If we were all honest with ourselves, I am sure that we could recall a momentary lapse into delinquency at some point in our childhood, whether it was throwing a temper tantrum over a puzzle piece or being a smart alec to a teacher. These very same delinquencies today can now land a child in jail.
As a former educator in an inner-city school populated almost entirely by black students, I know too intimately the disheartening effects of this course of action on students. Children of color, particularly those with special needs, are disproportionately being funneled into detention centers and alternative schools—a practice known as the “School-to-Prison Pipeline.” I have witnessed first-hand my own student, in desperate need of social services, carted off in handcuffs for an offense that could have been avoided by a little care and concern from the administration. I have encountered ordinary teenagers whose lives were so consumed by the criminal justice system that they barely ever attended school and now boast reading levels so low that they are technically classified as mentally retarded. Once students are propelled down the pipeline, the effects are virtually irreversible—their contact with the criminal justice system brands them with a scarlet letter that creates barriers to re-entry into traditional schools, puts them behind their peers, and haunts them later in life as they may dropout, or be denied student loans, public housing, or occupational licenses.
Judge Steve Teske of Clayton County, GA, has been a vocal critic about the criminalization of children for minor school infractions, asserting that “[z]ero tolerance is zero intelligence.” While educators often feel impotent in the face of such a daunting struggle, it is refreshing and encouraging to see that the legal world, from litigators to the bench, has adopted the cause and is making strides to reform school discipline around the country. The Washington Post recently published a story about how Judge Steve Teske has used his influence to raise awareness of the “School-to-Prison-Pipeline.” In his days as a juvenile judge in Clayton County, Georgia, Judge Teske witnessed school-based offenses soar from 46 in 1995 to over 1,200 in 2003—95% of which were misdemeanors. This prompted him to meet with educators, law enforcement officers, social service and mental health counselors, parents, and students to encourage them to devise a new protocol for handling minor offenses. Between 2003 and 2010, Clayton County experienced a 70% decrease in school referrals to juvenile court.
The ACLU has also been instrumental in the School-to-Prison Pipeline reform efforts. Together, the ACLU and NYCLU are suing the City of New York on behalf of middle and high school students in NYC public schools, challenging the unconstitutional policies and practices of NYPD’s School Safety Division. Officers have been known to routinely and unlawfully arrest children for minor violations of school rules that do not amount to criminal activity, and to frequently detain these students off school grounds. Officers are also known to use excessive force against children—pushing, shoving, grabbing and striking them to the point that medical care or hospitalization is required.
Our country’s growing reliance on zero-tolerance has created a trend in public education to remove and exclude “difficult” children for single occurrences of what is often minor misconduct. This trend, however, really only detracts from the real, underlying issue, which is that many of these children are vulnerable or troubled and need help. School discipline should be about behavior modification and coping mechanisms. Arrest should be a last resort.