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Arresting a Teen Girl for Dozing Off in Class? Why Normal Kid Behavior Is Treated As a Crime or Psychiatric Disorder

What happened to kids being kids?


Brianna Pena, a 5-year-old, was told she could not return to her kindergarten classroom at her Bronx, NY, charter school until she was “psychiatrically cleared” to return by a medical professional.  It was her first day at a new school.  She didn’t know anyone and repeatedly cried, “Nobody cares about me!” School officials insist that Brianna kept “yelling and throwing chairs” during the incident.  Administrators placed her on a list of so-called  “psychiatric suspensions.”

In Bartow, FL, Kiera Wilmot, a 16-year-old student was expelled from Bartow High School and arrested for conducting an unapproved chemistry experiment.  She combined some household chemicals in an 8-ounce water bottle and the top popped off, giving off a small explosion.  According to the school principal, Ron Pritchard, "she made a bad choice. ... She wanted to see what would happen [when the chemicals mixed] and was shocked by what it did.”  She was charged with possession of and discharging a weapon on  school property.

Brianna’s and Kiera are but two examples of the growing “discipline” crisis besetting schools throughout the country.  School administrators are resorting to an increasing number of questionable tactics to address problems associated with the breakdown of the classroom as a learning environment.  These include the use of local EMS workers to remove pre-teen children as well as such high-tech methods as RFID tracking and CCTV video surveillance.  An increasing number of officials are resorting to aggressive in-school policing, with on-campus uniformed and armed officers ticketing and arresting more and more kids.  All to contain “disruptive” students often engaged in what was once considered bad behavior  but is now criminalized conduct. 

Reports that American education is in crisis appear in the media almost every day. From Pres. Obama to mayors across the country, everyone complains about the country’s supposedly failing education system.  Each promises to fix the problem – and it only seems to be getting worse.  Yet, efforts to police schools reflect the further shifting of education spending from the classroom to the administrative apparatus of control.  

A major contributing factor to this crisis is the failed “zero tolerance” discipline program promoted by the Bush administration and still in force in school systems throughout the country.  Like its abstinence-only sex ed program, Bush policies made a serious issue worse.  The effort to enforce classroom discipline through the expulsion and punishment of students is an example of the moral absolutism propagated during much of the last few decades. It further extends the “school-to-prison pipeline” by aggressively incarcerating ever-younger children, particularly African-American and Hispanic youth.


Some cities, like New York, are increasingly turning to costly emergency medical services to restrain students. Cashmiere Turner, a 7th grader at New York’s Intermediate School 151 in the Bronx, struggled both academically and socially in the classroom.  Her mother, Sonya, repeatedly sought school administrators’ help with her daughter’s learning problems and the bullying she faced, but was ignored.  In October 2011, school officials claimed that the troubled teen acted out, attempting to harm herself.  They contacted Cashmiere’s mother, who rushed to the school only to find that the officials had also contacted the local EMS.  Refusing to let Ms. Turner take her daughter home, EMS workers and police officers brought her to a local hospital that found her neither a threat to herself nor others.  She was released, but not before the hospital billed her mother an estimated $1,300 for services rendered.

The city’s Board of Education (BOE) reports that during 2010-2011 school year, EMS was called 947 times to handle disruptive or dangerous kids; this is up 12 percent from the previous year.  Nelson Mar, an attorney with Legal Services NYC-Bronx, represented both Brianna Pena and Cashmiere Turner, warns, “minor children are removed by EMS for childhood behavior or misbehavior which does not rise to the level of a medical emergency.”  He points out that at one Bronx hospital, there were 58 EMS calls from schools during a 10-day period in February 2011. Most troubling, doctors and psychologists found that only 3 percent of the kids brought to an Emergency Room were admitted to the hospital.

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