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Arresting School Kids: Tide Turns Against Zero Tolerance

| December 8, 2011

Several news stories across the United States last month focused on the alarming increase in the number of students arrested inside public schools—and for alarmingly minor behavior.

The Justice Policy Institute recently released a large study on the use of police officers in schools and the resulting arrest rates of students. The report discusses how reports of victimization and bullying have no correlation, positive or negative, with the presence of police officers in schools.

Further, schools with in-house police officers are funneling more kids into the juvenile justice system. A study of such schools found that five times as many students were arrested for disorderly conduct at those schools, even when controlling for economic factors.

More evaluation is needed of circumstances in each school and district so that policymakers can determine the extent to which police are actually necessary. While some law enforcement presence might be needed in certain locations at certain times, that presence should be clearly related to a function that cannot be better performed by other types of personnel. For example, ticketing a student for chewing gum, as has happened in Texas, is an example of minor misbehavior that would have been handled better through other means — and by educational personnel. Securing a campus from outside threats, on the other hand, falls well within the role that law enforcement is uniquely qualified to fill.

Arresting kids for minor misbehavior that would more appropriately be addressed by school and parental discipline imposes a high cost on the juvenile justice system, and states are taking notice.

Florida passed a law two years ago to restrict arrests to “serious safety threats” on school campuses, aiming to decrease the rate of juveniles arrested for misbehavior. In that state, schoolyard arrests reached an all-time high of 28,000 in the 2004-2005 school year. Lawmakers fear that the new law hasn’t had enough of an impact on these arrests, and they plan to consider civil citations, counseling, and mentoring options, or even more strict limits on arrests.

Massachusetts stakeholders will be releasing a report on this practice in the early part of next year, while a bipartisan legislative taskforce in Colorado plans to introduce a bill reinstating discretion at the local level and eliminating some mandatory expulsion policies.

Decreasing the number of kids arrested for non-criminal behavior is a step in the right direction for every state in the union, because the result is likely to be lower costs and more kids graduating from school to lead productive, law-abiding lives.

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