Fourteen-year-old Ricky was arrested by school police one Halloween and charged with a second-degree felony: “throwing a deadly missile.” While this sounds serious, Ricky’s “deadly missile” wasn’t made with dynamite or biotoxins, nor did it contain gunpowder or dangerous chemicals. That Halloween, instead of trick-or-treating with friends, Ricky found himself cuffed, read his rights, and led away for carrying an egg in his pocket. That Halloween the real trick was that school officials were ready to transform a moment of juvenile mischief into a felony conviction that could haunt Ricky for the rest of his life. Ricky had just been derailed from the schoolhouse to the jailhouse.
Ricky’s story is not unique.
In Palm Beach County, Fla., a six year-old student was arrested for trespassing on school property while walking through the school yard on his way home. In Indianola, Miss., elementary school students have been arrested and taken to the local jail for talking during assembly. In New Hampshire, a young student was charged for simply pushing a peer in the schoolyard.
This rigid, unthinking approach has reached the point of being ludicrous. Students are being arrested and placed in the juvenile justice system for misbehavior that previously would have merited nothing more than a reprimand, detention or, at most, a suspension.
Advancement Project, a policy and legal action organization, recently released “Derailed: The Schoolhouse to Jailhouse Track,” a first-of-its-kind report that looks at how zero-tolerance policies are derailing students from an academic track into the juvenile justice system.
The report documents dramatic increases in student arrests from across the country. For example, there was a 300 percent jump in student arrests between 1999 and 2001 in Miami-Dade Public Schools. In other districts, the numbers of arrests were staggering as well. In 2001, arrests in the Houston Independent School District and Baltimore City Public Schools totaled 1,959 and 845, respectively. In Palm Beach County, Fla., school police made 1,287 arrests and there were 1,895 student arrests in Philadelphia during the 2001 school year. A majority of these arrests were for disorderly conduct, schoolyard scuffles and acts so petty that they are categorized as “miscellaneous.”
This rush to punish and incarcerate youth for trivial acts is the result of a spike in juvenile crime during the 1980s and mid-90s and highly publicized incidents which led to the “superpredator” theory. This theory suggested that our country faced the emergence of a generation of young, remorseless killers. Lawmakers responded fiercely, instituting “zero tolerance” policies in the educational realm and making draconian changes to juvenile criminal law, including creating broad definitions of what constitutes criminal behavior. Policies that were ill-conceived from the outset have become a fixture in our schools and in the juvenile justice system.
The truth is – juvenile violence and school violence, in particular, are on the decline. Yet, society has labeled and mistreated this generation of youth at great expense.
The criminalization of children by their schools can leave them with no education and no future. Students face the emotional trauma, embarrassment and stigma of being handcuffed and taken away from school, and later face a number of consequences such as strict, “no-slip-up” probation and juvenile detention facilities. Once released, students are often excluded from their schools or are re-admitted to face the same staff that participated in the original prosecution of the student. Many never return to school. Once in the system and saddled with a criminal record, they rarely escape with their dignity and future intact.
Students who engage in truly criminal behavior such as murder, serious violence, or the sale or possession of illicit drugs, should be subjected to criminal charges – as they were even before zero tolerance became the watchword. However, students should not be subject to the serious consequences that are sometimes engendered by nonsensical practices by school officials.
Zero tolerance and its outgrowth – overzealous arrests of students for minor conduct – are a cure in search of a disease. Schools were, and remain today, the safest places for children. The unnecessary, often ridiculous, criminalization of students is a runaway train that the Bush administration’s “No Child Left Behind” policy fails to stop. Ultimately, derailing children from an academic track to a prison track creates a lose-lose situation for us all.
Judith Browne is senior attorney with the Advancement Project, www.advancementproject.org. This article is reprinted, with permission, from the project’s web site.