In March of this year, many of us watched in horror a nationally broadcast videotape of 5-year-old Ja’eisha Scott being handcuffed by police officers and tearfully taken away for throwing a temper tantrum at school. Far from being an anomaly, Ja’eisha, a kindergartener at Fairmount Park Elementary School in St. Petersburg, was yet another casualty of Florida’s policy of criminalizing children for an overly broad range of conduct at school.
Throughout Florida, children are being arrested and funneled into the criminal justice system for minor incidents at school. The entry of law enforcement into schools is visible at every turn: police officers, metal detectors, tasers, canines, drug sweeps, SWAT teams, biometric hand readers and surveillance cameras are as common as books in our schools today. Though many of these measures are implemented in the name of school safety, the reality is that a large number of the incidents now handled by police and a trip to jail are minor age appropriate behavior that could be — and were once — handled by a trip to the principal’s office or a call home to a parent. While a safe school environment is a necessity, many concerns about school safety are often misplaced.
Heavy media coverage of the rare instances of school violence has played into the public’s worst fears and prompted a law-and-order approach to dealing with children of all ages. But between 1992 and 2002, nationwide violent crimes at schools against students ages 12 to18 dropped by 50 percent. In addition, between 1994 and 2002, the youth arrest rate for violent crimes declined 47 percent nationally.
Just as schools are turning to law enforcement to remove “problem” students from the school environment, so too have schools increasingly utilized internal discipline methods that focus on isolation and removal. The use of suspensions and expulsions has reached staggering levels. Statewide, over 15 percent of Florida’s public school students were suspended during the 2003-2004 school year. In some school districts, the numbers are even more damning. In Pinellas County, for example, 1 in every 5.8 students received an out-of-school suspension during the same school year.
The harm posed by these policies cannot be overstated. Suspensions and expulsions take children away from their education and thrust them out into a world that they are ill prepared to navigate. Since many parents cannot take time off from work to stay home with their children, suspensions and expulsions actually lead to an increase in juvenile crime as these children spend their time unsupervised and hanging out with other children who are out of school.
Moreover, removing a child from school does nothing to address underlying causes of behavioral problems. Ironically, schools often turn to suspensions or arrest because they are not given the resources — experienced guidance counselors, after-school programs, and early intervention programs, to name just a few — to deal with the resulting behavioral issues in any other ways. Lest we are willing to sacrifice an entire generation of children to a life of crime and marginalization, we must find a way out of this vicious cycle.
In October, the Florida branches of the NAACP, Advancement Project and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund conducted public hearings throughout Florida to ignite a dialogue on the over-reliance on law enforcement and harsh disciplinary tactics by schools, and to encourage efforts toward reform. Students, parents, school staff, law enforcement, city and state officials, and community members were invited to participate.
The inappropriate mistreatment of Ja’eisha Scott is another painful wake-up call to the priorities and policies that have gone disastrously astray. Five-year-olds are not criminals. Schools need to handle the trivial, provide counseling to those who need it, coach youth in changed behaviors and only remove students from schools as a last resort. Our children need our help, not handcuffs.
Judith Browne is co-director of Advancement Project. Olga Akselrod is assistant counsel at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. This article is reprinted with permission from www.advancementproject.org.