United Police States of America: The Criminalization of Our Schools

Hundreds of schools across the US have their own police forces with uniformed officers maintaining order in cafeterias, playgrounds and classrooms. More and more students are finding themselves being placed under arrested for anything from throwing paper planes to cursing to leaving crumbs behind after eating lunch.

In 2010, police gave close to 300,000 “Class C misdemeanour” tickets to children as young as six in Texas for offences in and out of school, which result in fines, community service and even jail time. The number of school districts in the state with police departments has risen more than 20-fold over the past two decades.

Texas supreme court chief justice, Wallace Jefferson, has warned that “charging kids with criminal offences for low-level behavioural issues” is helping to drive many of them to a life in jail.

The Texas state legislature last year changed the law to stop the issuing of tickets to 10- and 11-year-olds over classroom behavior. In the state, the age of criminal responsibility is 10. But a broader bill to end the practice entirely failed to pass and cannot be considered again for another two years.

“It’s very much tied in with some of the hyperbole around the rise in juvenile crime rate that took place back in the early 90s,” said Deborah Fowler, deputy director of Texas Appleseed, an Austin legal rights group, and principal author of a 200-page study of the consequences of policing in Texas schools. “They ushered in tough, punitive policies. It was all part of the tough-on-crime movement.”

Part of that included the passing of laws that made the US the only developed country to lock up children as young as 13 for life without the possibility of parole, often as accomplices to murders committed by an adult.

“Zero tolerance started out as a term that was used in combating drug trafficking and it became a term that is now used widely when you’re referring to some very punitive school discipline measures. Those two policy worlds became conflated with each other,” said Fowler.

“What we see often is a real overreaction to behaviour that others would generally think of as just childish misbehaviour rather than law breaking,” Fowler also said. Tickets are most frequently issued by school police for “disruption of class”, which can mean causing problems during lessons but is also defined as disruptive behaviour within 500ft of school property such as shouting, which is classified as “making an unreasonable noise”.

Among the more extreme cases documented by Appleseed is of a teacher who had a pupil arrested after the child responded to a question as to where a word could be found in a text by saying: “In your culo (ass)”, making the other children laugh. Another student was arrested for throwing paper planes.

Students are also regularly fined for “disorderly behaviour”, which includes playground fights not serious enough to warrant an assault charge or for swearing or making an offensive gesture. One teenage student was arrested and sent to court in Houston after he and his girlfriend poured milk on each other after they broke up. Nearly one third of tickets involve drugs or alcohol. Although a relatively high number of tickets, up to 20% in some school districts, involve charges over the use of weapons, mostly the weapons used were fists.

Fines run up to $500. Some parents and students ignore the financial penalty, but that can have consequences years down the road. Schoolchildren with outstanding fines are regularly jailed in an adult prison for non-payment once they turn 17.

“Some of them are rough kids,” said Judge Jeanne Meurer . “I’ve been on the bench 30 years and you used to never have a child cuss you out like you do now. I appreciate the frustrations that adults have in dealing with children who seem to have no manners or respect. But these are our future. Shouldn’t we find a tool to change that dynamic versus just arresting them in school and coming down with the hard criminal justice hammer?”

Children with disabilities are particularly vulnerable to the consequences of police in schools. One case involved a boy with attention deficit disorder who as a 12-year-old knocked over a desk in class in a rage. He was charged with threatening behaviour and sent to a juvenile prison where he was required to earn his release by meeting certain educational and behavioral standards. He failed to meet that standard and is turning 18 within the juvenile justice system for something that happened when he was 12.

According to Austin police department’s records, officers used force in schools more than 400 times in the five years to 2008, including incidents in which pepper spray was used to break up a food fight and guns were drawn on lippy students.

In recent months the questionable use of force has included the tasering of a 16-year-old boy at a high school in Seguin, Texas, after “he refused to cooperate” when asked why he wasn’t wearing his school i.d. The police said that when an officer tried to arrest the boy, he used abusive language and attempted to bite the policeman. He was charged with resisting arrest and criminal trespass even though the school acknowledges he is a student and was legitimately on the grounds.

These incidents are not limited to Texas. In California, a school security officer broke the arm of a girl he was arresting for failing to clear up crumbs after dropping cake in the school cafeteria. In another incident, University of Florida campus police tasered a student for pressing Senator John Kerry with an awkward question at a debate after he had been told to shut up.

 

 

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