More and more US schools have their own police forces. Pupils are being arrested for throwing paper planes and failing to pick up crumbs from the cafeteria floor. The state has taken over discipline from the classroom teacher and is now criminalizing normal childhood behavior–or is it?
In Austin, Texas, 12-year-old Sarah Bustamantes was arrested for spraying perfume on her neck in class after the other kids were taunting her and saying she smelled bad. In the Guardian Weekly, Chris McGreal quotes Sarah as saying, "They were saying a lot of rude things to me. Just picking on me. So I sprayed myself with perfume. Then the teacher called the police."
It turned out to be the easiest thing for the teacher to do, because the police were already in the school, patrolling the corridors right outside the classroom. This is going on in hundreds of schools in Texas and across large parts of the rest of the US as well.
McGreal writes: "Each day, hundreds of schoolchildren appear before courts in Texas charged with offences such as swearing, misbehaving on the school bus or getting in to a punch-up in the playground. Children have been arrested for possessing cigarettes, wearing ‘inappropriate’ clothes and being late for school."
Sarah now has a lawyer named Kady Simpkins. McGreal quotes her as saying, "We’ve taken childhood behavior and made it criminal. They’re kids. Disruption of class? Every time I look at this law I think: good lord, I never would have made it in school in the US. I grew up in Australia and it’s just rowdy there. I don’t know how these kids do it, how they go to school every day without breaking these laws."
Are our kids getting too wild for teachers to discipline? Has sending kids to the principal’s office or reporting back to their parents become ineffective? Part of the problem may be the proliferation of school gangs, which can truly be violent.
But this may backfire in the end: McGreal quotes Texas supreme court chief justice Wallace Jefferson as warning that "charging kids with criminal offences for low-level behavioral issues" is helping to drive many of them to a life in jail. Like Guantanamo, we are creating a new criminal class.
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