© Josh Sager – January 2012
Students in the United States are currently facing numerous problems with their educational system; these problems are widely varied and include issues ranging from the shrinking school budgets and resources to the decrease in extra-curricular activities. Out of all of the problems facing students in primary schools, the criminalization of students is arguably the most dangerous and costly. Unfortunately, there has been little to no public scrutiny on the criminalization of students, nor the motives behind this criminalization.
In recent years, behavioral problems in primary school students have transitioned from civil school offenses, punished by detentions, to criminal offenses, punished through fines and even jail time. Students who get in trouble, even for non-violent offenses, are increasingly likely to face jail time or significant fines rather than detentions or suspensions; this criminalization of student behaviors has been labeled the “school to prison pipeline” by activist groups, and has become a significant issue in some areas of the United States.
Here are just a few examples of the school to prison pipeline:
- A 13 year old student in Florida was arrested for farting in class, and charged with “disrupting school functions”.
- A 12 year old student in New York was handcuffed and arrested for writing “I love my friends Abby and Faith” on her desk in erasable pencil.
- A 10 year old student in Florida was arrested and charged with “possession of a weapon on school property” (a felony), for bringing a steak knife to school in order to cut a part of her lunch—a piece of steak.
- Two 8 year olds in New Jersey were arrested and charged for making “terroristic threats” when they used paper guns during a game of “cops and robbers”
The school to prison pipeline only serves to victimize students for normal childhood behavior and enforce draconian punishments on even minor discipline problems. While farting, doodling, fidgeting, or acting out in class may be irritating to teachers, there is no way that these things should become criminal offenses. Student discipline problems must be punished, but this punishment should be limited to detentions, suspensions or, in serious cases, expulsions.
When minor disciplinary offenses are criminalized, the students and families suffer immense consequences. Criminal records, even for trivial offenses, will follow a student around forever and can have terrible disruptive effects on later life. Fines and court fees are often heavily burdensome on families, particularly when the families are poor, and act as a backdoor tax on children’s education.
If a student is criminally charged, rather than simply given a detention, it goes on their record and can haunt them forever. Any student who has a criminal record often has a very difficult time obtaining financial assistance for college, and can often have a difficult time getting a job. Criminal records limit the options available to students and can often result in a huge decrease in lifetime achievement. Due to the severity of the consequences for criminalizing student behavior, it makes no sense to punish minor offenses criminally; some student offenses, such as assault, drug dealing, and theft, should be dealt with by the police, but farting in class is obviously not worthy of such criminal scrutiny.
Criminalizing student behavior often involves massive fines and court costs levied against the child’s families. Fines for “disruptive” conduct—such as farting, fidgeting, being late, or having untied shoes—and court costs have become commonplace in many schools which embrace the criminalization of student offenses; such fines and court costs quickly add up and can easily cost families hundreds of dollars a year. Families which are struggling in the modern economic woes of the United States cannot afford such costs and may face the choice between putting food on the table and paying the fines accrued when their child farted in class. If the fines and costs are not paid, the students will often face increased consequences and can sometimes be arrested and jailed for a failure to pay.
Fines and court costs are a type of backdoor tax which acts as a highly regressive source of income for schools. By increasing fines, schools are able to raise money from students’ families and politicians are able to claim that they aren’t raising taxes; as raising taxes is toxic in many conservative areas of the country (ex. Texas), fines and court costs are an effective way to fund schools on the backs of the least fortunate. By fining the poor and middle class students, schools are able to redistribute costs away from the general public and allow politicians to justify cutting taxes on the wealthy. Schools are given a financial motive to criminalize their disciplinary systems, and students are simply the innocent bystanders who are bled dry.
Not only is the criminalization of student offenses costly to students and their families, but it fosters discrimination. Recent studies by the Department of Education have shown that minority students are over 3 times more likely to receive punishments for discipline problems in schools; this problem is exacerbated further in many areas of the south, where racism and latent bigotry often increase this disparity between punishments. When combined with the disparities in punishment based upon race, the criminalization of students leads to a massive problem for minority students. Minority students are far more likely to face criminal punishments than white students and thus are far more likely to suffer the severe consequences associated with criminalized school offenses.
The situation which is created during the criminalization of students is one of a two tiered educational system: on top, there are the wealthy and white students who avoid punishment and are not likely to suffer severe criminal offenses; on the bottom, there are the poor and minority students who are arrested, fined, jailed, and labeled as criminals simply for acting like the children that they are.