Arrested development: The criminalization of America’s schoolchildren

By JOHN W. WHITEHEAD – Guest Columnist

For those hoping to better understand how and why we arrived at this dismal point in our nation’s history, where individual freedoms, privacy and human dignity have been sacrificed to the gods of security, expediency and corpocracy, look no farther than America’s public schools.

Once looked to as the starting place for imparting principles of freedom and democracy to future generations, America’s classrooms are becoming little more than breeding grounds for compliant citizens of the police state. In fact, as director Cevin Soling documents in his insightful, award-winning documentary "The War on Kids," which recently aired on the Documentary Channel, the moment young people walk into school, they increasingly find themselves under constant surveillance. They are photographed, fingerprinted, scanned, x-rayed, sniffed and snooped on. Between metal detectors at the entrances, drug-sniffing dogs in the hallways and surveillance cameras in the classrooms and elsewhere, many of America’s schools look more like prisons than learning facilities.

Add to this the epidemic of arresting schoolchildren and treating them as if they are dangerous criminals, and you have the makings of a perfect citizenry for the Orwellian society – one that can be easily cowed, controlled, and directed. Indeed, what once was looked upon as classically childish behavior such as getting into food fights, playing tag, doodling, hugging, kicking and throwing temper tantrums is now being criminalized.

Whereas in the past minor behavioral infractions at school such as shooting spitwads may have warranted a trip to the principal’s office, in-school detention or a phone call to one’s parents, today, they are elevated to the level of criminal behavior with all that implies. Consequently, young people are now being forcibly removed by police officers from the classroom, arrested, handcuffed, transported in the back of police squad cars, and placed in police holding cells until their frantic parents can get them out. For those unlucky enough to be targeted for such punishment, the experience will stay with them long after they are allowed back at school. In fact, it will stay with them for the rest of their lives in the form of a criminal record.

For example, in November 2011, a 14-year-old student in Brevard County, Fla., was suspended for hugging a female friend, an act that even the principal acknowledged as innocent. A 9-year-old in Charlotte, N.C., was suspended for sexual harassment after a substitute teacher overheard the child tell another student that the teacher was "cute." A 6-year-old in Georgia was arrested, handcuffed and suspended for the remainder of the school year after throwing a temper tantrum in class. A 6-year-old boy in San Francisco was accused of sexual assault following a game of tag on the playground. A 6-year-old in Indiana was arrested, handcuffed and charged with battery after kicking a school principal.

Twelve-year-old Alexa Gonzalez was arrested and handcuffed for doodling on a desk. Another student was expelled for speaking on a cell phone with his mother, to whom he hadn’t spoken in a month because she was in Iraq on a military deployment. Four high school students in Detroit were arrested and handcuffed for participating in a food fight and charged with a misdemeanor with the potential for a 90-day jail sentence and a $500 fine. A high school student in Indiana was expelled after sending a profanity-laced tweet through his Twitter account after school hours. The school had been conducting their own surveillance by tracking the tweeting habits of all students.

These are not isolated incidents. In 2010, some 300,000 Texas schoolchildren received misdemeanor tickets from police officials. One 12-year-old Texas girl had the police called on her after she sprayed perfume on herself during class. In Albuquerque, N.M., more than 90,000 kids were entered into the criminal justice system during the 2009-2010 school year, and over 500 of those were arrested at school.

It is hard to believe that such things – children being handcuffed and carted off to jail for minor incidents – could take place in a so-called "free" country. However, since the introduction of police, high-tech surveillance systems and zero tolerance policies into the schools, this is the reality with which nearly 50 million students in America’s elementary and secondary public schools must contend. Many of these "say no to drugs/say no to violence"-type policies gained favor after the Columbine school shootings in 1999 and have continued to be adopted by school districts across the country, even in the wake of research indicating that zero tolerance neither makes schools safer nor discourages violence.

"Ironically, the [Columbine] tragedy occurred as rates of school violence in general and shootings in particular were declining," writes author Annette Fuentes in "Lockdown High."

Zero tolerance policies, the driving force behind the criminalization of schoolchildren, punish all offenses severely – no matter how minor. Disproportionately levied against minority students and students with emotional and behavioral disabilities, these one-size-fits-all disciplinary procedures mandate suspension or expulsion for students who violate the rules, regardless of the student’s intent or the nature of the violation. School systems began adopting these tough codes after Congress passed the 1994 Gun-Free Schools Act, which required a one-year expulsion for any child bringing a firearm or bomb to school.

Zero tolerance rules in many states also cover fighting, drug or alcohol use and gang activity, as well as relatively minor offenses such as possessing over-the-counter medications and disrespect of authority. Nearly all American public schools have zero tolerance policies for firearms or other "weapons," and most have such policies for drugs and alcohol. In the wake of the Columbine school shootings, legislators and school boards further tightened their zero tolerance policies, creating what some critics call a national intolerance for childish behavior. As a result, these policies are now interpreted so broadly as to crack down on spit wads, Tweetie Bird key chains and Certs breath mints – all of which constitute contraband of one kind or another. In some jurisdictions, carrying cough drops, wearing black lipstick or dying your hair blue are expellable offenses.

Unfortunately, while expulsion and suspension used to be the worst punishment to be rendered against a child who had run afoul of the system, school officials upped the ante by bringing the police into the picture. As Judith Browne, co-director of the Advancement Project, notes, "Media hysteria really created this groundswell of support for zero tolerance and folks being scared that it could happen at their school. Now, we have police officers in every school. He’s not there to be law enforcement. He’s there to lock up kids."

To return to what I was saying about schools being breeding grounds for compliant citizens, if Americans have come to view freedom as expedient and expendable, it is only because that’s what they’ve been taught in the schools, by government leaders and by the corporations who run the show. More and more Americans are finding themselves institutionalized from cradle to grave, from government-run daycares and public schools to nursing homes. In between, they are fed a constant, mind-numbing diet of pablum consisting of entertainment news, mediocre leadership, and technological gadgetry, that keeps them sated and distracted and unwilling to challenge the status quo. All the while, in the name of the greater good and in exchange for the phantom promise of security, the government strips away our rights one by one – monitoring our conversations, chilling our expression, searching our bodies and our possessions, doing away with our due process rights, reversing the burden of proof and rendering us suspects in a surveillance state, and on and on.

Whether or not the powers-that-be, by their actions, are consciously attempting to create a compliant citizenry, the result is the same nevertheless for young and old alike. As journalist Hunter S. Thompson observed in "Kingdom of Fear: Loathsome Secrets of a Star-crossed Child in the Final Days of the American Century:"

"Coming of age in a fascist police state will not be a barrel of fun for anybody, much less for people like me, who are not inclined to suffer Nazis gladly and feel only contempt for the cowardly flag-suckers who would gladly give up their outdated freedom to live for the mess of pottage they have been conned into believing will be freedom from fear. Ho ho ho. Let’s not get carried away here. Freedom was yesterday in this country. Its value has been discounted. The only freedom we truly crave today is freedom from Dumbness. Nothing else matters."

John Whitehead is an attorney and founder and president of The Rutherford Institute.

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