SALT LAKE CITY — A child developmental expert says the toddler kicking his legs on the aisle of the grocery store isn't that much different from the teenager dramatically sighing before slamming the bedroom door.
Kathleen Van Antwerp, or Dr. K as she is known, said developmentally, teens and toddlers are about at the same level, with each age group struggling to grow into the next stage of life — but not yet equipped with all the tools.
The leading expert in juvenile justice reform was the keynote speaker Saturday at the University of Utah's "Breaking the Pipeline" fourth annual symposium addressing ways to plug the schools-to-prison pipeline trend, especially for marginalized youth. The systemic funneling of youth, primarily minorities, out of schools and into the criminal justice system is a serious issue in Utah schools, said Cambre Roberts, a U. law student who chairs the symposium.
In her interactive exchange with the participants, Van Antwerp noted how toddlers have yet to develop a range of expressive skills, so they resort to physical, shrieking tantrums to convey their discontent.
At the teenage stage, the part of the brain that controls emotion is hijacked developmentally, she added, governing the teen's behavior across the spectrum.
Research, she added, shows the prefrontal cortex — the chief executive officer portion of the brain that governs rational, cognitive thinking — doesn't develop until the mid-20s or later.
"Why does it matter? Because the United States locks up more children than any other country in the world," she said. "If we are going to change the school-to-prison pipeline, we need to understand where our children are developmentally. … We know more about the deep dark depths of the ocean than we know about our brain."
She said something is wrong when pre-schoolers are getting expelled from schools and police are handcuffing children as young as 5, 6 or 7.
"Our schools are turning into places where we criminalize children. We have school resource officers on campuses in the name of school safety, in the name of discipline."
Rather, the emphasis, she said, should be in creating a "school climate" in which teachers, police and other adults are properly schooled in understanding developmental behavior, instead of simply reacting to something they don't understand.
As an example, she pointed to her work with inner city community outreach centers in Los Angeles staffed by law enforcement officers told to go "connect" with the children.
She said they had "zero" training on child and adolescent development.
"Would you hand a civilian a gun and tell them to go down to the end of the street and enforce the law?"
Van Antwerp has spent more than 30 years developing educational and outreach programs for at-risk youth in schools, juvenile justice programs, emergency care centers and foster homes. She trains multiple professions on the front lines, including teachers and law enforcement officers.
She said society makes the mistake of trying to manage behavior rather than understanding it.
Managing behavior simply sets the stage for a fight, especially among teens, she noted.
The daylong symposium was sponsored by the Utah Minority Bar Association, the Associated Students of the University of Utah, Racially Just Utah, the S.J. Quinney School of Law, the University of Utah College of Social Work and Salt Lake County.