scorecardresearch Skip to main content
Opinion | Jessica Lander

The criminalization of school kids

Jae C. Hong/Associated Press/File

When an angry middle-schooler swore at her vice principal, rolled her eyes, and tried to run down the hall, the police arrested her for disturbing a lawful assembly.

When an 8-year-old special-education student suffering from PTSD began running through the school flailing his arms wildly, authorities arrested and charged the child with assault and battery.

When a teacher and a police officer challenged a high school student who wasn’t carrying her school ID, the girl swore at them and tried to walk away. The officer handcuffed her and, when she struggled, charged her with disturbing a lawful assembly and resisting arrest.


These arrests took place in Massachusetts schools. They are not uncommon. Last year, approximately 500 K-12 students were arrested in the Commonwealth. It is part of a national trend.

Across the country, kids are being arrested in school for acting like . . . well, kids. Students, some as young as six, have been criminally charged for offenses including: throwing tantrums, slamming doors, kicking trashcans, tapping a pen, repeatedly burping, and flying paper airplanes.

The trend, often called the school-to-prison-pipeline, is attributed in part to zero-tolerance discipline policies that have increased suspension and expulsion rates, and to an increase in police in schools.

Fifty years ago, few police officers patrolled school halls. Today, more than 40 percent of US schools have assigned police, often called School Resource Officers (SROs). And, in too many schools, the staff has relinquished its disciplinary role to the SROs.

In Massachusetts, like much of the country, students of color and those with disabilities are disproportionately arrested, reports the nonprofit Citizens for Juvenile Justice. Upwards of two-thirds of students arrested suffer from mental illness, according to a study by the National Center for Mental Health and Juvenile Justice.

In the vast majority of these cases, arresting students does little good and much harm.


Arrests are traumatic, even if charges are dismissed. Arrested students describe feeling unsafe and unwanted in schools. They are three times more likely to drop out, even if their case never goes to trial, according to the American Civil Liberties Union. They are also more likely to re-enter the criminal justice system as adults. For students who end up in the courts, even if not found guilty, their criminal record dogs them into adulthood.

It is past time for the Commonwealth to rethink the role for police in schools. If we continue having SROs, they need to become experts in working with children.

Young people are not smaller versions of adults. Their brains are still developing — including the areas that connect to impulse control, risk taking, and judgment. Effective SROs need to understand this aspect of adolescent development. They also need training in de-escalation techniques, implicit bias, and identifying trauma.

Police forces want this training, as documented in a 2011 survey by the International Association of Chiefs of Police. But departments often lack the funds. Yet, given the immediate costs associated with arresting and booking children, and the long-term costs on young people’s futures, investing in officer training more than pays for itself.

Beyond training, police also need community partners, particularly local mental health providers who can work with them and with students. And schools need clear policies that define the distinct roles of teachers and police in addressing discipline.

We already have a national model of success in the Commonwealth. Cambridge’s Safety Net Collaborative — an eight-year partnership among police, schools, and more than 20 nonprofits, and city organizations, which has created teams of police, social workers and others, who work to divert the city’s children from the courts. Since its inception the Collaborative has helped reduce arrests of Cambridge youth by 70 percent.


We also have programs like the Massachusetts-based nonprofit Strategies for Youth, which trains police across the country to better understand, respond to, and support youth. The organization has already held regional police trainings and worked with a handful of individual jurisdictions in the Commonwealth.

The Legislature is considering a bill that could help transform school police programs by eliminating school arrests for “disturbing a lawful assembly,” establishing new standards for police training, and encouraging collaboration with community partners, including mental health crisis teams. The bill would also require schools to report student arrest data, enabling communities and the state to measure the effectiveness of individual programs and identify schools with unusually high arrest rates. A system for collecting data is already in place, since schools are already required to collect and publish data on suspensions and expulsions.

Massachusetts, which leads the nation in education, should also set the standard in dealing with behavior issues. We need discipline in schools. But criminalizing adolescence is the wrong solution — for students, for schools and for society.

Jessica Lander is a teacher and writer living in the Boston area.