Putting the cuffs on kids

Nicole Colson reports on the case of a kindergartner arrested for having a tantrum at school and the larger pattern of students--especially Black students--being criminalized in the classroom.

Salecia JohnsonSalecia Johnson

A 6-year-old child, handcuffed and charged with assault. Most people would be horrified by that image--but it's exactly what happened in mid-April to a Georgia kindergartner named Salecia Johnson.

After the African American kindergartner threw a tantrum--which reportedly included throwing a shelf that struck the school principal in the leg--police were called with a report that a "juvenile" had assaulted the principal at Creekside Elementary School and damaged school property.

Police say they found the girl crying on the floor of the principal's office. One of the officers claims he tried to calm her, but she then "pulled away and began actively resisting and fighting with me."

Imagine that: Uniformed cops with guns only made a miserable crying child more upset.

"The child was then placed in handcuffs for her safety, and the officer proceeded to bring her down to the police station," Milledgeville Police Chief Dray Swicord explained to CNN. Swicord justified the handcuffing of the 6-year-old, stating there are no exceptions to department policy and that it's done "for their own safety."

Salecia's aunt, Candace Ruff, went with Salecia's mother to pick the child up from the police station. According to Ruff, Salecia was by herself in a holding cell and complained about the handcuffs. "She said they were really tight. She said they really hurt her wrists," Ruff told the Associated Press. "She was so shaken up when we went there to pick her up."

Salecia was charged with "simple battery of a schoolteacher" and "criminal damage to property"--before someone finally came to their senses and decided it would be inappropriate to charge a 6-year-old with a felony.

But the school did expel Salecia for the rest of the year. She will be unable to return until August.

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"CALL THE police? Is that the first step?" Salecia's mother, Constance Ruff, asked a CNN reporter, wondering if there was "any other kind of intervention" the school could have used.

Sadly, in far too many schools, police intervention is used all the time, even for very young students' disciplinary problems.

According to a recent Associated Press report, a similar incident took place in 2005 in Pinellas County, Fla., when "officers arrested a kindergartner who threw a tantrum during a jelly bean-counting contest. Since then, the overall number of student arrests in Florida has declined, but those for minor offenses have increased on a percentage basis."

J'aiesha Scott, the child who was arrested, was also African American.

According to a 2011 report from the Florida ACLU, that incident was representative of the "school-to-prison pipeline" in which "zero-tolerance" policies and a lack of due process for kids in schools see children "channeled out of public schools into the juvenile and criminal justice systems." Such policies disproportionately target students of color as well as those with learning disabilities and those from poor families.

As Judith Browne Dianis, co-director of the Advancement Project, wrote:

Salecia, like J'aeisha, has had an early ride on what we call the schoolhouse-to-jailhouse track. They like millions of other children in this country are victims of the school-to-prison pipeline--a system of zero-tolerance policies in schools across the nation that takes an unyielding approach to student discipline and where children of color are punished more often and more severely for minor misbehavior than their white peers. It is a system where common sense becomes irrelevant as intolerance reigns and the consequences are high--academic failure, criminal charges, and damage to psyche.

Consider the following examples:

-- Annette Montano, a mother in Albuquerque, N.M., said her 13-year-old son was arrested last year after burping in gym class. Eventually, her son became a target of the administration, she alleges--including being subjected to a strip search after being accused of marijuana possession.

-- Also in Albuquerque, police were called when a 13-year-old girl refused a teacher's request to stop talking with her friend or move to another seat.

-- In Dallas, Ga., a 12-year-old girl was arrested after buying items to help a classmate pierce her belly button. She was charged with "reckless conduct."

-- According to Browne Diania, a 14-year-old Florida girl recently spent 21 days in jail for hitting another student with a pencil.

-- In Denver, a 10th grade Latino student was taken down to the police station and charged with a crime for writing on a bathroom stall.

--In 2009, 25 Chicago middle school students--aged 11 to 15--were arrested, put in jail and charged with "reckless conduct" after a food fight. "My children have to appear in court," Erica Russell, the mother of two eighth-grade girls who spent eight hours in jail, told the New York Times. "They were handcuffed, slammed in a wagon, had their mug shots taken and treated like real criminals."

In Albuquerque alone, statistics show that for the 2009-2010 school year, some 500 children were handcuffed, arrested and brought to juvenile detention--more than 200 for minor offenses, including disorderly conduct, resisting arrest, refusing to obey and interference with staff.

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IT'S IMPORTANT to say that public school teachers--who are often overworked, underpaid and burdened with increased class sizes and the drive to conform to high-stakes standardized testing--are not to blame for this phenomenon.

Instead, it is a system which fails to put enough resources into educating children--especially those who are the most vulnerable and challenged--and the institutional racism that affects society from top to bottom, including in our schools, from even the earliest ages.

In March, a national study of kindergarten though high school-age children released by the Department of Education showed that Black children, especially Black boys, face much harsher discipline in public schools. As the New York Times noted:

Although Black students made up only 18 percent of those enrolled in the schools sampled, they accounted for 35 percent of those suspended once, 46 percent of those suspended more than once, and 39 percent of all expulsions, according to the Civil Rights Data Collection's 2009-10 statistics...

One in five Black boys and more than one in 10 Black girls received an out-of-school suspension. Overall, Black students were three-and-a-half times as likely to be suspended or expelled than their white peers. And in districts that reported expulsions under zero-tolerance policies, Hispanic and Black students represent 45 percent of the student body, but 56 percent of those expelled under such policies.

This includes Trayvon Martin--who had been suspended from his Florida high school as a result of a "zero-tolerance" policy after an empty baggie allegedly containing traces of marijuana was found among his posessions. It was during this suspension that Trayvon was gunned down by George Zimmerman.

The depth of racism is obvious from stories as well as statistics. For example, in Hillside, Ill., the kindergarten class of Sunnyside Elementary School was taken for a tour of the Hillside Police Department--though parents had signed permission slips authorizing a field trip to the library, not to a jail.

Six-year-old Stephen Stovall, who is African American, came home to tell his mother and grandmother that his class had been locked in a jail cell--a charge which the police chief later denied, though he admitted that the children had seen the "holding" area, which also has bars.

District officials later acted as though Stovall's family were overreacting when they complained, according to Stephen's grandmother Flora Ware.

But it's no overreaction when young Black children are systematically targeted under the system in which we live: warehoused in failing, underfunded and segregated schools; targeted and profiled by a racist "justice" system; and more likely to be un- and under-employed in the long term.

As Sarah Knopp writes in Education and Capitalism:

The reason why many urban segregated schools are left to languish without resources is in large part the legacy of racism; "those kids" don't deserve what kids in the suburbs have. As long as Black youth can be painted as a "criminal" or "unemployable" element, people can continue to pretend that everyone has an equal opportunity for an education and for those who don't get ahead must have themselves to blame.

Just as we won't win more resources for our schools without taking on racism, we also can't beat segregation and other forms of oppression without a struggle for economic justice for our schools and against the economic system where the few dominate the many.