Sunday, February 03, 2008

The Criminalization Of Misconduct

The myopic, seemingly p.r.-driven decision was made to install police officers on middle school campuses this year. About this atrocity, I wrote:
When you bring an officer onto campus, you undermine [the teachings of inclusion and full adult control]. Rather than sending the message to kids that adults expect your best and are fully in control of the school environment, the patrolling presence of police sends the message that we expect your worse and are not in control. Rather than sending the message that you will do the right thing because strong, successful people do so naturally, we are sending the message that you will do the right because we will punish you otherwise. We once used the phrase family to describe the school environment we sought to create. External controlling agents are no part of any family I know. Instead of kids hearing a message of inclusion and warmth, one that softens that self-defeating mantle of hard so many reach for, we are sending a hardening message that this is a place for thugs, a ghetto place where the kids are so bad actual armed police officers are needed to ensure control.

Every word of that has been born out and proved accurate this year. Every word has been driven home not only by the presence of the police, but through the actions of an unsettled first-year administrator, who has consistently and obstinately brought a police presence into areas of school function in which they can serve no beneficial purpose. This isn't even about the absurd rate of suspension, the removal of dignity in discipline situations, or just the daily unpleasantness that has arisen on campus. This is about how the police have been used to undermine and chip away at the very core of what it was that made our school a successful and special place.

This year, officers have been brought into discipline scenarios time and time again in defiance of our norms, understandings, and wishes, but apparently in compliance with the wishes of district leadership. The inclusion of police represents a continued gross escalation and over-reaction. We're not talking about a kid selling drugs or using a weapon in an assault. Those are crimes. Our kids are being put into the system, cited and arrested over actions that, while unacceptable, are nevertheless not criminal. A playground fight is not a crime. Yelling things at someone is not a crime. Being a jerk to a 6th grader is not a crime. Having a Sharpie in your posession is not a crime.

Students at my school have received citations and court dates for all these actions.

It's awful. We do not need more black and brown kids in the criminal justice system. We do not need kids with booby-trapped cumulative files, rigged for explosion the first time they step out of line, because suddenly it's a pattern and a repeat offense. We do not need to set so many kids up for failure in navigating legal whitewater (as if it's so out of the realm of possibility that we're handing out court dates to families who lack the money, social capital, immigration status, or plain with-it-ness to get themselves through something like that in an acceptable way). We do not need to function this way to have an orderly, safe campus.

This is what we do now. Kid gets sent to the office, there's almost no chance they escape interaction with a police officer, no matter how piddling the offense. Citations are written at such a mind-boggling rate that teachers have been told officers are too encumbered with paperwork to remove trespassers from campus. I hate it. I see the reliance on, and the acceptance of, a police role in routine matters of discipline and I want to vomit. But this is what we do now.

This is never what we have done.

We moved from a state-rank of 1 to 5, obtained a like-schools rank of 10, quadrupled the number of proficient students, advanced from the worst middle school in the county to the best in the District, and at no time did we need a daily police presence handing out citations, threatening students with a harassment charge if they continued to make animal noises, or entering classrooms to support an otherwise ineffectual and weak administrator in matters of minor discipline. We've presented our success in two states, to numerous county and district officials, received visits from dozens of schools, and every time they want to hear about the instruction, about the scheduling, about the professional development attended, about the extended school day. They want to hear about the mechanics of structural and instructional reform, but the thing that really made the difference, the thing that enabled all those other reforms to take root and be effective is much more simple and direct: We agreed to see in our kids their best, and demand it from them, daily.

This is what Defy The Myth meant. These kids can learn, they want to learn, and it's our job to take the learning to them. We must take our teachings to them and not demand, ever, that they come to us. We will not scream at kids from across a chasm of misunderstanding; we will use our powerful minds and hands to build a big-ass bridge to bring them over. When you defy this myth, you are able to differentiate between esthetic and personality, between a front and a reality, between an annoyance and a disruption, between misconduct and a criminal act. When you defy this myth, you are able to see misbehavior as something unfortunate that contradicts, rather than confirms, your expectations.

The myth is on its way back, and let's be clear about what this means: We have placed our feet upon a path that will pull us back into the bucket, pull us back down into that dank place where there is no unity, no sense of purpose, no common goal, no pursuit of excellence, just a fractured group of individuals, some getting by, some making it worse, some fighting every minute to push out the darkness that once seemed so small and far away.

I feel the slip, and wait for the rupture.


Blogger Jenny said...

What you've described is much too common in many schools today. An administrator can truly make or break a school, and, can clearly make or break a young person's future. It all comes down to what we believe about our students. Your administrator apparently believes that your students are delinquents before giving them a chance to be anything else. That's criminal.

3:30 AM  
Anonymous Believe in the Delta. said...

This reminds me of my school, except instead of police officers to scare the kids straight, we've got paddles.

I mean, our principal is really doing his job well when kids (high schoolers) run like hell to get to class on time after seeing him pace the grounds with a 3 foot long paddle gripped in his right hand.

Or better yet: when he paddles kids right outside my classroom door just so the other kids can hear the thwacks and yelps.

3:48 PM  
Anonymous Jeri said...

When you write like this, about this kind of travesty, I get riled up as if I were a parent of one of your students wrongfully treated as a criminal. Makes me wonder if admin might be another place you could make a big difference.

5:14 PM  
Anonymous Rich said...

Jeez, I wish I were 28 years old and had it all figured out like you...

10:11 PM  
Blogger TMAO said...

28 1/2.

5:17 AM  
Blogger Nancy Flanagan said...

Great post, TMAO. This old (28 x 2) teacher concurs--and notes that real (not rent-a) cops are now a feature even in supposedly safe, cushy suburban schools. They're the ones pushing for the drug-sniffing dogs. Perhaps this is just good sense--or perhaps it is make-work for the police.

My friends in Detroit, where cops are regularly found in middle schools, say that having a police presence leads to prison protocols and behaviors: having kids walk with their hands crossed over their chest during hallway passings, silent lunch periods, locking kids into the cafeteria with drop-down metal grids.

You may get some snarling-wolf posters claiming that we're just preparing kids for their future when we introduce a police state into middle schools (or that building a nationwide force of school police at least keeps people employed)--but your points about personal responsibility, and building communities where good behavior is expected rather than forced are right on.

6:10 AM  
Blogger EmL said...

I too am interested in the effects of building policy on students. Though I teach in a safe districts, I'm blown away every day by the trickle down effect caused by the administration. It is amazing how much lack of vision from a unified staff can affect the students' daily learning experience.

5:30 PM  
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2:49 PM  
Blogger Peter A. Stinson said...

Er, a playground fight that involves hitting is called assault and, at least here in the Commonwealth of Virginia, assault is against the law.

And, if you don't think it's so where you live, head on down to your local watering hole, tie one on, and then punch the guy sitting next to you.

3:38 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

A playground fight in Falls Church isn't assault. A playground fight in Newport News is assault.

A playground fight in Greenwich isn't assault. A playground fight in New Haven is assault. Get it?

9:24 PM  
Blogger TMAO said...


Anon nailed for it you, so I'll not belabor any additional distinctions between age, sobriety, and the nature of school authority vs. the full legal authority of the state, and just say that criminalizing youth in the name of protecting, teaching, and leading youth, is as absurd as that old hippie saw about fighting in the name of peace and screwing in the name of virginity.

10:22 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's tragic when a big ego and incompetence ruins what took so much effort and thought to create. Sadly these type of administrators seem to destroy schools all the time.

8:06 AM  
Anonymous pseudostoops said...

Wincing at the description of what's going on and agreeing 100% with the sentiment.

9:40 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The same type of thing has happened at my school. Under our current administrator, we've enclosed our campus in fences and added a probation officer on campus. We had a very quiet campus before these changes, so the only change has been adding an oppressive atmosphere.
I agree with all who've noted the incredible power of a principal in education now. This seems to be an incredible leap over the last 20 years.
This is why I'm surprised so many teachers support increasing administrator power with merit pay for teachers and the removal of tenure. Do you think these same administrators will be making reasonable decisions about who is a good teacher?

12:32 PM  
Blogger TMAO said...

Last anon,

Don't conflate the issues of merit pay and the criminalization of juvenile misconduct. There are countless models of merit pay that don't increase administrative power -- some have been proposed within the digital pages of this very blog -- and deserve the support of every teacher.

On the hand, the scurrlious behavior of the type of administrator written about here and in the comment deserves only our contempt.

6:56 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What if a parent is wrongfully treated as a criminal?

My six-year-old came to school with a bruise on his neck and my husband and I have to meet with Child Protective Services. No one called to ask us how he got the bruise. It was a hickey.

The unfortunate thing is that my son told someone his Dad bit him. When I asked him why he said that, he said it was because he was embarrassed to tell them his Dad kissed him. Not only did he tell children, but he told the librarian who then in turn...well, you get the picture.

Now, I've been at this particular school for four years. Not once, until now, has either of my children come to school with a bruise on them. No where in their school record would you find suspicion of child abuse written. I volunteer in the school, attend every conference, every school play. My husband and I are visible.

When I questioned the principal, she said it wasn't a judgment call. She had to follow the law. My son said his Dad bit him.

The vp said, "Well, he'll know next time not to use those words. "Your son is a goof ball and he needs to know that his immaturity (he is six) will get him into trouble."

Were they indeed following the law?
There is a twist to this story. Last year, my husband and I wanted to move our oldest son out of a particular classroom, the principal said no. After several weeks of trying to negotiate with her, we asked to speak with her supervisor. My child was moved to another class. I can tell you she was not happy about this decision.

Is this a case of malicious intent or was she really trying to follow the law as she said? I seriously doubt she would have done this to one of the PTA parents. As a matter of fact, I know she wouldn't have.

I know the case is unfounded. We have yet to talk with the CPS investigator and the incident occurred over two weeks ago.

I understand that there are children being neglected and abused. My mother was a foster parent. I could tell you some stories about abuse.

What message does this send to parents?

5:44 AM  
Blogger TMAO said...

Uh, your six-year-old had a hickey?

5:34 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yes..first, of all get your head out of the gutter. My six-year-old was trying to kick my husband and he held him down and kissed him. He didn't think he was giving him a hickey! My son hates to be kissed or hugged because he thinks it isn't cool.

Just wait until you have children. Come back and talk to me then.

5:48 PM  
Blogger TMAO said...

Will do.

6:02 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

For a "teacher" you make plenty of false statements.

In California it IS a crime to fight in public (including playgrounds). This statute falls under 415 of the penal code.

Yelling, for example, IS a crime IF the person yelling is challenging another to fight or the student is making statements likely to produce a violent reaction, which would be a violation of 415 pc.

In California it IS a crime for a person under 18 years of age to possess vandalism tools (ie. spray paint and marking pens. 594.2 pc).

As a matter of fact you (as a teacher) are mandated to report student crimes or crimes committed against students to the police. Failure to do so IS a crime in California.

The officers are doing what is required, by law, which is to cite the offenders. If you disagree with such laws then lobby your state assembly for a change in statute.

It is alarming to me that you seem to be lobbying on behalf of the law violators instead of defending the children who are there to learn.

Instead of placing blame on the police and the school administration maybe you should look at the parent's ability to raise their children and the social-economic environment they are constantly exposed to. Perhaps you will discover this is where much of the behavioral problems begin.

Granted the children with behavioral problems need special attention but not at the cost of other children that want to follow the rules (and laws) and get an education.

Even children's actions have consequences. It's part of growing up and becoming responsible adults.

10:36 PM  
Anonymous Mr. K said...

This post led me to reminisce about a completely different approach that worked well at a pretty tough school.

4:21 PM  
Blogger TMAO said...


Yours is the attitude and approach that I find so baffling, both as a quote teacher unquote, and as a human being. Of course there are statutes that support officer’s actions; nice job digging them up. The issue here is whether these statutes ought to be applied to minor children who make mistakes (once!) and without malice of forethought, whether school authority should be subverted and replaced by the full controlling agency of the state, whether schools and communities benefit from the draconian application of law, and whether we tolerate a massive inequity in enforcement that is played out along ethnic and socio-economic lines.

None of the actions you mentioned would get you arrested if you had lighter skin, richer parents, and attended school ten miles away in any cardinal direction. Nor should they. What is the compelling argument for bringing an ever-increasing percentage of the poor, brown, teenage population into the criminal justice system? What is the compelling argument for making a scuffle between 12-year-olds a criminal offense, rather than a school offense? Who benefits?

The decision to invest time and resource into punishment over prevention has been successful exactly never, regardless of time period or social arena. There is no reason to think ratcheting up the court appearances for kids will prevent future misbehavior. No, it hardens kids who already too hard, sends the message that adults would rather punish than teach, and creates an exclusive, rather than inclusive school culture.

Your concern for the other, presumably law-abiding children is nice, but misguided. We quadrupled student proficiency rates without a police presence. We achieved a like-school rank of 10 without handing out citations like so much proverbial candy. We became a school that received visits from dozens of schools, dozens of districts, and busloads of CABE and NABE attendees, without criminalizing minor offenses, no matter how the statutes read. School authority proved more than sufficient to maintain a safe and orderly campus. The presence of officers and the willingness of some to misuse this presence is a solution to a non-existent problem, and the cause of greater problems in its own right.

This morning on my way to work I saw a number of pre-teens jaywalking, as prohibited by California vehicle code 21954-21955. As a quote teacher unquote, I should have immediately called the police and had them cited and detained, because taking responsibilities for one’s actions is part of growing up, right?


6:56 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Obviously I didn't make the laws that exist in the state. Since you disagree with them you might want to try and change them.

All the violations in my prior post were misdemeanors, which as a mandated reporter you are required to ... well... report them.

Your "jaywalking" scenario is an infraction, which must be observed directly by a peace officer for enforcement. Sorry but you can't exercise your mandatory reporting on that one.

Your "white" kid vs "brown" kid arrest/citation ratio is ludicrous. Where are you getting you information from?

The difference is in the court system. Your so-called "rich" kids are more likely to afford private attorneys with more savvy practices and aggressive tactics, which subsequently lowers criminal filing and convictions from the District Attorney's office.

Street level crime occurs everywhere although I believe it is more prevalent in lower class neighborhoods. We have to ask ourselves why this is happening. I don't believe its as simple as a race issue between an overzealous government agency and the citizens.

An arrest or citation for fighting doesn't necessarily mean these children are going to be incarcerated.

It may mean anger management classes or perhaps some professional level counseling to uncover why some children are having behavioral problems. I'm assuming these poor parents couldn't otherwise afford to pay for private sessions with a doctor since they struggle to simply make ends meet.

It sounds like you all are doing a great job with the kid's education in the difficult environment you're working in but I still believe that kids need to know there are consequences to their actions.

If the child's behavior is not criminal in nature then the school should handle it without the police.

If there are kids committing crimes, such as fist fighting (which may be gang related) it creates an unsafe environment for other students who aren't causing problems.

I believe the children who are there to learn deserve to have any opportunities, however few, afforded to them so they can succeed.

Unfortunately that will involve police intervention for kids that are showing signs of criminal behavior.

8:41 PM  
Blogger TMAO said...


Teachers are mandated reporters of child abuse, not every misdemeanor they may or may not suspect to have occurred. Your interpretation of penal codes as applied to children in school settings is grossly black-and-white. All laws are applied and enforced with various degrees of judgment, judgement which is mediated and based upon nearly countless factors. With children in an education setting, the decision to move from school authority to the full legal authority of the state ought to be fully thought through, fully warranted, and rare. It should not be the norm; it should not be the default condition.

Nor should it be dressed up in the tattered rags of what's-best-for-the-good-kids argumentation. This implies non-police adults are incapable of maintaining a safe and orderly school environment. This is clearly false. Moreover, your implication that draconian criminal enforcement of routine student misconduct affects only the-bad-kids-with-bad-parents is naive and dangerous, the kind of overly simplistic reasoning that is currently found in great abundance round these parts. To think that ALL kids are not intimidated, left cold, and made to feel less welcome when they observe their peers subjected to the kind of bizarrely heightened and unnecessary criminal enforcement is just absurd. Absurd.

Even if we assume there is no proportional ethnic difference in arrest rates statewide (which I highly doubt), there is a clear difference in how police are assigned to schools along ethnic and socioeconomic lines, and a clear difference in how kids fare once introduced into the criminal justice system. Your parsing of arrest vs. judicial process is massively unconvincing. The kids who look like everyone I teach will fare worse that kids who look differently, and the end result for them and the future of their families is the same. Whether the cause is in arrests or the resulting court system, we're talking about massive inequity and the fact that I am even nominally a part of all this turns my stomach.

Our real difference, though, is found in your last sentence. You write: "Unfortunately that will involve police intervention for kids that are showing signs of criminal behavior."

See, I think a mere sign of criminal behavior is nowhere near sufficient grounds for police intervention, which serves to merely escalate and punish. These so-called signs, which require folks to possess the capacity to differentiate between esthetics and reality, are signals of the need for intervention, care, and the teaching of better ways -- not a punishment, and the end of the conversation.

10:11 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yes thank you so much for answering my posts. Good luck with everything.

12:28 AM  
Anonymous Angus said...

Wow. And I feel sorry for the police too. THe y probably have WAAAAAAAAAY better things to be doing than patroling the hallways. (Are these the "best" cops on the force, or is it for those officers who didn't meet their quota of speeding tickets?)

What if the resources spent on the enforcement of school rules was spent in the classroom?

9:29 PM  

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