Stolen nuggets, plastic knives and smelly perfume: Why schools call the cops too often
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In an elementary school in New Jersey, a third grade party celebrating the end of the school year ended in an unexpected manner. After one student complained of a possibly racist remark, police were called to the school and a nine-year-old student was questioned about his statement, with no later action being taken. As the mother of the student involved, Stacy Dos Santos, recalled it, the class was served brownies at the party and the student made a statement about the snack.

While it is possible that the student did make an offensive comment, the reports of the story do not present a statement from the school, or a detailed account of the content or context of the student’s remark. The lack of detail could lead one to imagine what could have transpired. However, it is inconceivable that anyone could justify a police intervention at the school based solely on the known facts of the incident.

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Why should a nonviolent interaction between two eight-or nine-year-olds, regardless of what was said or done, called for the intervention of police? Yet in school after school, minor incidents are directed to law enforcement instead of being handled within the school disciplinary structure or with parents.

In Florida an eleven-year-old girl was arrested, taken to jail, and charged with a third-degree felony for having a plastic butter knife at her school. In Texas a student was arrested for wearing too much perfume. A Wisconsin student was charged with theft after being found with a school meal of chicken nuggets, valued at less than three dollars.

The presence of police in school disciplinary matters is a fairly recent phenomenon. Today’s policies are much different from the days in which a student who misbehaved could expect a stern meeting with the principle and a call to their parents. The culprit in these circumstances is often less the child involved and more the zero-tolerance policies that remove time-honored discretion from school administrators.

In this particular school, reports state that due to new policies the police have been called for “any incidents that could be considered criminal,” sometimes as many times as five calls a day. Clearly this is a waste of police resources and an underutilization of school administrators that should be trained to deal with these incidents and who have historically dealt with such disciplinary matters.

Fortunately, after the extensive media coverage of the most recent incident, the mayor announced that the policy had been “reversed”. While this situation was a particularly egregious example of school discipline policy gone awry, there are many schools that have mandatory policies requiring either police involvement, or immediate and serious school action for minor behaviors.

An example of mandatory, zero-tolerance policies was provided this year when student in Texas was suspended and sentenced to thirty days in an alternative program for sharing her asthma inhaler with another student who was experiencing an asthma attack. Despite recent reforms from the state legislature allowing some administrative discretion, the school still was required to punish the student for her life saving behavior because the inhaler qualified as a controlled substance.

Mandatory school discipline policies are seemingly impossible to write in a way that will not encompass some unintended behaviors. Although schools and states try, they continue to yield sometimes outrageous results.

However, there is another way to discipline students which may work somewhat better. Schools are also staffed by adults who have a long history of experience dealing with children in many of these exact same scenarios. Their education, training and experience is better suited to the school environment than law enforcement officers trained to handle society’s most pernicious individuals. 

Schools can and should address these situations with their existing resources, keeping children from unnecessary police involvement and sparing law enforcement from becoming expensive hall monitors. When incidents involving serious criminal acts arise schools can then utilize law enforcement resources when they need it, at their discretion.

These zero-tolerance style policies do not make students safer. They do not protect peace in the classroom or teach students how to resolve poor behavior as they approach adulthood. But what they can do is crash a third-grade class party in a catastrophic way.

Muldrow is a policy analyst for the Texas Public Policy Foundation's Center for Effective Justice and Right on Crime.