Human Rights

Arrested for Doodling on a Desk? "Zero Tolerance" at Schools Is Going Way Too Far

How much longer can we tolerate abuses of power by teachers and school officials in the name of 'zero tolerance' policies?

This week, the FBI announced it was launching an investigation into a surveillance scandal out of Lower Merion County, Pennsylvania, where it was recently discovered that school officials had used Web cams on school-issued laptops to spy on a student, 15-year-old Blake Robbins.

Robbins was falsely accused of possessing illicit drugs after the vice principal at his high school, Lindy Matskhis, called him into a meeting where she revealed that she had seen images of him at home through his laptop. According to Robbins' attorney, Mark Haltzman, "She called him into the office and told him, basically, 'I've been watching what was on the Web cam and saw what was in your hands. I've been reading what you've been typing, and I'm afraid you are involved in drugs and trying to sell pills.'"

Matskhis, it turned out, was grievously mistaken. What looked like pills turned out to be Mike and Ike candies.

Robbins' parents sued. Now the case has prompted a debate about student privacy and the threat of technological overreach.

The Robbins case may seem to be uniquely bad in some ways. But it comes at a time when there's no shortage of disturbing stories in the news about the intrusive and repressive measures taken by public schools against students, in districts across the country. Last year the Supreme Court finally ruled in favor of Savana Redding (now an adult, who, at the age of 13, was strip-searched by school staff in search of prescription ibuprofen); yet from violations of privacy to wrongful arrests by school "peace" officers, the story seems to be expanding.

On February 1, in Forest Hills, Queens, 12-year-old Alexa Gonzalez was arrested after she was caught doodling on her desk. Profanity? Threats against her teacher? No, the middle school student had written, with an erasable marker, "I love my friends Abby and Faith," along with "Lex was here. 2/1/10"  and a smiley face, according to theNew YorkDaily News.

This, apparently, was a criminal act in the eyes of her teacher. She called school security -- New York police officers -- who promptly cuffed her and hauled her across the street, to the local precinct,

"I started crying, like, a lot," Alexa told theDaily News. "I made two little doodles. It could be easily erased. To put handcuffs on me is unnecessary."

Nevertheless, in addition to being handcuffed and held at the police station, Alexa was also suspended and "assigned eight hours of community service, a book report and an essay on what she learned from the experience."

Alexa's suspension was eventually lifted. But she still missed three days in school, days she spent "throwing up," according to her mother, Moraima Tamacho.

Tamacho and her daughter have an attorney, who says they will sue the NYPD for violating Alexa's constitutional rights.

Punished for Refusing to Pledge Alliegance

Meanwhile, mere days before Alexa's arrest, in Montgomery Country, Maryland, a 13-year-old student at Roberto Clemente Middle School was escorted out of school by police after she refused to recite the Pledge of Allegiance two days in a row. According to the ACLU, which is representing the student (she remains anonymous), the trouble started on January 27, when the seventh grader "chose neither to stand nor to speak during the school s daily recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance."

"Instead, she sat quietly while students recited the Pledge."

Her teacher was not okay with this. He ordered her to stand up; when she refused, he threatened her with detention and sent her to the school counselor's office, where she spent the rest of the period.

The next day, the same conflict broke out. This time, the teacher called in a pair of "school resource officers" -- in-school Maryland police -- to take care of the situation.

The officers didn't arrest the student, escorting her to the counselor's office rather than a police station. Nonetheless, like Alexa Gonzalez, the experience of being marched out of class in front of her classmates proved harrowing.

"As these events occurred in front of the entire class, they caused her great embarrassment and humiliation," her ACLU lawyer wrote in a letter to the school on February 4. "Indeed, since these events, [the student] has been too humiliated to return to school, and has been advised by a psychologist that due to the distress she is experiencing, she should not return for an extended period."

While initially, the teacher and assistant principal refused to acknowledge the violation of the student's rights -- Assistant Principal James Richard countered that the student owed her teacher an apology for her "defiance" -- this week the Washington Post reported that the teacher will have to apologize to the student.

School spokesperson Dana Tofig told the Post that the teacher had violated school policy, which is based on Maryland law.

"The policy is very, very clearly stated," Tofig said. "Our teachers are expected to know the students' rights and responsibilities....A mistake has been made, and it will be rectified."

Zero Tolerance?

Like ongoing reports of students being tasered by police officers on school grounds, it is not uncommon to hear school administrators in the news expressing some regret at a disciplinary action gone too far. These episodes are treated as isolated incidents in an otherwise sound system. But a recent CNN report suggests that stories like these indicate a trend, with critics of "zero-tolerance" policies raising concerns that attempts to keep students disciplined and safe might be doing more harm than good.

"Critics say schools and police have gone too far, overreacting and using well-intended rules for incidents involving nonviolent offenses such as drawing on desks, writing on other school property or talking back to teachers," CNN reported.

"We are arresting them at younger and younger ages [in cases] that used to be covered with a trip to the principal's office, not sending children to jail," said Emma Jordan-Simpson, executive director of the Children's Defense Fund, a national children's advocacy group.

This would certainly apply in the Alexa Gonzalez case. How many more cases are out there like hers isn't entirely clear. (Reports CNN: "There aren't any national studies documenting how often minors become involved with police for nonviolent crimes in schools. Tracking the incidents depends on how individual schools keep records. Much of the information remains private, since it involves juveniles.") But in New York City alone, the problems stemming from an increased police presence in schools have been enough for the New York Civil Liberties Union to produce a number of reports with titles like "Criminalizing the Classroom: The Over-Policing of New York City Schools."

In 2007, the NYCLU produced an educational card for students called "Know Your Rights with Police in Schools." That was the year 13-year-old Chelsea Fraser was arrested for writing "okay" on her desk at a middle school in Dyker Heights, Brooklyn.

"It was really embarrassing because some of the kids, they talk, and they're going to label me as a bad kid. But I'm really not," Fraser told local media at the time. "I didn't know writing 'okay' would get me arrested."

Needless to say, Fraser's case bears an eerie similarity to the Gonzalez case. ("My daughter just wrote something on a desk. I would have her scrub it with Soft Scrub on a Saturday morning when she should be out playing, and maybe a day of in-house and a formal apology to the principal," her mother said.)

In a new report last year examining the consequences of giving the mayor's office more control over city schools, the NYCLU zeroed in on the problem of police officers in schools, writing: "The NYPD plays a unique and expansive role in the city s education system."

At the same time that the number of police personnel in the schools has increased to a whopping 5,200 agents, the ability of educators to oversee school safety and student discipline has decreased. Principals complain that they are unable to control the conduct of School Safety Agents and are limited in their ability to strike the right balance between school security and a supportive educational environment.

New York is not alone in trying to strike this balance. In (highly suburban) Montgomery County, Maryland, concerns over local gang activity have led to an influx of police officers in schools -- the same officers who assisted the teacher in denying his student the right to remain seated during the pledge of allegiance.

Local anti-gang tasks forces have recommended that the number of in-school police officers -- "Educational Facility Officers" or "School Resource Officers -- increase, "extending the program into all high schools and middle schools," according to one report.

It might seem logical given the real dangers posed by gangs to innocent school children. But as reports like the one out of Queens or Montgomery County prove, putting police officers in schools makes no rational sense if the officers -- or teachers emboldened by their presence -- cannot behave rationally.

"Increas(ing) police presence in school  exacerbate(s) the crisis of zero tolerance discipline," Manuel Criollo, a Los Angeles-based organizer with the Strategy Center "No to Pre-Prison" Campaign told AlterNet. 

"Reliance on law enforcement opens the door to criminalize student behavior," he said. "Therefore, issues such as fighting, truancy, and tardiness become crimes -- and of course students of color are more vulnerable to targeting and profiling."

In other words, putting police officers in schools creates a situation in schools that replicates the biases and problems that already exist in the criminal justice system more broadly -- with dubious public safety benefits.

As Chelsea Fraser's mother told told local media outlets after her daughter's arrest: "Here we have rapists, murderers, and you're taking a 13-year-old kid? Wasting valuable manpower to arrest a child who wrote on a desk?"

Liliana Segura is an AlterNet staff writer and editor of Rights & Liberties and World Special Coverage. Follow her on Twitter.
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