ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — A New Mexico teacher asked a 13-year-old girl to stop talking with her friend and move to another seat. The girl refused. The teacher called the police. The case is among thousands across the country fueling a long-simmering debate over when educators should bring in the police to deal with disruptive students. A 6-year-old Georgia kindergartner, Salecia Johnson (pictured), became the latest test case last week when she was hauled off in steel handcuffs after throwing books and toys in a school tantrum.
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“Kids are being arrested for being kids,” said Shannon Kennedy, a civil rights attorney who has filed a class-action lawsuit against Albuquerque’s public school district and its police department on behalf of hundreds of kids arrested for minor offenses over the past few years, including having cellphones in class, destroying a history book and inflating a condom. Civil rights advocates and criminal justice experts say frustrated teachers and principals are calling in the police too often to deal with the most minor disturbances. But other teachers say a police presence that has grown in response to zero tolerance policies of the 1990s and tragedies like the Columbine High massacre is needed to keep teachers and well-behaved students safe.
From sexual harassment in elementary and middle school to children throwing furniture, “there is more chronic and extreme disrespect, disinterest and kids who basically don’t care,” said Ellen Bernstein, president of the Albuquerque teacher’s union. Experts point to a number of factors that lead to the arrests: Some officers are operating without special training. School administrators are desperate to get the attention of uninvolved parents. And overwhelmed teachers are unaware that calling in the police to defuse a situation could lead to serious criminal charges. “I have had some concern for a while that the schools have relied a little too heavily on police officers to handle disciplinary problems,” said Darrel Stephens, a former Charlotte, N.C., police chief and executive director of the Major Cities Chiefs Association.
There is little national data to back those assertions; no numbers are tracked nationally on how often police are called in to arrest students. Whether the children are actually charged and saddled with criminal records varies by case and jurisdiction. Some youngsters are charged with felonies. Some are freed without further incident. Others receive tickets. In Milledgeville, Ga., a city of 18,000 some 90 miles from Atlanta, Salecia Johnson was accused of tearing items off the walls and throwing books and toys in an outburst Friday at Creekside Elementary.
Police said she also threw a small shelf that struck the principal in the leg, and jumped on a paper shredder and tried to break a glass frame. Police didn’t say what set off the tantrum. Baldwin County (Ga.) schools Superintendent Geneva Braziel called the student’s behavior “violent and disruptive” and said the police were needed to keep the student, other classmates and the school staff safe. Salecia was handcuffed and taken away in a patrol car to the police station, where she was taken to a squad room and given a soda, police said. She won’t be charged with a crime. Salecia was taken to a squad room and given a soda, and won’t be charged with a crime, police said. Her aunt, Candace Ruff, said Tuesday the girl had complained about the handcuffs; “she said they really hurt her wrists,” she said.
The department’s policy is to handcuff everyone arrested regardless of age for safety reasons, police said. In Florida, the use of police in schools came up several years ago when officers arrested a kindergartner who threw a tantrum during a jelly bean-counting contest. A bill was proposed this year to restrict police from arresting kids for misdemeanors or other acts that do not pose serious safety threats. In Connecticut, court officials began tracking student arrests after becoming concerned about referrals for minor offenses. Since last March, nearly 1,700 students were arrested, almost two-thirds of them for breach of peace, minor fights and disorderly conduct.
In Texas, a December report from the nonprofit Texas Appleseed, a public interest group, says more than 275,000 non-traffic tickets are issued to juveniles each year. While it is unclear how many are written at school, the group says the vast majority are for offenses most commonly linked to incidents like disrupting the class and disorderly conduct. Texas Sen. John Whitmire said educators and police need to better distinguish between who they are afraid of and who they are mad at. “If you are afraid of someone because they bring a gun or drugs, of course we come down hard,” Whitmire said. “It’s the kids that just make you mad that you don’t need to make a crime.”
In Albuquerque, which started tracking arrests after noticing more minor cases coming from schools, more than 900 of the district’s 90,000 students were referred to the criminal justice system in the 2009-2010 school year. Of those, more than 500 were handcuffed, arrested and brought to juvenile detention, officials said. More than 200 were arrested for minor offenses, including disorderly conduct, resisting arrest, refusing to obey and interference with staff.
Preliminary numbers indicate arrests have fallen 53 percent since the class-action lawsuit was filed in 2010, prompting law enforcement officials to order more caution. Albuquerque school officials have declined comment on school arrests, citing the pending litigation. But juvenile advocates and parents say first arrests could lead to more trouble. Annette Montano says her 13-year-old son was arrested at a middle school for burping in gym class. The tension between him and school officials led to several more run-ins, she said, including a strip search after he was accused of selling drugs. In Georgia, Salecia’s family said the girl has been suspended for the school year. Her aunt said, “We would not like to see this happen to another child, because it’s horrifying.”