Chris McGreal at the UK Guardian started a recent commentary by telling a story about a young student who was arrested for spraying perfume on her neck during class. The little girl was being teased by classmates for being stinky, so she sprayed herself and was then arrested for “disrupting class.”
The charge on the police docket was “disrupting class”. But that’s not how 12-year-old Sarah Bustamantes saw her arrest for spraying two bursts of perfume on her neck in class because other children were bullying her with taunts of “you smell”.
“I’m weird. Other kids don’t like me,” said Sarah, who has been diagnosed with attention-deficit and bipolar disorders and who is conscious of being overweight. “They were saying a lot of rude things to me. Just picking on me. So I sprayed myself with perfume. Then they said: ‘Put that away, that’s the most terrible smell I’ve ever smelled.’ Then the teacher called the police.”
McGreal goes on to talk about school districts like those in the state of Texas, where the schools have their own police forces and officers in uniforms who carry guns to keep order in class. In 2010, the state of Texas issued over 300,000 “Class C misdemeanor” tickets to children as young as the age of six for offenses that occurred during school. The offenses included things like being late for class or wearing clothes that were not appropriate for the classroom.
“We’ve taken childhood behaviour and made it criminal,” said Kady Simpkins, a lawyer who represented Sarah Bustamantes, the girl who was arrested for spraying her perfume. “They’re kids. Disruption of class? Every time I look at this law I think: good lord, I never would have made it in school in the US. I grew up in Australia and it’s just rowdy there. I don’t know how these kids do it, how they go to school every day without breaking these laws.”
McGreal says that the British government is studying how the US deals with kids in school and its gang problems. But many experts around the world believe that the approach being used in the United States is creating a direct school-to-prison pipeline, thus leading to thousands of kids eventually having a life in prison.
Attorney General Eric Holder has said that the criminalization of children in school is something that “has got to stop,” and Texas recently changed the law that allowed tickets to be issued to kids as young as 10 or 11 years old.
“It’s very much tied in with some of the hyperbole around the rise in juvenile crime rate that took place back in the early 90s,” said Deborah Fowler, deputy director of Texas Appleseed, an Austin legal rights group. “They ushered in tough, punitive policies. It was all part of the tough-on-crime movement.”
McGreal mentions that shortly after the crime and punishment wave of the early 1990s, the US became the only developed country that locked up people as young as 13-years old for life in prison without the possibility of parole. This correlated with a stronger push within schools to stop any form of misbehavior, increasing the number of police officers roaming the halls and students appearing before judges for minor offenses.
“Zero tolerance started out as a term that was used in combating drug trafficking and it became a term that is now used widely when you’re referring to some very punitive school discipline measures. Those two policy worlds became conflated with each other,” said Fowler.
In the midst of that drive came the 1999 Columbine high school massacre, in which two students in Colorado shot dead 12 other pupils and a teacher before killing themselves. Parents clamoured for someone to protect their children and police in schools seemed to many to be the answer.
But most schools do not face any serious threat of violence and police officers patrolling the corridors and canteens are largely confronted with little more than boisterous or disrespectful childhood behaviour.
“What we see often is a real overreaction to behaviour that others would generally think of as just childish misbehaviour rather than law breaking,” said Fowler. Tickets are most frequently issued by school police for “disruption of class”, which can mean causing problems during lessons but is also defined as disruptive behaviour within 500ft (150 metres) of school property such as shouting, which is classified as “making an unreasonable noise”.
Among the more extreme cases documented by Appleseed is of a teacher who had a pupil arrested after the child responded to a question as to where a word could be found in a text by saying: “In your culo(arse)”, making the other children laugh. Another pupil was arrested for throwing paper aeroplanes.
McGreal’s points are strong, especially given the impact that racism often plays in the way these punishments are given out to children. The majority of youth sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole are black or brown and most black families have a relative who has spent time in the federal penitentiary.
To read more of McGreal’s comments, click here.