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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.

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In April 2005,  a 5-year-old girl  at a St. Petersburg, Florida kindergarten was “arrested, handcuffed and shackled by police officers, then confined to a police cruiser for three hours.” The Advancement Project explains that “her crime was not wielding a weapon or threatening to harm other children; she threw a temper tantrum,” and “school officials responded by calling the police.”

The Costs  

While these are just a handful of outrageous examples, they represent a more general trend. Overly strict enforcement of school rules has resulted in a significant nationwide increase of suspensions and expulsions over the past three decades. Just consider the overall increase in suspensions and expulsions from 1.7 million (3.7 percent of all students) in  1974 to more than 3.3 million (6.8 percent of all students) in  2006. Fewer than one in 10 were for violent offenses.

A recent analysis by the New York Civil Liberties Union revealed that in New York City “suspensions of 4- to 10-year-olds have  increased 76 percent  since 2003.”  Denver public schools  experienced a “71 percent rise  in the number of students referred to law enforcement between 2000 and 2004, most for behavior such as bullying and using obscenities.” And in 2003, Michelle Chen reported “ more than 8,000 students were arrested in Chicago public schools ” alone, “including four 7-year-olds. While black students represented about 50 percent of CPS pupils, “they made up more than 77 percent of arrests.”

Dennis Parker, director of the ACLU's  Racial Justice Program , told AlterNet that zero-tolerance is an "unthinking policy that doesn’t measure whether or not the child is truly a threat or whether the behavior that they’re being expelled for was really threatening. But because your discretion was constrained by the zero-tolerance policy you end up losing a kid that in some cases no one thinks you should lose."

These harsh school policies and practices combined with an increased role of law enforcement in schools create what's often referred to as the “ school-to-prison pipeline " or “ schoolhouse-to-jailhouse track ," where “suspensions, expulsions and school-based arrests are increasingly used to deal with student misbehavior, especially for minor incidents, and huge numbers of children and youth are pushed out of school and into the juvenile and criminal justice systems in the process.”

Parker described the cost of widespread suspension and expulsion as going far beyond the immediate punishment and severely impacting the student's future success: 

"There’s a strong correlation between the number of children who drop out of school and the later likelihood that they will be involved in the criminal justice system. One of the things that increases the chance of school dropout is you lose instruction time.
 A kid who’s expelled finds himself falling further and further behind. So those are the kids who are more likely to get in trouble or who are more likely to feel alienated about school to be involved. The kids who are most likely to be suspended and to be expelled are frequently the kids who most need both the educational time and the structure."

The study released last month by the  Council of State Governments Justice Center  examined nearly a million Texas children in 3,900 Texas schools and found that six in 10 public school students in Texas — the largest public school system in the country — were suspended or expelled at least once between seventh and 12th grade. Based on these statistics, it would appear as though Texas youth have a severe delinquency crisis. But this is clearly not the case since the study shows that a staggering “97 percent of disciplined students were punished for discretionary offenses, meaning violations of the school’s code of conduct or other relatively minor infractions like classroom disruption and insubordination.”

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