The state Supreme Judicial Court said recently that a judge may protect students from “the stigma of being perceived to be a criminal” by dismissing a charge prior to the initial court appearance. This is a good step in the right direction. But we need to do more to keep youths from being arrested in schools in the first place. As US Attorney General Eric Holder said recently; “A routine school disciplinary infraction should land a student in the principal’s office, not in a police precinct.”
Consistent with a national trend addressed in new federal guidance, Massachusetts students formerly disciplined in house are now cuffed, arrested, and charged with crimes for minor misbehaviors in significant numbers. A Brockton youth with a good disciplinary record was arrested and charged with “assault with a deadly weapon” for accidentally (as the principal acknowledged) hitting a teacher with a tossed candy, causing no injury. In Taunton and Springfield, students were arrested for using bad language, slamming doors, or merely being obnoxious.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts and Citizens for Juvenile Justice recently looked closely at arrest practices in Boston, Worcester, and Springfield, poring through thousands of police reports. Hundreds of students are arrested in these districts every year, most often for minor offenses. In fact, more than half of the 210 Springfield arrests for school misconduct in 2009-10, the last year for which data is available, stemmed from verbal misconduct (e.g. “disrespect.”). These students were charged with “disturbing a school assembly” under a vague state law that is in serious need of revision.
As is true around the country according to the attorney general, students arrested are disproportionately of color and with disabilities. In Boston, between 2008 and 2010, African-American students were arrested at a rate twice their representation in the school system and comprised seventy percent of those arrests for public order offenses.
It is particularly disturbing that schools specifically designed to educate students with emotional and behavioral disabilities are also those most likely to have students arrested when they act out. Boston’s McKinley schools account for one percent of the District population but an astounding 17 percent of arrests in 2009-10. And Springfield’s so-called SAFE schools for children with behavioral and emotional learning disabilities arrested their students at a rate that was 10 times the District average. Having these children arrested and charged denies them the understanding and skilled intervention they are specifically identified as needing.
School personnel that ask often-reluctant police officers to arrest unruly students may find their lives made momentarily easier, but the costs for their added comfort are extraordinary. Any case leading to a court appearance results in a damaging criminal record, even if the charge is ultimately dismissed following initial court appearance. We know that arrest and prosecution correlate closely with graduation failure. Dropping out is an economic and social death sentence with grave societal consequences. Drop outs earn less, pay less in taxes, use more state-funded services, and are imprisoned more often (70% of Massachusetts prisoners are high school drop outs).
Excessive arrest practices do nothing to make schools safer or more effective. Taxpayer dollars spent on converting the courthouse into the principal’s office are better spent on counselors for students and support for teachers and principals in classroom and behavior management.
School districts in Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Florida instituted protocols to reduce arrests and court referrals for minor school infractions. Where these systems have been in place long enough to be studied, they not only dropped arrests rates by as much as two thirds but also made schools safer. In Georgia’s Clayton County, the incidence of weapons in schools decreased by 73 percent. Communities benefited as well: Youthful felonies were reduced by 50 percent. Recent efforts to curb harsh disciplinary practices in Denver and Los Angeles generated similar positive results.
Legislation currently pending in Massachusetts (Senate 631 and House 1644) would sharply limit arrests in school for verbal misconduct. This bill, which will only affect those districts using arrest inappropriately as discipline, is a positive step toward reversing the trend to criminalize typical childish behavior. It deserves our support.
Phillip Kassel is executive director and Miriam Ruttenberg is a senior attorney with Mental Health Legal Advisors Committee. Dan Losen is director of the Center for Civil Rights Remedies of the Civil Rights Project at UCLA.