© Josh Sager – September 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 mass privatization of public schools. Out of all of the issues facing K-12 student bodies, the criminalization of students is arguably the most dangerous and costly. Unfortunately, there has been little to no public scrutiny of this process of criminalization or of the motives behind it.
In recent years, disciplinary problems among primary school students have received new labels, and the consequences of these infractions have become more extreme. What were once considered instances of misbehavior, punished by detentions or suspension, are now designated criminal offenses, punished through fines and even jail time. Activist groups have called this criminalization of student behaviors the “school-to-prison pipeline.” It has become a controversial issue and a pervasive problem in some areas of the United States.
Here are just a few examples of the school-to-prison pipeline:
- A seventeen-year-old honor student in Florida was arrested and spent a night in jail for truancy, because she was working two jobs to support her siblings.
- A thirteen-year-old student in Florida was arrested for farting in class, and charged with “disrupting school functions.”
- A twelve-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 ten-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 eight-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.”
By imposing draconian punishments for even minor discipline problems, the school-to-prison pipeline threatens to ruin the lives of students on account of normal childhood behavior. No one is arguing that disruptive and disrespectful behavior should not be punished by schools; rather, the penalties should be limited to detentions, suspensions or, in serious cases, expulsions. Through limiting these punishments in this way, misbehavior can be punished without causing long-term harm to students.
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, particularly when the families are poor, acting as a backdoor tax on children’s education.
If a student is criminally charged, rather than simply given a detention, it goes on his or her record and can haunt him or her forever. Students who acquire criminal records often have a difficult time obtaining financial assistance for college and may have a difficult time getting jobs. Criminal records limit the options available to those who have them and are likely to result in a huge decrease in lifetime achievement.
Not only is the criminalization of student offenses costly to students and their families, but it fosters discrimination.
Criminalizing student behavior often involves massive fines and court costs levied against the child’s family. Court costs and fines for “disruptive” conduct—such as farting, fidgeting, being late, or having untied shoes—have become commonplace in many of the schools that have embraced the criminalization of student offenses. Such fines and court costs quickly add up and can easily cost families hundreds of dollars a year. Households struggling amid 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 misbehaved in class.
If fines and court costs are not paid, the students will often face increased consequences and can sometimes be arrested and jailed for a failure to pay. Once a student reaches the age of 17, they can be jailed for failure (or inability) to pay legal fines—we see examples of this in cases like that of Francisco De Luna, of Texas. Over the course of De Luna’s school career, he accrued over $10,000 in fines from offenses such as dress-code violations and disrespectful behavior towards teachers. Once he reached the age of 17, De Luna was arrested and jailed for 18 days for refusal to pay fines.
Fines and court costs are a type of “backdoor tax,” which acts as a highly regressive source of income for schools. By increasing fines, two goals are achieved: schools are able to raise money from students’ families, and politicians are able to claim that they aren’t raising taxes. (Since raising taxes is politically toxic in many conservative areas of the country, fines and court costs have become an effective way to fund schools on the backs of the least fortunate.) By fining the poor and middle class students, schools 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 the supposedly the guilty culprits, who are often irreparably harmed in the process.
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 three times more likely to receive punishments for disciplinary problems in schools. According to these studies, this disparity is even greater in certain areas of the South. Thus, the school-to-prison pipeline creates a disproportionately massive problem for minority students. They are far more likely to face criminal penalties than white students.
The situation that is created during the criminalization of students is one of a two-tiered educational system: On top, wealthy and white students avoid punishment and are not likely to suffer severe criminal offenses; on the bottom, poor and minority students are arrested, fined, jailed, and labeled as criminals simply for acting like the children they are.
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.