(CITY JOURNAL) -- A new law in California bans the use, in official documents, of the term “at risk” to describe youth identified by social workers, teachers, or the courts as likely to drop out of school, join a gang, or go to jail. Los Angeles assemblyman Reginald B. Jones-Sawyer, who sponsored the legislation, explained that “words matter.” By designating children as “at risk,” he says, “we automatically put them in the school-to-prison pipeline. Many of them, when labeled that, are not able to exceed above that.”
The idea that the term “at risk” assigns outcomes, rather than describes unfortunate possibilities, grants social workers deterministic authority most would be surprised to learn they possess. Contrary to Jones-Sawyer’s characterization of “at risk” as consigning kids to roles as outcasts or losers, the term originated in the 1980s as a less harsh and stigmatizing substitute for “juvenile delinquent,” to describe vulnerable children who seemed to be on the wrong path. The idea of young people at “risk” of social failure buttressed the idea that government services and support could ameliorate or hedge these risks.