A few years ago, a student at Kennedy Middle School in Springfield, Mass., was found with a cell phone in his bag — a breach of school policy.
After school administrators confiscated his phone, and told him to have his mother pick it up, the student started cursing and demanding that they give his phone back.
In response, a police officer handcuffed the student and charged him with disturbing a lawful assembly.
Misconduct that was once addressed by in-school disciplinary measures, such as detention, is now increasingly managed by police officers making on-campus arrests. In the 1950s, only one school district nationwide, in Flint, Mich., used police officers to patrol school buildings. By 2005, the use of law enforcement in schools ballooned to 48 percent of all public schools responding to a Department of Justice survey.
“This isn’t just the school to prison pipeline, but the school to prison superhighway,” said Lael Chester, executive director of the Boston-based organization Citizens for Juvenile Justice. “Kids are going directly from the school hallway to the police station.”
A new report released by the American Civil Liberties Union and Citizens for Juvenile Justice, “Arrested Futures: The Criminalization of School Discipline in Massachusetts’ Three Largest School Districts,” reveals the extent to which arrests and police officers — also known as “school resource officers” — are being used in Massachusetts public schools.
During the 2009-2010 academic year, for instance, 173 students were arrested in Boston Public Schools. The year before that, 189 were arrested, and in 2007-2008, 325 were arrested. As the ACLU report shows, most of these arrests were for “public order” offenses — swearing, being rowdy, talking back to a teacher or slamming a door — not for violence or possession of drugs or weapons.
“This is behavior that you could not be arrested for if you were at home,” explained Chester, one of the authors of the study. “Kids do act out — this is part of childhood and adolescence. But instead of addressing that behavior in ways that are effective and appropriate, the schools are relying on police and the power of arrest to remove the child — and remove the problem.”
In some cases, the arrested students are as young as 11 years old, the report also shows. During the 2009-2010 school year, seven arrests in BPS were made on children 12-years-old or younger. And as with other areas of law enforcement, people of color are disproportionately affected. In BPS, African American students make up 37 percent of the student body, but represent 65 percent of all arrests and 70 percent of all public order arrests. In addition, students with emotional, behavioral or learning difficulties are also disproportionate targets of arrest.
These students are more likely to drop out of school than classmates who have not been arrested, and those who drop out have a higher risk of permanently ending up in the criminal justice system. Chester added: “These students are going to end up with a criminal record. And that interferes with housing, future education loans, employment and immigration status. It just goes on and on — there’s a tremendous ripple effect.”
BPS employs two different types of officers on campus. The district’s own school safety officers are uniformed but unarmed, and have been granted the power of on-campus arrest by the Boston Police Department. In addition, a group of 15 officers from the Boston Police Department, who are armed but not dressed in uniform, patrol schools throughout the day. None of these officers need to consult with school officials before making an arrest.
Chester suspects increased police presence has to do with fear over school shootings, increased pressure on schools to perform and basic politics. “It’s probably easier for a lot of school districts to ask for money for police than for guidance councilors or staff,” she said. And while Chester calls school safety “paramount,” she sees these law enforcement tactics as ineffective, inappropriate and undermining the trust students have in adults.
“There are many tools the school can use to discipline students,” she went on. “But when you ask a police officer to intervene, they don’t have those tools. They can’t use school discipline — they can arrest or not arrest. So I think of it as a mismatch. There are problems that need to be addressed, but we’re not addressing them properly.”
This approach to discipline also comes at a heavy cost. In fiscal year 2012, BPS budgeted $4.5 million for safety and security, $4 million of which went to employing school resource officers.
As the report says: “In both Boston and Springfield, the amount spent on school safety dwarfs other expenditures, such as money for professional development, reading programs, counseling or psychological services, athletics/physical education, and other student support services or programs.”
The report further stated that reallocating even a small portion of these funds “could go a long way to preventing the flow of children into our juvenile or adult criminal justice systems.”
Alan J. Ingram, superintendent of Springfield Public Schools, one of the districts profiled in the report, came out strongly against the ACLU’s findings.
“The report attempts to paint a picture of an overaggressive, unorganized approach to school-based policing in our district and nothing could be further from the truth,” he said in a statement.
Still, Chester hopes the new information will help parents talk to their children’s school district about alternative methods of discipline. “I think parents need to — and I hope they will — take this information and say to the school, ‘What are you going to do about it?’ ”