Students Aren't Criminals, They're Here to Learn
18 Jul in
By Kristin Schwam, Dignity in Schools Campaign
In a recent opinion piece for the New York Times, op-ed columnist David Brooks made an assertion that was as controversial as it was interesting. Mr. Brooks maintained that if Shakespeare’s “rambunctious” character Henry V had attended a modern-day American school, he would most likely not have lived up to the school’s standards. Mr. Brooks predicted that Henry would not only miss a lot of recess time as punishment for his misdeeds, but also most likely be suspended, and that teachers would probably suggest to the prince’s parent that Henry be put on ADHD meds.
If the prince did in fact attend a public school in the United States today, all of this would happen before his 6th birthday.
Furthermore, if Prince Henry attended a public school that happened to be heavily policed, he would likely have been treated as a criminal for getting into fights with his fellow students, arrested, and never given the chance to be King, or at least hold public office.
If you’re one of the few who managed to read all three Shakespeare plays that featured Prince Henry you will remember that (spoiler alert!) Henry manages to grow out of his rowdy stage and eventually leads a group of exhausted soldiers, who are hopelessly outnumbered five to one, into battle and, ultimately, to victory.
Kids like Prince Henry aren’t criminals; they might be strong-willed and even get into fights, but they are not criminals. Yet by keeping large numbers of police in school, and arresting students for typical childhood and adolescent behavior instead of addressing the issues that cause the behavior through counseling and other positive discipline practices, aren’t we telling them that they are criminals and therefore inherently bad?
In the wake of the Columbine high school shooting, legislators and school boards around the country introduced a police presence and metal detectors into schools and adopted zero-tolerance policies. Just as it is becoming clear that a “one size fits all” discipline policy is not the best way to keep students in school, it is also becoming just as clear that vast numbers of police in school do not help students flourish or necessarily make schools any safer.
In New York City public schools alone, more than 5,000 school resource officers employed by the New York City Police Department (NYPD), as well as 200 armed police officers, patrol the hallways, making schools feel more like prisons than places to grow and learn. In New York City schools, while there are more than 5,000 school resource officers, there are only about 3,152 guidance counselors. What type of message does it send to students when they see more adults in uniforms than adults willing and able to help them work through personal issues, or to advise them academically?
In Texas, the police issued more than 300,000 Class C misdemeanor tickets to students across the state for behaviors like throwing paper airplanes, or shouting in the school yard. Some of the tickets which were issued, were given to students who were as young as six years old. Class C misdemeanors can lead to fines, community service, and even prison time. Throwing a paper airplane or spraying perfume in class might earn a student a trip to a police station instead of the principal’s office. When a student is issued a Class C misdemeanor and pays the fine for it, he or she now has a criminal record and is not eligible for financial aid. One teenager in a Texas public school was arrested and sent to court after he and his girlfriend poured milk on each other after they broke up.
The more students are treated as criminals for childhood and adolescent behaviors that are part of the natural process of growing up, the faster the United States’ incarceration rate grows, a rate which is already the highest in the world. According to the California Department of Education, the state spends $8,818 to educate one K-12 student per year, but, according to the Legislative Analyst Office, the state spends $179,400 a year imprisoning one K-12 aged juvenile. Wouldn’t United States tax payers rather see their money going towards educating youth rather than imprisoning them?
The Federal government is finally acknowledging how bizarre and ridiculous it is to use policing tactics as part of school discipline. U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder recently said, “That is something that clearly has to stop.” Clearly, public schools that employ police officers to keep the peace are failing their students when a student’s chance to go to college is diminished because he threw a paper airplane in the cafeteria or used offensive language.
Whatever happened to giving youth a chance to grow? The increased appearance of police in public schools is certainly not sending the message “We believe in you.” Instead, the large numbers of police in school are sending a message to students that school is not a place to learn from your mistakes, but rather to be punished for them. It is completely possible, even probable, that students who are disruptive in middle school or high school will flourish after they graduate. Science tells us that the human brain does not fully mature until age 25, so why criminalize a student for being young? Give students a chance to thrive instead of pushing them out of school and into a 6’ x 8’ cell.
It’s a good thing Henry V took place in England during the Hundred Years’ War. Odds are, had Prince Hal gone to public school in New York or Texas, the world would never have heard the famous motivational “St. Crispin’s Day Speech.” He would have been too busy doing time.