Civil Liberties

10 Most Absurd Reasons We've Arrested Small Children

From throwing Tootsie Rolls to burping, small children have been arrested for totally normal misbehavior.

At this point, it's hard to be surprised by the extreme punitiveness of America's criminal justice system. One thing that can still shock, though, is how police manhandle actual children. Not only is treatment of children severe (police in Arizona recently mulled over the possibility of charging an 8-year-old as an adult), but our system is undiscerning; we can, and do, arrest kids for virtually anything, including completely normal childhood misbehavior. In fact, many youth, particularly people of color from low-income households, come into contact with their first handcuffs in school. Here are some of the stranger examples of this depressingly American practice. 

1. Hustling ibuprofen. In 2010, an 11-year-old girl in Georgia was arrested for carrying ibuprofen to school. Her mother, who had given her the medication for menstrual cramps, was also arrested for giving the meds to her daughter. Georgia law classifies ibuprofen as a dangerous drug if it's over 200 milligrams; the girl's pills were 800. But it's possible her principal was just looking for an excuse to arrest her, considering he found the bottle while searching her purse for a knife.

2. Criminal burping. Albuquerque police aren't known for their cool-headedness, and predictably overreacted—along with school staff—when one 13-year-old “audibly burped” in gym class. Police transported the boy to a juvenile detention center without notifying his parents, where he was given a risk assessment test on which he scored a 2 (with 10 being the highest on the scale). In a separate incident at the school, another student was forced to strip naked in front of five administrators when they discovered he was carrying $200 in cash and suspected him of selling cannabis.  

3. Drawing while bored. Desks in school are a perfect canvas to doodle your way out of boredom. But one 12-year-old in a New York City middle school ended up in cuffs after writing provocative things on her desk like, “Lex was here,” “I love my friends Abby and Faith,” and a smiley face. The girl was taken to a police station and held for several hours until she was released. She had to perform eight hours of community service and write an essay on what she learned from the experience.

4. DARE-ing to question. Drug education in many schools has not changed much since the Reagan era, which is to say, it's still ineffective and roundly mocked by 10-year-olds. One kid in Kansas, however, found out that there are real consequences for questioning his school's anti-pot wisdom. During a drug lecture in class, the 11-year-old son of cannabis activist Shona Banda took issue with some of the points made by the counselors, who called the police on him. After they arrested and detained him, they raided Banda's home. She now fears she may lose custody of her son.

5. Kicking a trashcan. The Center for Public Integrity recently investigated the case of Kayleb Moon-Robinson, an autistic sixth-grader who was convicted of felony assault on a police officer after the cop tried wrestling him into submission. Kayleb had been asked to stay in class while his classmates filed out of the room—punishment for an earlier infraction he committed, kicking a trashcan. The Center's investigation also found that the definition of “disorderly conduct” is loose enough that police officers in Virginia are filing a record number of complaints. In another egregious case, a 12-year-old girl was charged with “obstruction of justice” when she clenched her fist at a school resource officer who had just intervened in a fight.

6. “Hacking.” After eighth-grader Domanik Green figured out his teacher's computer password (the teacher's last name), Green changed the teacher's computer desktop background to two men kissing. To the school, this was a malicious “hack into his school's secure computer network,” and Green was charged with “an offense against a computer system and unauthorized access, a felony,” according to the Tampa Bay Times.

7. Standing while black. Three high school athletes in Rochester, NY were waiting for a bus when a cop arrested them for essentially standing while black. The officer later described in a report how the students criminally “Block[ed] pedestrian traffic while standing on a public sidewalk [and] prevent[ed] free passage of citizens walking by and attempting to enter and exit a store.” When their coach, who had arranged for a bus to pick them up, arrived to mediate the situation, he was nearly arrested as well, and several more officers were called to needlessly escalate the situation.

8. Candy assault. A seventh-grader in Florida was charged with misdemeanor battery when he struck his friend in the head...with a Tootsie Roll. The charge was dismissed, but an arrest for “criminal battery” will stay on his record forever. The anecdote was reported as part of an NPR project that revealed many counties in Florida classify upwards of 100% of classroom arrests as misdemeanors. These arrests can be prompted by infractions as vague as “disorderly conduct,” which includes talking back to a teacher and being disrespectful.

9. Spitting. A Google search of students arrested for spitting yields thousands of results. In one particularly bizarre case out of Chula Vista, CA, a 12-year-old was expelled and charged with battery after his spit found its way from a school bus window to the sunroof of the car driving behind the school bus. When the spit landed inside the car, the driver was so upset he followed the bus and pressed criminal charges against the boy. The acting police captain of the Chula Vista police department later agreed that the offense was indeed battery. “I don’t think it’s excessive,” he told UT San Diego.

10. Throwing nuts. School arrests were common enough in Mississippi for the ACLU to issue a report about the practice in the state. The report found that in 2000, five students were charged with felony assault after they threw peanuts at each other on a bus and one accidentally struck the driver. The report also notes that farting and untucking one's shirt resulted in “automatic incarceration” for students who were on juvenile probation. Arrestable flatulence does not only occur in Mississippi: A 13-year-old was arrested for passing gas a few years ago in Florida.

Aaron Cantú is an investigator for the Marijuana Arrest Research Project and an independent journalist based in Brooklyn. Follow him on Twitter @aaronmiguel_