The United States is not just the number one jailer in the world. It also incarcerates juveniles at a rate that eclipses every other country. Evidence has long been building that schools use the correctional system as a misplaced mechanism for discipline, with children being sent to detention facilities for offenses as minor as wearing the wrong color socks to school. A juvenile county chief judge testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee yesterday that these are not isolated incidents, but rather systemic trends that bombard prosecutors and courts with a glut of cases in which kids pose no danger but merely “make adults mad”:
When I took the bench in 1999, I was shocked to find that approximately one-third of the cases in my courtroom were school-related, of which most were low risk misdemeanor offenses. Upon reviewing our data, the increase in school arrests did not begin until after police were placed on our middle and high school campuses in 1996—well before the horrific shootings at Columbine High School. The year before campus police, my court received only 49 school referrals. By 2004, the referrals increased over 1,000 percent to 1,400 referrals, of which 92% were misdemeanors mostly involving school fights, disorderly conduct, and disrupting public school.
Despite the many arrests, school safety did not improve. The number of serious weapons brought to campus increased during this period of police arrests including guns, knives, box cutter knives, and straight edge razors. Of equal concern was the decrease in the graduation rates during this same period—it reached an all-time low in 2003 of 58%. It should come to no one’s surprise that the more students we arrested, suspended, and expelled from our school system, the juvenile crime rate in the community significantly increased. These kids lost one of the greatest protective buffers against delinquency—school connectedness.
I also witnessed an increase in kids of color referred to my court. By 2004, over 80% of all school referrals involved African-American students. The racial disparity in school arrests was appalling and I felt I was contributing to this system of racial bias by not doing something.
It was also frustrating for me as a judge to see the effectiveness of the prosecutor and probation officer weakened by my court system being inundated with low risk cases that consumed the court docket and pushed kids toward probation—kids who made adults mad versus those that scare us.
Judge Steven Teske of Clayton County Juvenile Court in Georgia took a proactive approach to address this problem, initiating discussions with the school superintendent and chief of police to change the practices that led kids to his courtroom. Because he had cooperative partners, the number of students referred to juvenile court for school offenses was reduced by 83 percent. But not all counties are this accommodating. In Meridian, Miss., where the county incarcerates kids for dress code violations, county officials were so unwilling to work with the Department of Justice that the agency was forced to file suit that alleges students are punished “so arbitrarily and severely as to shock the conscience.”
The phenomenon of criminalizing school discipline, known as the “school-to-prison” pipeline, is yet another product of the War on Drugs, “as ‘get-tough’ law enforcement strategies” moved from the streets to schools, according to the Advancement Project’s Judith Browne Dianis. “Adults are treating young people like criminals, and are responding to typical student behavior that has no bearing on safety with discipline that defies common sense,” she said in her testimony. “… Pushing and shoving in the schoolyard is now a battery, and talking back is now disorderly conduct.”