Arresting a Teen Girl for Dozing Off in Class? Why Normal Kid Behavior Is Treated As a Crime or Psychiatric Disorder

Human Rights

Brianna Pena, a 5-year-old, was told she could not return to her kindergarten classroom at her Bronx, NY, charter school until she was “psychiatrically cleared” to return by a medical professional.  It was her first day at a new school.  She didn’t know anyone and repeatedly cried, “Nobody cares about me!” School officials insist that Brianna kept “yelling and throwing chairs” during the incident.  Administrators placed her on a list of so-called “psychiatric suspensions.”

In Bartow, FL, Kiera Wilmot, a 16-year-old student was expelled from Bartow High School and arrested for conducting an unapproved chemistry experiment.  She combined some household chemicals in an 8-ounce water bottle and the top popped off, giving off a small explosion.  According to the school principal, Ron Pritchard, "she made a bad choice. ... She wanted to see what would happen [when the chemicals mixed] and was shocked by what it did.”  She was charged with possession of and discharging a weapon on school property.

Brianna’s and Kiera are but two examples of the growing “discipline” crisis besetting schools throughout the country.  School administrators are resorting to an increasing number of questionable tactics to address problems associated with the breakdown of the classroom as a learning environment.  These include the use of local EMS workers to remove pre-teen children as well as such high-tech methods as RFID tracking and CCTV video surveillance.  An increasing number of officials are resorting to aggressive in-school policing, with on-campus uniformed and armed officers ticketing and arresting more and more kids.  All to contain “disruptive” students often engaged in what was once considered bad behavior but is now criminalized conduct. 

Reports that American education is in crisis appear in the media almost every day. From Pres. Obama to mayors across the country, everyone complains about the country’s supposedly failing education system.  Each promises to fix the problem – and it only seems to be getting worse.  Yet, efforts to police schools reflect the further shifting of education spending from the classroom to the administrative apparatus of control.  

A major contributing factor to this crisis is the failed “zero tolerance” discipline program promoted by the Bush administration and still in force in school systems throughout the country.  Like its abstinence-only sex ed program, Bush policies made a serious issue worse.  The effort to enforce classroom discipline through the expulsion and punishment of students is an example of the moral absolutism propagated during much of the last few decades. It further extends the “school-to-prison pipeline” by aggressively incarcerating ever-younger children, particularly African-American and Hispanic youth.


Some cities, like New York, are increasingly turning to costly emergency medical services to restrain students. Cashmiere Turner, a 7th grader at New York’s Intermediate School 151 in the Bronx, struggled both academically and socially in the classroom.  Her mother, Sonya, repeatedly sought school administrators’ help with her daughter’s learning problems and the bullying she faced, but was ignored.  In October 2011, school officials claimed that the troubled teen acted out, attempting to harm herself.  They contacted Cashmiere’s mother, who rushed to the school only to find that the officials had also contacted the local EMS.  Refusing to let Ms. Turner take her daughter home, EMS workers and police officers brought her to a local hospital that found her neither a threat to herself nor others.  She was released, but not before the hospital billed her mother an estimated $1,300 for services rendered.

The city’s Board of Education (BOE) reports that during 2010-2011 school year, EMS was called 947 times to handle disruptive or dangerous kids; this is up 12 percent from the previous year.  Nelson Mar, an attorney with Legal Services NYC-Bronx, represented both Brianna Pena and Cashmiere Turner, warns, “minor children are removed by EMS for childhood behavior or misbehavior which does not rise to the level of a medical emergency.”  He points out that at one Bronx hospital, there were 58 EMS calls from schools during a 10-day period in February 2011. Most troubling, doctors and psychologists found that only 3 percent of the kids brought to an Emergency Room were admitted to the hospital.

Under Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s stewardship, removal and suspension are among the principal means to enforce discipline in the classroom. According to the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU), the BOE’s “Citywide Standards on Discipline and Intervention” – the discipline code -- reported infractions increased 49 percent and “zero tolerance” infractions resulting in a suspension doubled between 2001 and 2010. 

Part of this increase was due to the nearly two-fold increase in the number of code “infractions,” from 38 (2001) to 67 (2007).  The NYCLU found that infractions range from using profane language and throwing chalk to being insubordinate and can lead to a student’s suspension from school for a year.  And “zero tolerance infractions” are the worse, misbehavior requiring suspension.  Over the last decade, they jumped from 7 (in 1998-2001) to 29 (2007-2008, 2008-2010); they declined to 21 (2010-2011).  Not surprising, black students, who make up a third (33%) of the student population, received more then half (53%) of the suspensions.

In New York, school administrators have increasingly turned to EMS to address disciplinary problems.  Mar reports that in the 2011-2012 school year, 3,435 calls were placed to the EMS, up from the 3,024 calls in 2009-2010, a 13.5 percent increase; these calls are separate from calls to NYC police that, during the same period, declined to 241 from 291, a 17.2 percent decrease.  “The practice of removing misbehaving students by EMS is a costly waste of EMS and hospital resources,” Mar warned.

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A high school student from Hoover, AL, was recently beaten by a school official and then arrested for falling asleep in school, according to a recent lawsuit.  Ashlynn Avery is not your typical teenager.  She suffers from diabetes, asthma and sleep apnea.  Sadly, while sitting in the in-school suspension room and reading “Huckleberry Finn,” she dozed off.  She asserts that the classroom supervisor seized the book and hit her with it; he claims it was an accident.  The police were called and the girl was “forcefully” arrested, causing her to have a seizure, vomit, pass out and end up in the hospital. 

To enforce discipline, school systems across the country are employing harsher techniques and turning to the local police. In Maine, educators report an increase in school disruptions with students pulling fire alarms and scratching and bruising teachers.  The state is considering allowing teachers to use restraints or seclusion on misbehaving students; the current bill limits such actions to those authorized in writing by a student's parent, whether this will remain in the final bill is an open question.  In Connecticut over the last few years, nearly 1,700 students were arrested, almost two-thirds of them for breach of peace, minor fights and disorderly conduct.  In-school busts account for 20 percent of all youth arrests in the state.

In Georgia, school misbehavior incidents bring in the local police.  In Milledgeville, GA, a small town about 90 miles from Atlanta, Salecia Johnson, a 6-year-old student at Creekside Elementary School, was handcuffed and taken away in a patrol car to the police station.  According to the Baldwin County schools Superintendent, Geneva Braziel, the police were called due to Johnson’s "violent and disruptive" behavior that threatened other classmates and school staff.  In Clayton County, police recently arrested seven students at the North Clayton High School for disorderly conduct; Precious Woods was busted for spiting on a fellow student who had thrown a trashcan at her and Trinell Kennedy was arrested for using profanity during the same incident.

In Albuquerque, NM, during the 2009-2010 school year, 900 of the district's 90,000 students were referred to the criminal justice system.  More than 500 of were handcuffed, arrested and brought to juvenile detention.  More than 200 were arrested for minor offences, including disorderly conduct, resisting arrest, refusing to obey and interference with staff.  (In response to a 2010 class-action lawsuit, student arrests fell by 53 percent.) 

Things are far worse in Texas.  In a 2010 report, Texas Appleseed, a public-interest group, found that each year more than 275,000 non-traffic tickets are issued to juveniles.  It reports that the vast majority of offences are due to classroom disruptions and disorderly conduct.  It noted that in 1989, only 9 school districts in Texas had separate police agencies while in 2010 more than 160 had police units.  Ticketed students received fines of between $250 and $500 or do community service in lieu of fines.

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Steven Teske, MA, JD, and a Judge, Juvenile Court of Clayton County, Jonesboro, GA, writing in the Journal of Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Nursing, defines zero tolerance as “policies operate under the assumption that removing disruptive students deters other students from similar conduct while simultaneously enhancing the classroom environment.” His detailed analysis makes clear not only that the policy doesn’t work, but contributes to the deepening crisis of American education and harms children.

The concept of zero tolerance originated during the Reagan-era’s so-called “war on drugs.” It entered the educational sector in 1994 when Pres. Bill Clinton signed the Gun-Free Schools Act that required a student’s 1-year suspension if s/he was found possessing a firearm.  In the wake of the Columbine shootings of 1999, the law has been expanded to include any so-called weapon, including Kiera Wilmot’s chemistry experiment.  Under Pres. George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind program, zero tolerance was linked to teaching-to-the-test policies as a solution to the education crisis. 

The increased policing of the classroom is part of the effort to transform schools from “educational” institutions that cultivate citizenship to “training” campuses inculcating workplace discipline.  It is a battle that has shaped American education since mass public schooling was introduced more then a century ago.

In New York during the ‘90s, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani adopted a zero-tolerance city-management approach as part of his “get-tough" policies.  It originally was designed to curb minor offenses, like squatters in abandoned buildings, subway graffiti artists, squeegee car-window cleaners, panhandlers and street prostitutes; they were part of the “quality of life” troubles gripping the city.  In parallel, Giuliani implemented a zero-tolerance program in city schools to address such issues as fighting, smoking and other forms of inappropriate behavior.

Zero tolerance policies are now being applied to a broad range of disciplinary infractions, both major and minor.  A 2012 report by the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights (OCR) makes clear the painful consequences of zero tolerance.  It warns, “minority students across America face harsher discipline, have less access to rigorous high school curricula, and are more often taught by lower-paid and less experienced teachers.” It found that African-American students, particularly males, make up 18 percent students, but 35 percent of suspended students and 39 percent of those expelled.  Suspended students face a greater risk of dropping out of school or getting involved in criminal activity even though their initial misbehavior was minor.

A host of factors are contributing to the increase in behavior-based disruptions.  Shrinking school budgets have lead to increased class size and cut backs of in-school therapeutic support.  Teachers are not sufficiently trained to deal with in-class disruptions. Mounting child and family poverty rates, especially in poor and minority communities, only aggravate a bad situation.

Behavior problems are real issues; they interfere with teaching and learning and are occurring throughout the country.  A recent study by Scholastic magazine and the Gates Foundation found that 68 percent of elementary, 64 percent of middle school and 53 percent of high school teachers reported increased behavior problems.

Local and state officials across the country are making school discipline a political issue.  In 2012, New York City Council Member Robert Jackson declared: “I’m tired of hearing stories about children who are having tantrums or behavior problems being taken out of school by police or EMS! ... This is unacceptable! … Having police and EMS respond in these situations is both expensive and traumatizing for children and youth.”

Also in 2012, Maryland’s State Board of Education banned zero-tolerance approaches.  They replaced the failed policy with one emphasizing rehabilitation over punishment, believing it would led to more classroom time and higher achievement for students.  In Florida, following a much-publicized 2007 case in which the police arrested a kindergartner who threw a tantrum during a jelly bean-counting contest, a bill was introduced to block police from arresting children who commit acts that do not pose serious safety threats.

In the wake of Newtown, CT, shootings new question have arisen about the effectiveness of zero tolerance.  In December 2012, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights, convened the nation’s first Congressional hearing on “Ending the School-to-Prison Pipeline.” He stressed that instead of making schools safer, the policy has redefined “rather normal behavior” into criminal activity.

Many civil liberties lawyers, educators and parents believe that the zero tolerance approach to classroom misbehavior needs to be replaced by one based on a more humane classroom environment and whole-person curriculum.  They point to such programs as Positive Behavior Interventions and Support (PBIS), Safe Responsive Schools (SRS) Restorative Practice and “social-emotional learning” as alternative programs.  “Although many of these approaches are already utilized in some form in many public schools in New York City,” Mar warns, “the BOE has not adopted a policy requiring all NYC public schools to utilize these methods.” “Instead,” he adds, “the BOE fails to even encourage the use of these in their policies.”   

Only by ending the tyranny of zero tolerance and providing full financial and other support to schools, especially in poor and minority  neighborhoods, will the school-to-prison pipeline be broken.  And only then will we begin to meaningfully address the deeper crisis of American troubled education system.

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David Rosen writes the Media Current column for Filmmaker and regularly contributes to CounterPunch, Huffington Post and the Brooklyn Rail, check out; he can be reached at

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