Our public schools need to stop treating our children like criminals and focus on teaching them what they need to know in order to be well-adjusted, contributing members of our community. I know a large part of the population is in the punishment mode: If children commit violent acts they need to be punished and not coddled. This approach ignores the real issue. We need to teach our children proper behavior and responses to difficult situations. If we don’t teach them how to cope and just punish them, they will not learn how to avoid those same problems in the future. Many people believe that a negative consequence will deter bad conduct but that has proven not to be true. Studies on increased criminal penalties show there is no correlation between a penalty and the frequency of a crime. People, especially children, don’t stop and think of what the consequences might be in the heat of the moment.
Here are some examples from northern Nevada schools and how the criminal process is being abused and imposed on our children:
• An 8-year-old boy is asked by a teacher to walk a 5-year-old girl to the school bus at the end of the school day. He gets to the bus and sees the girl’s brother and jokingly says, “You owe me a quarter for taking her to the bus.” The next day the 8-year-old is interrogated by school police, the principal and the girl’s parents for alleged abuse to the girl. He is crying and asking for his mother when the officer says, ”Shut up, you are going to jail.” The 8-year-old is handcuffed and taken to juvenile jail where he is charged with battery and extortion. The next day the principal talks to the teachers and learns that they asked him to escort the girl and they saw him in the hall and there was no abuse. All charges are dropped. (The boy was Hispanic and the girl was white.)
• A 9-year-old boy goes to the restroom during class and when he gets there, there are two other boys in the bathroom using cell phones, which is prohibited. The boys ask the 9-year-old not to tell on them so he jokingly says, “Give me a dollar and I won’t tell,” and they do. The next day the 9-year-old is called into the office with the principal and a police officer. He is arrested for extortion and taken to juvenile jail. (The 9-year-old is Hispanic and the other boys are white). Charges are later dropped.
• A high school student is going on a three-day field trip and grabs his pillow and goes to the bus. He forgets that he hid a large pocket knife from his younger brother in the pillow case. The knife falls out when gear is being loaded and the student says, “Hey that’s my knife.” He is arrested after the trip and then expelled for a semester for bringing a weapon to school. There is no criminal prosecution.
• A black female high school student is walking to her locker and attacked by three Hispanic girls. Three other black girls join the affray. The police arrive and arrest not only the girls in the fight but the black girl’s brother who was watching the fight from a distance. The police considered him to be a known trouble-maker. He is pulled out of a car, handcuffed and thrown around on the ground and against a wall. He is charged with fighting and resisting arrest. He goes to trial and is acquitted on all charges.
We need our schools to talk to our children and educate them. All of the above scenarios could have been resolved just by talking with all the students involved and their parents. They could have told the children what was and wasn’t appropriate. Instead, the school officials invoked the criminal justice system to do what they should have done. Many times the juvenile probation officers do what the school should have done: They call in the parents and the child, discuss the problem and have the child write an essay. Why do we need them involved at all?
Our current school practices will continue to support the school-to-prison pipeline, all to the extreme detriment of our children. This is one pipeline that should never have been built.
Jeff Blanck is an attorney in private practice in Reno. He can be reached at email@example.com