Remember Farkus the school bully who pushed around Ralphie and his friends in the holiday favorite “A Christmas Story.” Finally, Ralphie, tired of the harassment, stood up to Farkus and beat him up on the school playground.
If Ralphie would have lived in Missouri after January 1, 2017 he’d be arrested, charged with a felony and possibly sent to a juvenile detention facility. The Missouri legislature has criminalized growing-up.
A Missouri statute that goes into effect the first of the year will no longer treat fights in schools or on school buses as a minor offense, regardless of the student’s age or grade.
Instead, school resource officers and local law enforcement will now intervene by arresting and charging students who get in schoolyard brawls.
When a school allows a SRO to arrest a student or refer a student to law enforcement or juvenile court as a form of discipline—they are using the juvenile justice system as a stand-in for school discipline and the consequence can be dire.
This process of moving disruptive students from the principal’s office to the courthouse is known as the school-to-prison pipeline. When young people are criminalized for their behavior in schools, exposed to law enforcement — and the rest of the criminal justice system — at an early age, they become more likely to interact with that system down the line.
According to the U.S. Department of Education’s Civil Rights Data Collection during the 2011–2012 school year, schools referred approximately 260,000 students to law enforcement, and approximately 92,000 students were arrested on school property during the school day or at school-sponsored events.
The number of student suspensions and expulsions have also dramatically increased in recent years. According to the CRDC, the Justice Policy Institute reported that approximately 3.45 million students were suspended at least one time during the 2011–2012 school year, and approximately 130,000 were expelled from school during that same time period.
One of the common criticisms of SROs is, due to lack of training, they fail to understand that the behavior of students may be a reflection of typical teenage rebellion against authority or other behavioral challenges confronting adolescents.
A 2009 study from the University of Tennessee in Knoxville found that students in schools with officers were almost three times more likely to be arrested.
While some students are arrested and charged for violent offenses and rightfully so, others are punished for minor disciplinary infractions?—?being loud in the hallways, disrupting a class, or, as in Ralphie’s case, getting into a playground fight. The school building is best suited for addressing these infractions — not the police station.
Regardless of where kids live, a single arrest doubles the likelihood that the student will drop out, and kids who make a court appearance are four times more likely to leave school early.
Students removed from class often fall behind in their school work and miss out on valuable social interactions that contribute to their overall development. In turn, they are more likely to engage criminal behavior that will lock them into the system for life and drastically reduce access to education, employment and housing — the collateral consequences of crime.
Mo Canady, executive director of the National Association of School Resource Officers told the US News and World Report, “The number one goal of an SRO, based on our training, should be to bridge the gap between law enforcement and youth.”
Unfortunately, the relationship between SROs and students appear to be more antagonistic than positive. Fighting in the schoolyard shouldn’t land a kid in prison. A criminal record can do a whole lot more harm than a black eye.
Matthew T. Mangino is of counsel with Luxenberg, Garbett, Kelly & George P.C. His book “The Executioner’s Toll, 2010” was released by McFarland Publishing. You can reach him at www.mattmangino.com and follow him on Twitter @MatthewTMangino.