Treating kids as criminals

February 5, 2013

A 7-year-old boy was handcuffed and arrested for stealing $5 from a classmate--but the case tells us much more about how our society functions, writes Don Lash.

THE ARREST of a 7-year old who taken from his elementary school in the Bronx in handcuffs has outraged people across the country--and focused attention on the criminalization of youth and the "school-to-prison pipeline."

In early December, Wilson Reyes was pulled out of a classroom and arrested by police. They claimed that four days earlier, he had bullied another child off school grounds and taken $5 from him.

The case came to light after Wilson's mother, Frances Mendez, filed a legal claim against the city in January. In it, her lawyer stated that Wilson was kept chained to a wall in the police precinct for 10 hours. An NYPD spokesman denied this, saying the child was handcuffed for "only" four hours and 40 minutes.

The story became a minor tabloid sensation in New York City, probably because Wilson's mother snapped a cellphone image of the young boy shackled to a station-house wall when she arrived at the precinct.

Reporters tracked down Seth Acevedo, the child who was allegedly robbed by Wilson Reyes and quoted his tearful wish--accompanied by video of the interview--that "police never took the cuffs off" Wilson, whom he said had bullied him repeatedly.

Seven-year-old Wilson Reyes' mother took this picture of him handcuffed inside a police station
Seven-year-old Wilson Reyes' mother took this picture of him handcuffed inside a police station

Press coverage has described Wilson Reyes as, among other things, a "tiny Bronx thug" and a "pint-sized perp." One anonymous officer defended the arrest by claiming Wilson supposedly had a history of bullying:

This kid is no angel, even though he may look like it. We made the arrest based on the complainant aggressively complaining about what the defendant did to him. This wasn't something where one kid runs off with another kid's basketball. This 7-year-old attacked someone and took his money. There's a little more to this story than it appears.

Initially, charges were filed in Family Court to have Wilson declared "delinquent." They have since been dropped.

While Wilson Reyes may not be in continuing legal jeopardy for the moment, it's unclear what the effect will be of the trauma of being arrested in school or chained to a wall for hours without a familiar adult around--or what continuing fear of police he will have, or whether he will ever have any feeling of trust and security in his school.

The NYPD has announced that its own Internal Affairs Bureau is reviewing the conduct of the arresting officer, Santos Collazo. Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott took a hands-off approach, refusing to comment because the incident occurred off school grounds, even though the arrest and initial interrogation occurred in a public elementary school.

THE FOCUS of all this investigative journalism is not the outrageous set of circumstances that resulted in a 7-year old being arrested in school, and the public schools system's acceptance of this outcome as the "new normal." Instead, it has been on "cracking the mystery" of who took the $5, and whether a 7-year old's bullying needed to be addressed.

The suggestion seems to be that if the boy who claimed Wilson took his money is telling the truth, the police reaction was valid, and Wilson's mother has nothing to complain about. Similarly, the NYPD seems to be saying that if Officer Collazo acted consistently with policy, there is no problem. If he didn't, he can be safely chastised.

What is lost is any sense of outrage that an officer treats what could be characterized as "age-appropriate misbehavior" by a 7-year old as a routine robbery investigation; where schools seemingly have no problem with armed police pulling students out of class for arrest and interrogation; and where the school system can offer no alternative to a parent who believes her child is being bullied by a school peer other than to march into her local precinct to report a "crime."

This case illustrates long-term trends in treating issues that should be handled by educators--with appropriate staffing and resources--as matters for a delinquency court and the juvenile justice system.

In October 2012, the Justice Department filed a lawsuit against the state of Mississippi and various government bodies in the city of Meridian, claiming the Meridian school district developed new policies to call the police and have students arrested for "crimes," such as using profanity, disrespect and failing to obey a teacher's directions.

The courts, probation and other agencies cooperated by promptly locked the children up without troubling themselves with the niceties of due process and effective legal representation. Every child arrested at the request of the school district was African American.

According to the Justice Department complaint, "Defendants in this case collectively help to operate a school-to-prison pipeline." That's a surprisingly concise and accurate statement, especially since there are many ways in which the same accusation could be made against the federal government, which has promoted "safe schools" initiatives that have contributed to the growing criminalization of students.

According to the New York Civil Liberties Union, during the 2008-09 school year, there were more than 5,200 "school safety agents" under the supervision of the NYPD in public schools. During the same school year, there were less than 3,200 guidance counselors.

Over-policing in the schools tends to generate arrests, as police personnel in the schools think like cops on the beat. Twenty-three percent of incidents involving a response from school safety agents were classified as "criminal offenses," rather than as behavior issues to be handled by school professionals. Putting large numbers of police into the schools inevitably leads to the schools being treated as crime scenes.

THE PROBLEM goes beyond arrests in school. "Zero tolerance" policies and reliance on suspension and expulsion rather than more effective means of addressing student behavior help to begin the process of pumping kids in to the pipeline.

The suspension rate nationally has doubled in the last two decades. Offenses that once warranted in-school punishment--"talking back" or being late--are now often the basis for interrupting students' instruction with suspension or expulsion. In Texas, of 1 million students studied by researchers for the Council of State Governments Justice Center, 60 percent had been suspended at least once between 7th and 12th grades. Approximately 15 percent were suspended repeatedly.

Not surprisingly, suspension rates vary widely by race. African American middle school boys are three times more likely to be suspended than white middle school boys, while African American girls are four times more likely to be suspended than white girls. Latino and Native American students are also more likely to be suspended, and there are widely varying patterns of disproportionality in different states, cities and school systems.

And in another link in the school-to-prison pipeline, of the 15 percent of students that experienced multiple suspensions in Texas, half eventually ended up in juvenile detention.

It's significant that the doubling of suspensions and expulsions has occurred at the same time as the adult incarceration rate has also more than doubled. There are now some 2.5 million children in the U.S. with a parent in jail. Nationally, 23 percent of students with a father in jail have been suspended or expelled, roughly six times the rate for students without a father in jail. Not only are students who have been suspended more likely to end up in juvenile detention, but juvenile detention then becomes a gateway to adult incarceration.

In a marvel of pipeline engineering, the output at the prison end of the pipeline helps to generate input at the school end.

People should be appalled by the oppressive conduct of Officer Collazo and infuriated by the passive acceptance of school officials in arresting 7-year old Wilson Reyes--but we shouldn't think this is an isolated example of the system "malfunctioning."

Instead, it's an example of the school-to-prison pipeline working exactly the way it is intended to function.

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