Juvenile delinquents, thugs and hoodlums: then and now

West Side Story mocked the stereotypes of delinquents, their families, the legal system, the mental health profession and social services in the song “Gee Officer Krupke”. The blame (junkie mom, drunk dad, lazy kid, etc.) and the shift of responsibility from one problem solver (police officer, judge, psychiatrist, social worker) to another when none are able to fix a “bad” kid are linked and then come full circle to the first solution of arrest and jail.

A year before West Side Story was released The Harvard Crimson published “A Unique Solution to Juvenile Delinquency”.

Charles W. Slack, assistant professor of clinical psychology, began a radical new research program for changing delinquents into useful, job-holding citizens. Sometimes criticized by local social workers, discouraged by law enforcement authorities, Slack’s plan has drastically reduced crime among boys on whom it was applied.” 

Interesting… In “Gee Officer Krupke” the psychiatrist states: “This boy don’t need a doctor, just a good honest job.” The teen’s response to getting a job: “Dear kindly social worker, They say go earn a buck. Like be a soda-jerker, which means like be a schumck. It’s not I’m anti-social, I’m only anti-work.”

Who’s right? Professor Charles Slack or lyricist Stephen Sondheim? Actually… both.

“The “Streetcorner Research” program had to overcome the participants’ resistance to working. In order to encourage the boys they were paid no matter how late they arrived which gave “immediate reinforcement” for the desired behavior.

That’s logical. After all trying to steer children from delinquent behavior to responsible employment is a tough switch. The delayed gratification of a paycheck in two weeks can’t compete with the powerful adrenaline rush triggered by delinquent actions (drugs, stealing, skipping school) that’s coupled with “immediate reinforcement” (get high, quick cash, fun with friends vs. sitting in class).

Slack noticed that it wasn’t just about the money. “If you’re paying the kids, what they’re doing has got to be worth it.” As Sondheim captured having a menial job as a “soda-jerker” isn’t appealing when it’s perceived as meaningless. When my brother was a teen he worked at an ice-cream shop. When he was reprimanded for sitting on the counter he sarcastically replied to the manager “I do minimum work because I get paid minimum wage.” Luckily his comedic timing landed perfectly and ironically got a raise, more responsibility and never sat on the counter again. (Now he’s a professor using the same irreverent humor to engage his students.)

Also during the “Streetcorner Research” program the boys behavior changed because they knew they were being watched, a phenomenon known to scientists as the “Hawthorne effect”.  People in an experiment will change their behavior, simply because they are being observed. In addition to working the boys had to keep a journal and give written responses to questions like “Why kids foul up?” So not only were their actions being monitored but also their thoughts.

Paying attention to children/teens and listening to their problems fosters connection between them and adults. Children often feel invisible and even when they speak many feel misunderstood or unheard.  A 19-year-old in the “Streetcorner” program wrote: Kids always get the blame when something happens, and they don’t get to tell their side of a story, and even when do (which is very rare) no one believes them.

Teens today feel the same frustration as the West Side Story teens yelling at Officer Kupke “WE GOT TROUBLES OF OUR OWN!” before they drop to their knees and beg for the answer to “WHAT ARE WE TO DO?” 

Has the song lost the accuracy of its satirical despair?

Unfortunately some people will continue to stereotype “bad” kids.

Fortunately many positive changes have occurred since 1960 and Professor Slack’s radical ideas that weren’t widely accepted at the time are being implemented.

Notably this summer North Carolina became last state to ‘raise the age’ of teens in court. Instead of being treated as an adult in the justice system, 16 and 17-year-olds will be served in Juvenile Court.

Organizations like Gang Resistance Education And Training (GREAT) intend to prevent juvenile delinquency before it happens and diversion programs are available for youthful offenders. With supervised activities, community service and treatment for behavioral problems children and teens receive support that will guide their decisions and actions instead of punishing them as adults. Eric Andrews, coordinator of the Wake Teen Diversion Program said in an interview for the News & Observer “Should we penalize our kids for the rest of their lives for a mistake? These are still kids.”

He’s absolutely right – they are kids and now will be treated as such thanks to the dedication of concerned citizens, advocates and organizations like the Council for Children’s Rights.

+++

Dear kindly Sergeant Krupke,
You gotta understand,
It’s just our bringin’ up-ke
That gets us out of hand.
Our mothers all are junkies,
Our fathers all are drunks.
Golly Moses, natcherly we’re punks!
Gee, Officer Krupke, we’re very upset;
We never had the love that ev’ry child oughta get.
We ain’t no delinquents,
We’re misunderstood.
Deep down inside us there is good!
There is good!
There is good, there is good,
There is untapped good!
Like inside, the worst of us is good!

That’s a touchin’ good story.

Lemme tell it to the world!

Just tell it to the judge.
Dear kindly Judge, your Honor,
My parents treat me rough.
With all their marijuana,
They won’t give me a puff.
They didn’t wanna have me,
But somehow I was had.
Leapin’ lizards! That’s why I’m so bad!

Right!

Officer Krupke, you’re really a square;
This boy don’t need a judge, he needs an analyst’s care!
It’s just his neurosis that oughta be curbed.
He’s psychologic’ly disturbed!
I’m disturbed!
We’re disturbed, we’re disturbed,
We’re the most disturbed,
Like we’re psychologic’ly disturbed.

In the opinion on this court, this child is depraved on account he ain’t had a normal home.

Hey, I’m depraved on account I’m deprived.

So take him to a headshrinker.

My daddy beats my mommy,
My mommy clobbers me,
My grandpa is a commie,
My grandma pushes tea.
My sister wears a mustache,
My brother wears a dress.
Goodness gracious, that’s why I’m a mess!

Yes!
Officer Krupke, you’re really a slob.
This boy don’t need a doctor, just a good honest job.
Society’s played him a terrible trick,
And sociologic’ly he’s sick!
I am sick!
We are sick, we are sick,
We are sick, sick, sick,
Like we’re sociologically sick!

In my opinion, this child don’t need to have his head shrunk at all. Juvenile delinquency is purely a social disease!

Hey, I got a social disease!

So take him to a social worker!
Dear kindly social worker,
They say go earn a buck.
Like be a soda jerker,
Which means like be a schumck.
It’s not I’m anti-social,
I’m only anti-work.
Gloryosky! That’s why I’m a jerk!

Eek!
Officer Krupke, you’ve done it again.
This boy don’t need a job, he needs a year in the pen.
It ain’t just a question of misunderstood;
Deep down inside him, he’s no good!
I’m no good!
We’re no good, we’re no good!
We’re no earthly good,
Like the best of us is no damn good!

The trouble is he’s crazy. The trouble is he drinks. The trouble is he’s lazy. The trouble is he stinks. The trouble is he’s growing. The trouble is he’s grown.
Krupke, we got troubles of our own!

Gee, Officer Krupke,
We’re down on our knees,
‘Cause no one wants a fellow with a social disease.
Gee, Officer Krupke,
What are we to do?
Gee, Officer Krupke,
Krup you!

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