LEARNING DISABILITIES AND JUVENILE CRIME

FAILURE, FRUSTRATION, EMBARRASSMENT AND POOR CHOICES CAN LEAD SOME CHILDREN INTO DELINQUENCY, EXPERTS SAYTHE TEENAGER WHO ROBS a convenience store today may be the same kid who had trouble learning to read and write when he was 6. And that's probably not a coincidence.

According to some educators there is a direct connection between learning disabilities and juvenile delinquency.That doesn't mean that all juvenile delinquents have learning disabilities, or that all children with learning disabilities will grow up to have trouble with the law. But there seems to be a path toward delinquency that is paved with early failures.

A just-released report prepared by the Utah Youth Enhancement Association, in connection with the office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, quotes some troubling statistics.

According to the report, which in turn quotes the National Center for State Courts:

- Between 30 and 50 percent of all "officially adjudicated juvenile delinquents" nationally are learning disabled (LD).

- Young learning-disabled males appear before a judge more than twice as often as non-learning-disabled males.

- Adolescents handicapped by learning disabilities are "at high risk for delinquency."

The formula is very simple, says Dr. Mark G. Beals, assistant dean of the College of Education at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas: "Learning disabilities plus school failure plus social stress equals juvenile delinquency." Beals spoke last week at the second annual fall conference on children and youth sponsored by the Rivendell Children and Youth Center.

The signs pointing to a future of juvenile delinquency are sometimes there when a child is as young as 5 - when he first tries to fit into a school system that does not recognize that he learns differently than other children do, says Beals.

If learning to read becomes a daily frustration and embarrassment, the child may start daydreaming. Because he does well on I.Q. tests but won't "apply himself," he is labeled as lazy. By junior high, falling further and further behind, other labels have been pinned on: rebellious, insolent, truant. Finally, uncomfortable with school and his peers who do well there, he turns to other ways to show that he can do something. Like steal a car. Now he has another label: delinquent.

According to Gaylia Tanner, past president of the Utah Association for Children and Adults with Learning Disabilities, such youngsters are generally as smart as or smarter than the average student - but they need to learn "their way."

In Utah, "learning disability" is defined in part as "a severe discrepancy between ability and achievement." The evaluation is made by a multidisciplinary team and rules out such factors as mental retardation, impairments such as hearing problems, environmental disadvantages, family problems or behavioral disorders.

Learning disabilities can include difficulties with information absorption, memory, speech production and coordination. These students may have trouble reading but can learn by listening. They may have trouble listening but can learn visually.

Not as apparent as other handicaps, learning disabilities also include even more subtle deficiencies. "It's things that you can't see, too," notes Margaret Smith, special education teacher at the Utah Division of Youth Corrections observation and assessment center. "It's not being able to get a joke, not being able to control your temper, having poor judgment."

Learning disabilities not only affect how well a child understands math but how well he understands the rules of society - and the consequences of disobeying those rules.

"Tomorrow I'm going to a court hearing for an 18-year-old boy who is learning disabled," notes Dr. Betty Harrison, professor of educational psychology at Brigham Young University, in a recent interview. Harrison went on to outline the boy's problems, an outline that condenses years of frustration into a short list of poor choices.

The boy dropped out of school in the 10th grade. He abuses both alcohol and drugs. He recently stole his parents' credit cards and he was arrested for impulsively running into a neighbor's house with a loaded gun.

"This is an example of what happens to LD kids," says Harrison. "They drop out of school, start hanging around with other dropouts, and then things go from bad to worse."

Once they come to the attention of police officers - for loitering, perhaps -these teenagers often don't have the social skills it takes to get off the hook.

"They have a slow response time," explains Dr. Frances Wright, a resource teacher at Kaysville Junior High School and a private education consultant. "It might take a minute for them to register what an officer has said."

A year ago, Wright made a presentation to some of the state's police officers. She introduced them to the notion that students with learning disabilities may not be as naughty as they seem.

"Be careful about the speed you speak at," she told the officers. "Some of these kids don't process words rapidly. . . . And they may be carrying a drug such as Ritalin (used to treat attention deficit disorder) on their person. Don't jump to conclusions."

Once the learning-disabled kids get into the court system, there too their inability to process questions, directions or a judge's body language may mean a harsher sentence.

Although the connection between learning disabilities and juvenile delinquency has gained in popularity in recent years, there are still people who are skeptical.

There are two schools of thought about crime, notes Betty Davies, director of the diagnostic unit at the Utah State Prison. One school believes a person's actions are a result of choices. The other points to environmental factors, including handicaps such as learning disabilities.

"I suspect," says Davies, "that the answer is somewhere in the middle."