Talking Back to Zero Tolerance

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In the year that I have worked as a juvenile defender, I have noticed patterns in the types of cases that land on my desk.  For instance, now that the school year is in full swing, the overwhelming majority of my juvenile caseload arises from school discipline issues.  It seems — at least here in southeast Georgia — as though schools are either no longer interested or no longer equipped to handle discipline in-house.

Almost every public school in my rural circuit has police presence in the form of the School Resource Officer (SRO), a uniformed police officer who maintains an office on the school campus.  These officers maintain such a vigilant school presence to deter criminal activity such as drug possession/sale, weapon possession and other violent or dangerous activity. The reality is quite different.

Increasingly, local school administrators are relying on these SROs and a broad Georgia statute that criminalizes “disruption or interference with operation of public schools” to handle children with behavioral problems. What exactly are the definitions for “disruption” and “interference”? That is a great question, as the Georgia Code fails to define either term for the purposes of explaining exactly what conduct the state Legislature sought to criminalize. However, I can tell you that “disrespectful language” and “refusing to follow the commands of teacher” can land a child an invitation to juvenile court.

A child who is found to be delinquent of “disrupting or interfering with the operation of public schools” in Georgia, is subject to the punishment of a high and aggravated misdemeanor. This likely means probation for a length of time with a litany of conditions for the child to comply with, but could also result in a 30-day stay in a Regional Youth Detention Center.

When I was in school, disruptive children were punished by being assigned extra homework, given detention, in- school suspension or out- of- school suspension. The severity of the punishment varied with the severity of the actions; for example, talking back to the teacher might result in after-school detention, while getting into a playground fight would likely result in suspension.

It seemed that pulling the child out of school was a last resort. Now, with many school systems imposing “zero-tolerance” policies for school rule violations, children who are already at risk of being marginalized due to learning disabilities or untreated/undiagnosed behavioral health issues are being pushed out of the learning environment.

My juvenile clients appearing in court as a result of school-related behavioral issues overwhelmingly are minorities. By criminalizing behavior that could be remedied by detention or suspension, these children are being pulled from class before they ever even receive their punishment. Each time the child has to come to court to address the charges, the child is absent from school and is further entrenched in the juvenile-criminal justice system.

What is even more disturbing is that on occasion I will read a school incident report detailing a child’s misbehavior and find that in fact, the child had already been punished by the school. Because corporal punishment was a thing of the past by the time I was attending public school, I was surprised to find that a school incident report would sometimes indicate that the school had already administered corporal punishment on the child, then sent him on to court by pressing criminal charges. This struck me as duplicative, and I argued such on the child’s behalf, to no avail.

Undoubtedly, schools must take strong measures to protect children from drugs, weapons and violence while they are at school. Further, some would argue that a potential 30-day juvenile jail sentence serves to deter disruptive behavior.   However, parents and children alike are often stunned to find themselves in court due to a student’s inappropriate outburst or argument with a teacher.  In my experience schools fail to fully explain the potential consequences of such behavior.

Zero tolerance policies that allow a child who swears at a teacher to be punished as harshly as one who strikes a teacher, are only serving to highlight injustice in the criminal justice system and clog juvenile courts.


3 thoughts on “Talking Back to Zero Tolerance

  1. It’s really shocking to find out that corporal punishment is still legal in Georgia Schools? Really, what are educators thinking – that they are going to beat good behavior into these kids. I did an open records request on the state of Georgia as a concerned parent and citizen to find out how often corporal punishment is occurring. According to the document I received directly from the Georgia Dept of Education, some districts are reporting corporal punishment incidents in the 1000’s in 1 school year. Given those numbers, it obviously is NOT working, plus I am concerned about this from a parent point of view. How can I protect my child from potential abusers if Georgia continues to beat children legally? Bottom line, I can’t and neither can other parents. Seems to me the Georgia Legislature needs to get off their hindquarters and outlaw this practice, just like they have in the majority of states.

  2. Sexual violence against schoolchildren, K-12, is LEGALLY PROTECTED in taxpayer funded public schools in 19 U.S. States, including Georgia, that legally allow Pain to Punish Students K-12, Illegal in Schools in 31 U.S.States, over half our nation, constituting “Cruel and Unusual Punishment” akin to allowing State and Local Governments to legally permit Slavery!! Congressman John Kline, Chairman of the House Committee on Education and Workforce has the Power and Responsibility to send H.R. 3027 “The Ending Corporal Punishment in Schools Act” out to the floor for a full vote of Congress, but it looks like it will DIE again on 12/8/2011, earlier version, H.R. 5628 DIED in House Committee on Education 2010!

    Mandatory Reporters of suspected child abuse, school teachers, coaches and administrators, legally hit schoolchildren, K-12, with thick wooden paddles, SEXUAL ASSAULT when done to a non-consenting adult, to inflict Pain as Punishment for minor infractions, some states such as Tennessee do not require parental consent or notification for schoolchildren to be “Paddled”. Several “School Paddling States” have “Teacher Immunity Laws” to protect school employees from criminal/civil action, leaving INJURED schoolchildren’s families NO LEGAL REDRESS!

    U.S. Federal Courts uphold outrageous incidents of school paddling and the U.S. Supreme Court declines to hear school corporal punishment appeals.

    See 2008 report “A Violent Education” by Human Rights Watch and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) for disturbing FACTS! See donthitstudents dot com

    The practice of school discipline by “Corporal Punishment” is founded upon the RELIGIOUS conviction of “Spare the Rod, Spoil the Child” and FORCED onto taxpayers children in public schools, violating our nation’s constitution regarding liberty, equality and “Cruel and Unusual Punishment”. Please add your voice to federal bill to Abolish School Corporal Punishment of Students in ALL U.S. Schools at dont hit students dot com

  3. This attorney is describing what is increasingly becoming known as “the school to prison pipeline.” The presence of police officers in schools is unnecessary except in the most unusual cases and the unfair and often racist practices resulting from routine arrests based on childhood behavior is not helping the children or society. Also, the costs to the taxpayers are extreme – every time a child gets arrested for the petty and the inane, its costs in court time and services that are probably completely unnecessary. This lawyer notes that some children are “paddled” or as we used to say (by a more accurate term) “beaten” for their misbehavior. Often people write in saying that if kids could still be whipped in schools we wouldn’t need these laws – they miss the obvious – that many school districts still allow this bizarre and backward form of punishment, that serves to do nothing except humiliate the child. It’s especially ironic in Georgia where you routinely try children between 13 and 17 as adults for a long list of so-called mortal sins. So when it suits the purposes of your adults, kids can be beaten because they are kids, and they can be forced to go to school of course, but if they talk back or rebell then they are criminals and if they commit a crime then they are adults. How convenient for your adults.