Strip-Searching Kids? 6 Shocking Ways Our Schools Treat Students Like Criminals

Too many of America's public schools have become pipelines to incarceration. Instances of nonviolent youth treated like criminals -- strip-searched or shackled for the most minor infractions -- shed light on a problem so widespread that every example would be impossible to document.  

This summer alone, from June to September, NYPD school safety officers arrested more than one student per day, and gave summonses to at least three kids daily. According to New York Civil Liberties Union data, about 94 percent of students arrested were black or Latino, and almost 83 percent were male. Most of the summonses were issued for disorderly conduct, and riding a bike on the sidewalk was the second most common. While these charges are minor, if a student fails to show up to court, he or she will be issued a warrant for arrest.

Deborah Vagins, senior legislative counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union, told AlterNet that there are many factors that can contribute to the school-to-prison pipeline, including an increase in school resource officers, who are essentially police in schools, now more frequently handling student misconduct. She added that “Teachers may also not be properly trained, or given enough support, when it comes to school discipline.” 

The results are alarming: “For things that were once considered minor misbehavior in school, and handled in school, we’re seeing an alarming increase in children being subjected to overly punitive school discipline, which leads to kids being pushed out of school, at which point they’re increasingly caught up in the criminal justice system,” Vagins said.

Here are six of the most egregious examples of an education system desperate for reform.

1. At Capital City Alternative School, in Jackson, Mississippi, administrators allegedly tried to force out bad kids with shackles and handcuffs. According to legal complaints, kids in trouble for violations as minor as mismatched shoelaces were handcuffed to railings and poles, left chained and unsupervised for hours on end.

As I wrote in  June:

One student, shackled to a railing for the entire school day for not wearing a belt, had no choice but to eat his lunch handcuffed. Other examples of the school’s bondage punishment policy include a 15-year-old girl handcuffed to a railing for hours after greeting a friend too loudly in the hallway, and a student who was shackled up for not wearing the right colored shoes.

Why such harsh treatment? According to a 2009 ACLU report, Jackson’s Capital City Alternative School had an “especially punitive atmosphere” and used the shackling policy “to deliberately push out challenging and ‘undesirable’ students.”

Capital City Alternative School is designed for students grades 4-12 who have been suspended or expelled from Jackson Public Schools, have had difficulty adjusting to a classroom setting, or were “discipline problems” in the classroom. The school was supposed to serve youths who struggled within the confines of our education system, not simply leave them chained up.

The Southern Poverty Law Center filed a class action lawsuit in June, after the school district refused to respond to a letter asking for the strict punishment policy to be stopped.  

"At the highest level of the district, Jackson Public Schools officials have failed to protect students from a prison-like environment where children are subject to regular shackling and chained to poles and railings as a consequence for minor, non-criminal violations of school rules," said Jody Owens, who leads the SPLC's Mississippi office. "Not only does this handcuffing policy violate the U.S. Constitution but it demonstrates a diseased school culture and a broken model of school discipline that focuses on criminalizing students at the expense of educating them."

Mississippi students aren't the only ones being cuffed in school. Last April, Joseph Anderson, a first-grade special education student at Public School 153 in Queens, New York, was handcuffed and taken to the hospital by the NYPD, following an arguably age-appropriate temper tantrum over an Easter egg. According to the New York Daily News, Anderson's mother told the school she was on her way. The police defended their actions, saying the first-grader was "acting in a threatening manner," and reportedly waving scissors.

"If he hears an ambulance, he runs under the bed and screams, 'They're going to get me,'" his mom told the Daily News, "He's really traumatized. I don't let him watch the news anymore, because if he sees cops, he cries."

2. A distressed seventh-grade student in Georgia sued Clayton County School District following the humiliation he suffered while being strip-searched in front of three classmates last February. The seventh-grader (called D.H. in the lawsuit) says he is traumatized from the teasing and embarrassment he endured while forced to strip down to his Superman skivvies as three classmates watched.

Officials at Eddie White Academy first strip-searched three other students, looking for marijuana. When one of them accused D.H. of having pot, administrators brought him to the office of his vice-principal, Tyros McDowell. Then, according to the Huffington Post:

While the three classmates watched, D.H.'s pockets and book bag were searched but didn't find anything, the lawsuit said. One of the students told school officials he had lied about D.H. having drugs, but administrators continued the search as D.H. begged to be taken to the bathroom for more privacy, according to the lawsuit. D.H. was ordered to strip and again, no drugs were found.

D.H. said his classmates called him Superman after the incident, and that he still suffers emotional distress following the taunting. Considering how awkward middle school is, and how cruel some kids that age can be, D.H.'s case has angry civil liberties advocates asking whether his humiliation was worth it.

A Supreme Court case over a similar strip-search asking the same question suggests the answer is no.

In 2009, the Supreme Court ruled in Safford Unified School District v. Redding that the strip-search of a 13-year-old girl accused of having prescription pills was unconstitutional because "the content of the suspicion failed to match the degree of intrusion," and arguments could not justify "the categorically extreme intrusiveness of a search down to the body of an adolescent" for "nondangerous school contraband."

The ruling stated:

"In sum, what was missing from the suspected facts that pointed to Savana was any indication of danger to the students from the power of the drugs or their quantity, and any reason to suppose that Savana was carrying pills in her underwear."

Is marijuana so dangerous that a possession accusation warrants a strip-search in front of classmates?

3. J.T. Gaskins was diagnosed with leukemia when he was a year old. He has been in remission since 2003. After hearing over the holidays that a family friend was diagnosed with cancer, Gaskins, 17, decided to reach out to other chemotherapy patients. He started growing his hair for donation to Locks of Love.

But Madison Academy in Burton, Michigan, where Gaskins attends school, did not want to hear it from the leukemia survivor. At just two and a half inches long, Gaskins' hair was found to be in violation of the school's student handbook, which requires hair to be "off the collar, off the ears, and out of the eyes." They suspended him for the violation.

"I fought cancer my entire life. I'm going to keep fighting this," he told the Detroit News. "I'm not going to not give back just because my school says no."

Gaskins' hair has a long way to go before meeting the 10 inches required for Locks of Love to accept it.

The school later offered Gaskins a compromise, but his parents did not say whether they would accept it. USA Today reported:

"We're not changing the rules in the middle of the school year, but we offered him four choices. The only thing he has to do is have his hair compliant" with the school policy, [Nicholas Mihailoff, president of the board that runs Madison Academy in Burton] said after the meeting. One choice was to let his hair grow, but use gel and other techniques to keep it out of his eyes and off his collar.

Gaskins' mother, Christa Plante, told board members: "This is bigger than J.T. now," and declined to say what she and her son would do, Mihailoff said. She and her son could not be reached after the meeting. But a spokeswoman for the family, Katie Bethell, said: "I think they were surprised that the school board didn't find a better compromise."

(Dishonorable mention: In January 2010, a 4-year-old boy was suspended from pre-kindergarten because his near-shoulder-length hair was "too long” for dress code.)

The long-hair suspensions are a classic example of gender policing. Simply put, girls can have long hair, and boys cannot. At some schools, straying from that gender norm is considered an inappropriate, punishable offense.

4. In Klein, Texas, one student’s request to use the bathroom resulted in his own embarrassing method of relief -- as well as detention. After repeatedly refusing a 12-year-old student's requests to use the bathroom, and threatening to report him as truant if he left to relieve himself, a teacher at the Klein Independent School District allegedly told the student she hoped he would pee in his pants. Perhaps she didn't realize just how on the verge this boy was, but her wish came true.

Desperate to go, the middle-schooler maneuvered a water bottle up his pant leg and urinated. But when the bottle fell out of his sweatshirt pocket, he was caught and referred to the principal, who ordered him to attend an alternate school for a month. The principal later reversed the decision, and gave the boy three days in detention for having a water bottle in class.

5. At Sacred Heart Catholic Academy in Shawano, Wisconsin, about six miles from the Menominee Indian reservation, 7th grade student Miranda Washinawatok taught another student how to say "hello" and "I love you" in her native language of Menominee. The innocuous gesture resulted in her suspension from one school basketball game.

As Amy Spicer explained on Imagine 2050:

Initially “reprimanded” by the teacher who overheard the two students, Washinawatok was further chastised by another teacher who told her she didn’t appreciate that Miranda had upset the first teacher because “she is like a daughter to me.” 

The racial intolerance displayed by both “educators” is sad. 

Hiding behind a defense that Miranda was suspended for an “attitude problem,” the school has since taken little action in dealing with this clear case of discrimination.

Miranda's mother, Karen Washinawataok, director of the Language and Culture Commission of the Menominee tribe, told Imagine 2050 that the school promised her daughter and the Menominee tribe public apologies, but added that only "a letter was sent to parents and guardians. A real generic letter of apology, that really did not go into specifics as to why there was this apology.”

6. When school starts at 7:30am, tardiness become an inevitable battle, for teenagers forcing themselves out of bed before sunrise and legislators trying to urge angsty youths to class on time. In Hidalgo, Texas, administrators at multiple schools went after lateness not by incentivizing timeliness, but charging students with class C misdemeanor crimes, a fine that can legally reach $500, for missing school. That’s not all. Rather than being held after class or facing some other school-specific consequence, students were punished with class C misdemeanor charges and fines for infractions as minor as foul language. Too young to pay, the students’ fines were passed onto their parents. If  their parents couldn’t pay, the youths inherited the fines once they turned 17, the legal age of adulthood in Texas. But when minor infractions became huge fines impossible for youths to pay, jail time became the punishment for petty violations committed years before.  

One student, Francisco de Luna, was slapped with his first ticket when he was 13. Cited for "failure to comply" shortly after his father died, the school reportedly said he "did not want to learn." More tickets for wearing baggy pants, cursing and other acts of alleged disobedience eventually stacked up to a bill his mother couldn’t foot.

The Texas Tribune reported:

In 2007, his mother, Elisa De Luna anxiously signed a document agreeing to pay off one ticket per month, plus court costs, for the next 11 months — a bill that then amounted to between $257 and $383, quite a bit more than she could afford on her sub-$20,000 annual pay. After more court actions and missed payments, the debt climbed to more than $11,000 for 24 school-related offenses spanning five years, according to a lawsuit announced today by the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas.

When Francisco turned 18 and was arrested for public intoxication, all the warrants fell on his shoulders, and he ended up in jail. He was sentenced to one day behind bars for every $100 he owed, but had no way to pay. Lawyers say he served 18 days in an adult jail, with 24 other prisoners, and was emotionally scarred by the experience.

Francisco De Luna became a plaintiff in a class action filed by the ACLU. Just last week, a federal court ruled that jailing teens for the inability to pay school truancy fines is unconstitutional. The court held that Hidalgo County violated the plaintiffs’ due process and equal protection by failing to determine whether they could pay the fines before jailing them for the inability to do just that.

“Locking up low-income kids in what is functionally a debtor’s prison doesn’t just violate the law, it compounds the very problem that truancy laws are supposed to address,” Gouri Bhat, senior staff attorney said in a press release. “Hidalgo County is pushing students who need help into the criminal justice system instead of back into school.”

De Luna is an unfortunate example of a severely flawed education system that condemns youths so in need of uplifting. 

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