Criminalizing Students Cripples Their Future and Lines the Pockets of the Corrections Industry


As someone who has worked with youth who have disabilities as part of my career, I was particularly disturbed when I recently came upon the story of a young high school student with Asperger’s syndrome who had been hounded and manipulated by someone he thought was his friend into buying this “friend” marijuana. Youth with disabilities often struggle to make friends. They’re subjected to the taunts of bullies much more often than they are extended the invitation of cliques to join them in the high stakes social gauntlet that is high school. What this article described were the machinations of an undercover cop who basically practiced the timeless art of bullying as he clearly went about his entrapment of his “friend.” Having myself been extended a false invitation to hang out with the “cool crowd” during my awkward youth, only to find it was a trick, I know the sting of being duped by someone who pretends to be your friend. This police officer did the same. At least when I woke up the next day, all I had were bad memories. This child with an autism spectrum disorder had a criminal charge to face. Righteously, his parents are filing suit against the school district for allowing their son to be targeted in his vulnerable position, for attempting to punish him even after a judge more or less let him off, and for the subsequent bullying the boy received from classmates as a result of the whole incident.

The story illustrates two major issues facing our leaders and policy-makers. First, the failed and out-of-control War on Drugs has become so pernicious, its warriors feel the need to ensnare disabled high school kids. There are hundreds of thousands of untested rape kits, but we’re spending our criminal justice dollars on undercover cops ferreting out and entrapping teens? When will our country finally say enough is enough, and end this costly and futile War?

Then, another equally disturbing issue is raised. Why are we criminalizing our youth? The now ubiquitous phrase, “school-to-prison pipeline,” has become part of our lexicon for a reason. Texas is assuring that transition for youth by electronically linking their school records to the criminal courts, so youth who miss school can be immediately prosecuted. Across the country, in story after story, we hear about children, some as young as five, being taken to jail or juvenile detention for misbehavior; misbehavior that in previous decades would have warranted the traditional detention.  Previous victims of the criminalization of students tell stories of being interrogated mercilessly, never being given access to their parents, an attorney, or even being read their rights. There is evidence that schools have very little concern for students’ rights.

Students are punished or even arrested for having too many absences, putting perfume on in class, not following the dress code, not carrying their ID, doodling on their desk, texting on school grounds, etc., with suspensions up to two weeks or even misdemeanor charges sending them to court. Alarmingly, being suspended just once in ninth grade doubles your chances of dropping out of high school (.pdf). Two suspensions and you have a 42% chance of dropping out. With three, there’s about a 50/50 chance, you’ll finish high school. And what of students who are sent to juvenile detention? New research has demonstrated that such facilities themselves are the cause of additional criminal behavior in youth. Economists Anna Aizer and Joseph J. Doyle, Jr. compared Chicago youth who went before judges who opted for juvenile detention more frequently versus those who received more lenient punishments (e.g. home monitoring or community service). Despite having similar profiles in terms of background and offenses, the youth sentenced to detention were 13% less likely to graduate high school and 22% more likely to end up in prison as adults.

Concerned teachers and administrators trace this trend back to the advent of “zero tolerance” policies, originally intended to apply to bringing guns and weapons to school, and now applied to every imaginable offense, including the most petty (.pdf). By no means is the impact racially neutral either. In the 2009-2010 school year, you had a one in fourteen chance of being suspended if you were a white child. If you were a black child, those odds go up to one in four. If you were a disabled child, your odds of suspension were one in five. You can just imagine how likely you would be to end up suspended if you were a black, disabled child. Though he wasn’t in school at the time, the case of Tremaine McMillian, the 14-year old boy, who allegedly gave police officers a “dehumanizing stare,” and thus apparently deserved to be put in a chokehold, demonstrates that African American children in particular are viewed as threatening and criminal.

All of this criminalization of children and youth has led some enlightened teachers/administrators, parents, and now young people, to protest. Members of Detroit Youth Voice, an activist group for the young, protested the school-to-prison pipeline a few months ago by taking their message to the streets and asking the Detroit Public School system to revisit their zero tolerance policies. And they have the backing of the State Board of Education which issued a memorandum stating,

“Researchers have found no evidence that zero tolerance policies make schools safer or improve student behavior. In fact, studies suggest that the overuse of suspensions and expulsions may actually increase the likelihood of later criminal misconduct…Many students who have been suspended or expelled have no alternative opportunities for learning or other productive activities. When students are repeatedly suspended, they are at substantially greater risk of leaving school altogether, and current rates of expulsion and suspension in Michigan public schools are unacceptably high…The Board strongly urges Michigan school districts to take the following action: Review existing zero tolerance policies that are above and beyond those required in law, and limit the number of offenses mandating suspension and referral to law enforcement to those directly related to the safety of students and school personnel. Removing a child from an educational opportunity should be reserved for the most serious infractions, and not used as a means of discipline for minor occurrences…”

It remains to be seen how school districts respond to the Board of Education’s recommendations. Of course, this is evidence of progress in one state. There are still many, many more in drastic need of reform. There is also plenty of room for concern about the trend across the country to close schools in low-income, predominantly minority communities where educational resources are most needed. For example, Philadelphia has just decided to close 23 of its public schools to save money due to budget shortfalls. The irony: they are spending $400 million to build a “state of the art” prison.

Last year, I wrote about the rise of the private prison industry and the dangers of providing perverse incentives to lock people up. One would hope that private companies are not already behind the scenes lobbying for zero tolerance policies or other sorts of school policy that facilitate a school-to-prison pipeline, but it wouldn’t be too cynical to ponder the possibility. These companies not only house a high percentage of federal/state prisoners and INS-detained undocumented immigrants, they also operate many juvenile detention centers (e.g. all of Florida’s). They are likely eager to see 5 yr. old girls get 10-day suspensions from school for “making terrorist threats” with their Hello Kitty bubble-making “gun” or 6 yr. olds get arrested for having a temper tantrum. After all, the evidence suggests these kids stand a higher chance of being future inmates once they become criminalized, they prematurely leave school, and their life options are circumscribed.  If we don’t want to just fill their cells and their coffers, it is past time to end the criminalization of children.

Deborah Foster

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