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Policing the public schools creates new problems

Caitlin Yoshiko Kandil | 5/9/2012, 9:33 a.m.

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.”