Students is schools across the country are being turned over to law enforcement agencies, or the courts, to deal with discipline problems that have been in the past, and should continue to be, handled by teachers or school administrators.
“Police are arresting students for behaviors like talking back -- that’s disorderly conduct. Or writing on desks -- that’s vandalism,” said Judith Browne Dianis, co-director of the Advancement Project, a civil rights organization.
In the wake of Columbine, school districts implemented “zero-tolerance” policies that accelerated the involvement of the criminal justice system in routine school-based disciplinary practices. The matter is being exacerbated by the Newtown massacre as school districts are expanding the use of armed police officers in schools.
This past October, federal civil rights lawyers filed suit against Meridian County School District in Mississippi, for operating what the government described as a school-to-prison pipeline in which students were denied basic constitutional rights, sent to court and incarcerated for minor school infractions.
Children were handcuffed and arrested in school; often detained without a hearing for 48 hours; made admissions without being advised of their rights; and were not provided with legal counsel for hearings.
The problem in Mississippi goes beyond Meridian County. A recent report by a group of civil rights leaders found that in one Mississippi school district, 33 of every 1,000 children were arrested or referred to juvenile detention centers; that in another, such referrals included second and third graders; and that in yet another, only 4 percent of the law enforcement referrals were for felony-level behavior, the most often cited offense being “disorderly conduct.”
The problem goes beyond Mississippi. Wansley Walters, secretary of the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice said recently, "The vast majority of children being arrested in schools are not committing criminal acts."
Sixty-seven percent of the arrests last year were for misdemeanors such as disorderly conduct -- a catchall, attorneys say, that has been used when children refused to take a cell phone out of a pocket or yelled in class. Fewer than 5 percent faced weapons charges.
Most arrests, Walters suggests, stem from "bad behavior, not criminal behavior."
Pennsylvania experienced one of the most egregious school-to-prison pipelines when two Luzerne County judges were convicted of sending school-aged juveniles into residential placement, often without legal counsel, in exchange for bribes. The scandal became known as “kids for cash.”
Policymakers have taken notice. Last December, the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee, Subcommittee on Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights conducted, for the first time, a hearing on the school-to-prison pipeline.
(Image: Laurent Hamels/Getty Images)
Matthew T. Mangino is of counsel with Luxenberg, Garbett, Kelly & George, P.C. He is the former district attorney of Lawrence County and just completed a six year term on the Pennsylvania Board of Probation and Parole. He is a featured columnist for the Pennsylvania Law Weekly and a regular contributor to the Youngstown Vindicator. You can read his musings on crime and punishment at www.mattmangino.com and follow Matt on Twitter @MatthewTMangino.