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

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:

"While zero tolerance once required suspension or expulsion for a specified list of serious offenses, it is now an overarching approach toward discipline for potential weapons, imaginary weapons, perceived weapons, a smart mouth, headache medicine, tardiness, and spitballs." 

 Spitballs and LEGOs and Tantrums, Oh My! 

In December 2010, the Washington Post reports that 14-year-old Andrew Mikel “used a plastic tube to blow plastic pellets at fellow students in Spotsylvania High School” during lunch period. As a result, he was expelled for “possession and use of a weapon,” and school officials called a deputy sheriff who charged Mikel with three counts of misdemeanor assault. E-mails between school officials reveal that Mikel’s plastic spitball utensil was described as a projectile weapon "used to intimidate, threaten or harm others." Mikel is being home-schooled while his case is under appeal.  

Even elementary schools have been affected.  

Last February, 9-year-old Patrick Timoney, a fourth-grader at PS 52 in Staten Island, NY, faced suspension when he brought some of his Legos to school to show-off at lunch. His toys included a Lego policeman with a 2-inch plastic gun. Patrick was almost suspended in a highly publicized uproar due to the school’s zero-tolerance policy on toy guns.

In 2009, 6-year-old Zachary Christie faced the wrath of zero-tolerance when he brought his new Cub Scout camping utensil to lunch to show-off to his fellow first-graders. Due to the his school’s code of conduct, school officials were forced to suspend him because knives are strictly banned “regardless of possessor’s intent.” (The multi-use tool serves as a knife, fork and spoon.)  Zachary was ultimately suspended for violating the school’s zero-tolerance policy on weapons and “faced 45 days in the district’s reform school,” reports the New York Times.

“In Palm Beach, Florida, a 14-year-old disabled student was referred to police for allegedly stealing $2 from another student,” according to the American Bar Association (ABA). The boy was charged with “strong-armed robbery, and held for six weeks in an adult jail. When the local media criticized the prosecutor for filing adult felony charges, he responded, "depicting this forcible felony, this strong-arm robbery, in terms as though it were no more than a $2 shoplifting fosters and promotes violence in our schools."  The charges were ultimately dropped following the appearance of a 60 Minutes television crew at the child’s court hearing.

The ABA also details the story of a 12-year-old in Louisiana “who had been diagnosed with a hyperactive disorder warned the kids in the lunch line not to eat all the potatoes, or "I'm going to get you." The student, turned in by the lunch monitor, was suspended for two days. He was then referred to police by the principal, and the police charged the boy with making "terroristic threats." He was incarcerated for two weeks while awaiting trial.”

In 2007, 13-year-old Chelsea Fraser wrote "Okay" on her desk, so police arrested her along with four other middle-school students.  They were, handcuffed and paraded in front of their classmates before being taken by police van to a stationhouse, where they were shackled to a pole and interrogated for hours.

Three years later at Forest Hills Junior High School in Forest Hills, New York, 12-year-old Alexa Gonzalez was punished for doodling "I love my friends Abby and Faith. Lex was here 2/1/10 :)" on her desk. The NY Daily News reported that, the seventh-grader was “perp-walked out of the school in front of her classmates with her hands cuffed behind her back” and escorted to the police station where she was handcuffed to a pole for more than two hours.

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.”

The study revealed that “a student who was suspended or expelled for a discretionary violation was nearly three times as likely to be in contact with the juvenile justice system the following year.” Several studies have confirmed that the more time an expelled child spends away from school, the higher the chances that child will drop out and end up in criminal justice system, as Parker described.

According to Parker, public school disciplinary policies follow a pattern of discrimination, with African-American students and those with particular educational disabilities disproportionately likely to be pushed out of the classroom for disciplinary reasons. It has been well documented by organizations, such as the Campaign for Youth Justice, that “African-American youth are treated more harshly by the justice system than white youth, for the same offenses, at all stages of case processing.”  In 2003, the ACLU says that “African-American youth made up 16 percent of the nation’s overall juvenile population, but accounted for 45 percent of juvenile arrests.”

The ACLU also notes that “8.6 percent of public school children have been identified as having disabilities that impact their ability to learn,” but “a recent survey of correctional facilities found that students with disabilities are represented in jail at a rate nearly four times that.”

Parker addressed the negative economic costs of these policies:

“The school-to-prison pipeline, in addition to being supremely unfair, is an inefficient and irrational approach. You pay more to keep someone in jail and you lose the contributions they can make to society, so it would be better to spend the money up front to make sure that everyone got an actual education and stayed in school than it is to push them out and have them on the street and then later in jail.”

Better Alternatives

A PBS Frontline investigation documents numerous studies dating as far back as 1978 have alerted policymakers to the fact that “juveniles who receive harsher penalties when tried as adults are not "scared straight." Instead, after their release, they tend to reoffend sooner and more often than those treated in the juvenile system.” Similarly, “research suggests that the overuse of suspensions and expulsions may actually increase the likelihood of later criminal misconduct.”

In a 2008 report, the American Psychological Association reportedly found no evidence that zero-tolerance policies were effective at keeping schools safe. So why do schools continue to implement them?

When I posed this question to the ACLU's Dennis Parker, he answered:

“A lot of what’s been done has been a knee-jerk reaction and not necessarily one that’s research based or even based on any real experience. I think there’s a perception that schools are these really unsafe jungles when actually there’s less crime now than there was 20 years ago, and so people are responding again to that perception rather than reality.”

Parker suggested that the best way to combat these policies is by "educating school boards, school administrators, parents, anyone who’s involved in the schools with the fact that there are alternatives to assure safety that don’t have these negative educational results."

The ACLU's Racial Justice Program has been on the forefront of this issue, advocating that “schools eliminate zero-tolerance policies and instead adopt positive behavioral supports and other early interventions, which have been proven to improve the school climate.”

In June, the Washington Post reported that more and more schools around the nation are beginning to reexamine their zero-tolerance policies, reflecting a changing attitude "driven by high suspension rates, community pressure, legal action and research findings." 

Meanwhile, the Obama administration showed great interest in reforming the culture of zero-tolerance last month, when Attorney General Eric Holder and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan announced the launch of the Supportive School Discipline Initiative, a collaborative project between the Departments of Justice and Education that “will address the 'school-to-prison pipeline' and the disciplinary policies and practices that can push students out of school and into the justice system. The initiative aims to support good discipline practices to foster safe and productive learning environments in every classroom.”

While it remains to be seen whether or not the initiative will help dismantle the school-to-prison-pipeline, the ACLU believes it’s an important first step.  

EDITOR'S NOTE: This article has been corrected since its original publication for more accurate attribution to original sources.

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