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Criminalizing childhood? Zero tolerance discipline roils schools from preschool onward
Schools are now where criminal records begin for many kids, a paradox that has many experts concerned, according to a new report in the Wall Street Journal and an NPR story presented by Ira Glass on "This American Life" this week. - photo by FCS CAFEINE, Studio Miles

Schools are now where criminal records begin for many kids, a paradox that has many experts concerned, according to a new report in the Wall Street Journal and an NPR story presented by Ira Glass on "This American Life" this week.

"Police, judges and civil-rights organizations all say schools are increasingly the way young people enter the justice system," WSJ notes. "Data provided by a handful of local courts and the federal government tell a similar story."

Zero-tolerance policies in schools first sprang up as a tool in the drug war, but after a handful of school shootings, they also became linked to efforts to prevent school violence. Before long, many large schools were hosting police officers full-time on campuses, and arrests and charges, often for seemingly minor offenses, began to climb.

"According to the U.S. Education Department’s Office of Civil Rights, 260,000 students were reported, or 'referred' in the official language, to law enforcement by schools in 2012, the most-recent available data," WSJ reports. "The survey also said 92,000 students were subject to school-related arrests. There are no earlier comparable numbers — the Education Department requested the data because it couldn’t find good national research on the topic."

The burden of these arrests falls disproportionately on minorities, especially African-American kids, and the grounds for arrest are often farcical. In one case the Journal details, a Florida girl did a science experiment without approval of her teacher, putting aluminium in a plastic bottle with a household cleaner, thinking to create a "volcano."

The bottle burst, shooting the cap skyward, "she was handcuffed by the school-resource office, escorted out of the Bartow, Fla., school and taken to a juvenile facility where she was charged with possessing or discharging firearms or weapons at school and making, throwing, possessing, projecting, placing or discharging a destructive device."

To be fair, the article also notes that crimes on school campuses, including violent offenses, have fallen significantly since 1995 when these policies came into play. On the other hand, violent crime generally has fallen over the same period, and there is no evidence that stringent campus enforcement policies account for the difference on campus.

The NPR report focuses on even younger children, detailing problems with kids as young as preschool not being arrested but being suspended.

The reporter interviewed a 4-year old named JJ who was suspended for acting up in preschool.

"Do you know what suspension is?" the reporter asked.

"I don't know."

"Have you heard the word before?" she pressed.


"And what does it mean," she asked.

"I forgot. But I do have Captain Damerica. He's the guy with the shield."

Relying in large part on a massive data set in Texas, NPR reported, there is strong evidence that African-American and Latino youths are expelled and otherwise disciplined way out of proportion to their share of the population. And more anecdotally, NPR added, many believe that white kids guilty of the same offenses are treated much more leniently.

This has led the U.S. Department of Education to pressure schools to rein in suspensions as a discipline tool, a move already producing results.

The reaction carries with it its own problems. As Ben Boychuck noted at the Sacramento Bee, one African-American mother with a child in West Athens School in Los Angeles was shocked to learn that the child who stabbed her 6-year old daughter in the face with a pencil faced no discipline at all.

The reason, Boychuck said, is that the school already had too many suspensions, and under pressure from the Department of Education had sidelined new suspensions.