In October virtually every major media outlet ran a story about a 6-year-old boy who brought a Cub Scout utensil to school in Delaware. The boy wanted to eat his lunch with its little fork, but he ended up being suspended and threatened with reform school because the gadget had a knife on it.
The incident is one of a litany of examples that clearly show how "zero tolerance" school discipline policies have gone too far. The policies are at their worst when enforced by police officers stationed in schools to prevent serious incidents. Too often the cops end up being used as disciplinarians on matters that once would have been handled by school principals. Officers are handcuffing, pepper-spraying and arresting kids for being boisterous or cursing. The result is a flood of prosecutions and a wave of students denied education.
Child advocates have dubbed this phenomenon "the school-to-prison pipeline." Studies show that children who are jailed or forced to appear in court are more likely than their peers to drop out of school and get into trouble again. And it's unclear whether schools are getting safer.
A startling case in point is the juvenile court system of Clayton County, Georgia, which was buckling to the point of collapse in 2004. In the mid-'90s, after police officers were placed in the schools, the number of kids charged with crimes jumped 600 percent. By 2003, it had jumped another 400 percent. The increase wasn't due to felonies--the cops were enforcing a "zero tolerance" policy against disorderly conduct or disruption.
Juvenile Court Judge Steven Teske saw the problem. School police and probation officers could not do their jobs because the court was overloaded with minor cases that didn't belong there. "Technically, the behavior may be a crime," Teske said, using the example of a kid who gets into a fight to protect his sister. "But it shouldn't be, in the context of adolescent youth behavior."
So Teske brought together school officials, law enforcement, prosecutors, parents and heads of child-services programs. "I am telling you zero tolerance is not improving safety," he told them. Not everyone agreed. But it was obvious that too many kids were getting arrested. Teske proposed something rather ordinary: give kids warnings and a workshop on behavior before dragging them into court. The committee discussed it before a neutral arbiter.
Nine months later, Clayton County had a system that worked. As of 2008, the county had reduced the number of referrals by 68 percent, and in turn had seen another improvement: serious weapons charges were down 70 percent since 2004 (from sixty-three incidents to seventeen). Teske attributes the drop to the fact that officers are spending less time shuttling to court and more time gathering "intelligence" so future incidents can be avoided. Last year, instead of arresting a student who had gotten into a fight, Officer Robert Gardner talked to her. She spoke about a drug dealer's house two blocks from the school. The information led to a search, which yielded two AK-47s, two drums of ammunition, seven handguns, a shotgun, five pounds of pot and $7,000 in cash.
Everyone wants safe schools. But the Clayton model may prove that the best, most cost-effective way to neutralize violence is not by arresting kids. By paying attention to everyday circumstances, the potential for extraordinary tragedy is defused.
Different communities are now asking Clayton County, How did you do it? In 2008 Jay Blitzman, a judge in Middlesex County, Massachusetts, invited Teske for a lunch meeting with his community. It lasted three hours. Today Middlesex is looking for ways to adapt the Clayton model. Birmingham, Alabama, also plans to use it. And this fall, Teske will be touring the country talking about it with the help of the Annie E. Casey Foundation.
Maybe there's a lesson here. Paying attention to young people prevents day-to-day injustice. And young people who aren't treated like criminals are less likely to become them.