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Fearing our children: criminalization of student behavior

On Behalf of | Nov 1, 2015 | Firm News

I just came across an incredible quote attributed to various people: “Everything you want is on the other side of fear.”  It is an incredible thought.  It reminded me of what Benjamin Franklin said when he spoke to the Pennsylvania Assembly: those who fear liberty to gain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.
It is with these thoughts in mind that I read the various stories in the media about Officer Fields, a white sheriff’s deputy assigned to Spring Valley High School in Columbia, who arrested a black teenage girl, that was caught texting in math class and refused to leave her seat.  According to The Post and Courier, the South’s oldest daily newspaper, Officer Fields is initially standing in front of her desk. She’s sitting in silence, her head propped up on one elbow.  “C’mon,” he says. “Let’s go.” Two seconds later, his arm is wrapped around her neck. Four seconds later, the back of her desk smacks the classroom floor.  Six seconds later, he’s dragged her by her knees and flipped her out of her chair. Her empty desk topples over. She’s rolled out of view.  “Hands behind your back!” he barks. “Gimme the hands. Gimme the hands. Gimme the hands.”  Andrew Knapp and Deanna Pan, “After Spring Valley High arrest, debate over role of law enforcement in schools reignites” The Post and Courier , Oct 31 2015,

I have to wonder if we have acted out of fear in placing more police officers (school resource officers or SROs) in schools.  SROs are typically accountable first to the police department and then to the school, which might pay part of an SRO’s salary or administrative costs.  Nonetheless, handbooks for recruiting and retaining SROs explain that an SRO can overrule a school administrator who wants to prevent the arrest of a student.  Peter Finn, A Guide to Developing, Maintaining, and Succeeding with your School Resource Officer, 2005. ceeding.pdf, p. 51.  See also, Cathy Girouard, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, U.S. Dept. Of Justice, OJJDP Fact Sheet: School Resource Officer Training Program (2001),

Do we really want to transform “class clowns” into criminals by convicting them of disorderly conduct?  Growing up we always used to call school prisons. But now schools really are prisons with locked doors, metal detectors, camera surveillance, drug tests while going to sporting events, and greater police presence.  It seems we are acting out of fear without knowing the evidence.  Statistically, school crime nationally is declining, is relatively rare, and is usually nonviolent. Miller, J. M., Gibson, C., Ventura, H. E., & Schreck, C. J. Reaffirming the significance of context: The Charlotte School Safety Program. Journal of Criminal Justice, 33, 477−485 (2005),; Dohrn, B. (2001). “Look out kid/It’s something you did”: Zero tolerance for children. In W. Ayers, B. Dohrn, & R. Ayers (Eds.), Zero tolerance: Resisting the drive for punishment in our schools (New York: The New Press) pp. 89−113.  The number of violent non-fatal victimizations against students ages 12-18 dropped 71 percent between 1992 and 2010, from a total of 1,240,200 in 1992 to 358,600 in 2010. This corresponds with national trends of fewer crimes across the board. Rates of violent victimizations at school and outside school dropped 74 percent and 85 percent, respectively, between 1992 and 2010.  U.S. Department of Education and Bureau of Justice Statistics, Indicators of School Crime and Safety: 2011 (February 2012),

Nonetheless, those who advocate police officers in school arresting students might suggest that “things are different here.”  They point to the increased number of school based arrests as proof that police officers are needed in schools.  One must understand the tautological nature of using proactive arrest numbers.  To the extent that police arrest students more frequently based on the fear that students will commit crimes, in turn, generate statistics that confirm higher crime rates among students, which in turn, reinforce the underpinnings of the very fear that gave rise to the initial arrests.  In short, police officers may be subjecting students to heightened scrutiny and more probing investigative tactics that lead to more arrests that are then used to justify those same tactics.  This insidious cycle has served to create an ever-widing gap in the perception of fairness that students have about law enforcement and the criminal justice system.

This is not to say that there is not violence in schools.  But in responding to this problem we should be guided not by fear but by evidence.  Police officers should be used for what they are trained:  law enforcement.  School safety can be addressed without on-site SROs.  The role of counselors and mentors can be better filled by people primarily trained in these areas.  Wisconsin needs to stop its current war against public education and remember that investing in education improves achievement and promotes safer schools. Ways to do that include increased hiring of quality teachers, staff, counselors, and other positive role models; building safe, clean schools; and providing training and supports for teachers and staff related to behavior management.  Schools should have a concise, clear policy on when an arrest of a student is appropriate.  Jurisdictions like Clayton County, GA and Jefferson County, AL have created plans to limit the referrals to the juvenile justice system, suspensions and expulsions by establishing a rubric and system for meting out discipline.