Criminalizing Kids

Published — October 2, 2016

New documentary traces controversial history of policing in schools

Center collaboration with Retro Report shows how ‘zero tolerance’ morphed into a ‘school-to-prison pipeline’


In today’s America, police officers commonly roam the halls of schools, along with students, teachers, coaches and counselors. But it wasn’t always that way, and a growing number of critics argue that it shouldn’t be that way in the future. The roots and evolution of deploying police in schools, and the controversial consequences, are the subject of a provocative new documentary unveiled today by the online series Retro Report, in collaboration with the Center for Public Integrity. 

Former Attorney General Eric Holder is featured prominently in the 12-minute piece, which looks back at the roots of zero-tolerance policies in the 1980s — policies that gave rise to the presence of cops in school. Touted as critical to fending off school shootings, drug dealers and general disorder, zero-tolerance practices morphed over time into a blizzard of student suspensions and arrests for minor indiscretions, many of them involving manhandling of kids by over-aggressive cops.  Now some are wondering whether the zero-tolerance ‘solution’ is turning out to be worse than the problem it was designed to address.  

Retro Report is a nonprofit documentary project that looks back at a major news event or hot controversy through the lens of history, examining how legislative actions or societal reactions played out after the headlines faded. The school-policing documentary is posted on both the Retro Report website and The New York Times website, which carries Retro Report pieces and produces written stories that accompany the documentaries.  We’ve linked to the documentary here as well.

The Center for Public Integrity has investigated harsh school discipline policies and school policing extensively. In 2011, the Center looked at suspensions and expulsions of students—including a 10-year-old accused of sexual battery—amid broader concerns that children were being criminalized and pushed into a “school-to-prison pipeline.”

In 2012, the Center probed school policing in Los Angeles, where the nation’s biggest school police force was issuing thousands of court citations to mostly Latino and black kids in low-income schools. Nearly half the citations were going to middle-school students, often for loosely defined allegations of disturbing the peace or violating daytime curfew by arriving tardy. Juvenile court judges asked for limits on policing, and the district and police instituted reforms.

In 2013, the Center documented how students in rural California were expelled from regular school for disciplinary reasons—sometimes with police involvement—and forced to enroll in alternative schools so far from home they were forced into home study. An eighth-grader of 13 expelled for a year was given tasks on Post-it stamps and only one visit a week with a teacher.

The Center in 2013 also looked at reactions to the 2012 Newtown, Conn. school shooting, among them the assigning of more police to schools. In 2015 the Center investigated national school-policing data showing that Virginia led in student-police contact that disproportionately affects children with disabilities, and those who are black or Latino. In one case, a Virginia officer charged an 11-year-old autistic boy with disorderly conduct for kicking a trash can—and later arrested him after the student left his sixth-grade class without permission and resisted being restrained.   

In 2015, the Center examined the high rate of arrests of students in San Bernardino, Calif. in mostly lower-income schools, and the manhandling of students, including a teen with Down syndrome who was hogtied and forced into court twice before charges of resisting an officer were dropped.

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