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8 Years In Prison for a Harmless Prank? Handcuffed for Doodling? The Increasing Criminalization of Students

Young people are being suspended, expelled and charged with criminal offenses for behavior as innocuous as doodling on a desk.

This article has been updated.

A few months back, 18-year-old Tyell Morton was enjoying his senior year at Rushville High in Indiana. Today, he faces the prospect of being labeled a felon for the rest of his life for a harmless senior prank.

Morton was  arrested for sneaking a blowup doll into a bathroom stall on the last day of school. He was caught by surveillance cameras that captured Tyell entering the bathroom with a package and leaving empty handed.  School officials responded by evacuating the premises and calling in the Indiana State bomb squad. Although “no one was injured, no property damaged and no dangerous materials found,” the ACLU says Morton, who had a clean record prior to the prank, is being  charged with disorderly conduct (a misdemeanor) and institutional criminal mischief (a class C felony), carrying the potential of two to eight years in prison.

Tyell Morton's case has received nationwide media attention and there is even a website called  Free Tyrell Morton . Unfortunately, his case is hardly the only one of its kind. The overzealous response to Morton's harmless, albeit immature senior prank, is just the most recent in a long string of over-the-top punishments visited upon American students. 

In Pearl, Mississippi, news reports say that “ Pearl High School's rivalry with Brandon High School  has lasted since 1949, until last year, when Pearl high’s brand new field house was defaced with big paw prints and the bright red letters B H S.  This prompted Brandon High officials to launch an investigation. The culprits, 17-year-olds Tyler Dearman and Adam Cook, were found and charged with felony malicious mischief.

Young people across America are being suspended, expelled and charged with criminal offenses for behavior as innocuous as doodling on a desk, skipping class, and in the case of Tyell Morton, participating in the well-established American tradition of "senior pranking."  Suspension and expulsion are poles apart from arrests and criminal charges, but all of these disciplinary measures stem from a zero-tolerance culture that promotes harsh punishment for common childhood mistakes. Why is this happening? 


In cases of violent or dangerous behavior, most everyone can agree that suspension or expulsion may be required for the safety of students and teachers. But the zero-tolerance culture that spread throughout the American school system following a string of highly publicized school shootings in the '90s has had unintended consequences. 

The rise of harsher discipline for student misconduct  paralleled the "tough on crime" rhetoric of the late 1980s and early 1990s, according to a study published by the Council of State Government Justice Center.  This was further exacerbated by hysteria among legislators about out-of-control youth, fueled in part by “frequent news stories of teachers and students being shot or killed in high school classrooms, hallways and cafeterias.”

Hysteria over school violence led to the  1994 Guns-Free Schools Act , which allocated extra funding to local schools that “could demonstrate that when a student brought a weapon to campus, he would be expelled for at least one year and referred to appropriate authorities in the justice system.” But, the study points out that policymakers went much further, calling for stricter punishment for any disruptive or dangerous actions. While specific policies differ from state to state and even school to school, “ by 1997 at least 79 percent  of schools nationwide had adopted zero-tolerance policies toward alcohol, drugs and violence.” (Zero-tolerance describes policies that automatically require severe discipline on students, regardless of individual circumstances.)

Curbing violence and drugs in school is a worthy goal, but the enforcement of zero-tolerance policies has often led to extreme punishments for benign behavior. The Advancement Project  describes it well:

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