On Handcuffed and Felonious Children

What should have been a minor incident at an Ocala, Fla., elementary school has attracted national attention because of the school’s response.

Two boys, aged 9 and 10, were charged with second-degree felonies and taken away in handcuffs by the police because they drew stick figures depicting violence against a third student.

There was no act of violence, no weaponry. According to news reports, the arrested children had no prior history of threatening the student depicted in the drawing. The parents were not advised or consulted. The school’s immediate response was to call the police and level charges “of making a written threat to kill or harm another person.”

The incident was not an aberration but one of three similar occurrences in the Florida school system during the same week. In another case, a 6-year-old was led away in handcuffs by police. And those three incidents are only the ones that managed to attract media attention.

Another indication that the incident is not an aberration: The police have adamantly and repeatedly defended the slapping of cuffs and felony charges onto the 9 and 10-year-olds.

Arresting young children for a crayon drawing, not unlike the games of hangman we once all played, is the ultimate meaning and logic of Zero Tolerance.

Zero tolerance involves the application of law in an extreme and uncompromising manner to any activity, violent or not, that is deemed to be anti-social.

It applies to everyone, regardless of circumstances such as age, intent or prior history.

Zero tolerance has spread through society largely due to the reasonable fear with which people have responded to the school shootings at Columbine and the still-stunning tragedy of Sept. 11. The fear is reasonable. But the ongoing response is not.

No one – not the police, not the government, no school official – has the right to brutalize a child for using crayons. And the people who reasonably supported zero tolerance as a way to make schools safer never envisioned a police state in which 6-year-olds are handcuffed.

Parents are finally saying “NO!”

The battle against zero tolerance is being waged on the local and state level. One such local battlefield is in Katy, Texas. One such parent is Derek Hoggett. His 13-year-old daughter Gabrielle was suspended from school due to a butter knife packed in her lunch. Because of braces, Gabrielle needed the knife – a legal item – to cut an apple. No violence nor threat occurred.

Hoggett explained, “She was given the harshest punishment for a first offense even though school officials admitted in a letter … that she was a student with exemplary behavior and high academic standing.”

Gabrielle’s school district has reportedly investigated “2,149 criminal incidents, issued 779 citations and made 108 arrests” in the past several months.

Because of the avalanche of investigations, Fred Hink – a spokesman for the parents’ rights organization Katy Zero Tolerance – accuses the school official of having no “common sense.” He claims “they do not appropriately address issues such as disability considerations, due process and the long-range effects of placing children in alternative education programs.”

(The alternative education programs to which children like Gabrielle are often transferred are widely criticized as substandard and stigmatizing to the child. Thus, the transfer damages their futures.)

The conflict over zero tolerance in schools is also moving into state legislatures.

The Texas legislature may provide an indication of the sort of debate that may soon confront many other lawmakers. Several bills to alter the Texas Education Code have been introduced. Some strengthen zero tolerance; others weaken it.

As an example of the latter: State Sen. Jon Lindsay is shepherding a bill that requires a student to “knowingly and willingly commit an offense” before he or she can be punished.

It is not clear which side will win in Texas. It is clear, however, that the application of zero tolerance to young children is evolving into a national debate. That debate is being driven by parents whose children have been criminalized by an education system.

What are the parents demanding? There is no one set of requests, but some demands appear repeatedly. First and foremost, the parents want immediate involvement in severe forms of discipline. This means the parents of the aforementioned 9 and 10-year-olds would have been allowed to discipline their children before police were called to impose felony charges. Gabrielle’s father could have explained to her that butter knives were inappropriate instead of the school suspending her.

Parents also want an appeals process. Moreover, the parents of Katy request “the establishment of a civilian oversight committee” to review police actions against school children. It is difficult to criticize parents who demand “due process” for children who are too young to speak for themselves. To me, those parents live up to the best definition of being a mother and father.

Due process is a legal term and seems out of place for those of us who still view schools as places where literacy and math skills are taught.

But those who call police rather than parents, who lay felony charges rather than issue suspensions, who damage a child’s life over a butter knife they know was an innocent mistake … these people bear responsibility for making the legal terms appropriate.

And, so, let the debate rage. Let it continue until a 6-year-old is never handcuffed by police again.

February 10, 2005