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School Discipline: When Should Law Enforcement Step In?

| April 19, 2012

This week, several schools and districts are grappling with the issue of when—if ever—it is appropriate for police officers to get involved with school discipline issues.

The Albuquerque school district, for example, is currently the defendant in a class action lawsuit over referring students to law enforcement for allegedly minor offenses. When a student was talking to her friend and refused to return to her seat, her teacher called the police.

In contrast, a Georgia six-year-old throwing a violent tantrum—which included destruction of property and assault, according to published reports—was arrested and taken away in a police cruiser. She was also put in handcuffs while in the cruiser, according to standard department policy, but to the outrage of many.

The Georgia example highlights that law enforcement may sometimes be required, but it is nevertheless essential that schools are not unduly relying on law enforcement and other serious disciplinary measures. A recent report out of California estimated that 40 percent of suspensions are for “willful defiance” or disrupting class.

This is a significant issue because suspensions translate to time out of school and lost education hours. Arrests for minor offenses often result in increased risks of further justice system involvement. While discipline is an important component of administering effective education, it is essential that it “fits the crime,” so to speak. Teachers and school district officials must create careful discipline policies that do not overly rely on the justice system or out-of-school suspensions for minor misbehavior that is more appropriately corrected with traditional school discipline methods.

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