual harm from rumor, speculation, racism, implicit and explicit bias.

I understand and support the need for locked schools. I believe in roadblocks. We can never 100% protect against a threat but we can put as many roadblocks in place as possible. I support policies that keep people safe.  But I’ve also seen too many incidences of leaders hiding behind a policy that made something worse in an uneducated attempt to respond.

We’re the grown ups and the leaders. We decide what’s safe for our community’s children and what’s not. We decide what’s a reasonable policy and what’s rife for abuse. We assess what will protect us and what will get in the way.  Let’s have the policies, but, please, let’s also have a conversation around discretion and discernment. 

What are your ideas to introduce discretion and discernment?  Have you been successful in your community? What’s your experience creating policies that protect and also discern?  As always, I welcome your insight, feedback and experience. Please share your ideas or suggestions for blog topics and consider hitting the follow button to enter your email. A rising tide raises all boats.

  1. Excellent blog sis. Important topic. I love you and am always proud of you.

    Like

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