This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: Each year, more than 300,000 school-age children go through the criminal justice system. This means that America, a country with the worlds’ highest incarceration rate, is also the global leader in the criminalization of its children. Due in large part to “zero tolerance” policies adopted in the late 1990s, our country’s educational and juvenile court systems have become major suppliers to the school-to-prison pipeline.
It’s a distinction that has compelled the founder of Innovative Concept Academy and Juvenile Court Judge, Jimmie Edwards, to take immediate action:
“Locking up an 11-year-old in jail for any length of time doesn’t make sense for him, for his family and certainly not for his community.”
Edwards and other educators, law enforcement professionals, youth advocates and at-risk teens themselves are featured in “Education Under Arrest,” which airs Tuesday, March 26 on PBS. Hosted by public radio and TV commentator Tavis Smiley, viewers visit Washington state, Louisiana, California and Missouri where they meet experts, like Judge Edwards, who detail the connections between the juvenile justice system and America’s dropout rate.
“One in every three teens who is arrested, is arrested in school — which literally arrests their progress for a promising education,” Smiley explains. “We’re just losing too many kids to this system. There seems to be a highway in but barely a sidewalk out.”
Local and national headlines underscore the realities of schools that have become too reliant on security guards, police and the courts. Earlier this month, an 8-year-old student at Lovejoy Elementary School in Alton had her hands and feet cuffed by police, according the child’s guardians, because she allegedly threw a tantrum in class. Last year around this time, the American Civil Liberties Union issued a public indictment calling the actions of Baltimore City police who arrested and handcuffed 8- and 9-year-old children at school “appalling.” The Chicago School System has been sued by parents of 6- and 7-year-old children who were handcuffed for hours in 2010 and threatened by school security guards for talking in class.
The 1999 Safe Schools Act is Missouri’s equivalent of the zero tolerance initiative. Since its passage, Judge Edwards says, the law has had a devastating impact on children, particularly poor and minority youth:
“It has taken away the opportunity of school administrators, various superintendents to address discipline within the state’s school districts. It has allowed the system to pass the buck onto the courts and, unfortunately, when children are put in court systems they are treated like criminals.
Education Under Arrest also looks at what’s working to counter the devastatingly high number of kids arrested at schools for infractions that, years ago, resulted in a visit to the principal’s office or a call to parents. Officials dedicated to keeping kids in school and reforming the educational and criminal justice systems boldly speak out. As a leading advocate for judicial change and founder of a public school for “at-risk” youth, Edwards provides a passionate voice of reason:
“You take an 11 or 12 year old and lock them up for an hour, a day or two days because they possessed marijuana and that child will know more about criminality when he gets out than he would have ever known in a lifetime. He now knows more about marijuana, how to cook crack cocaine, how to make methamphetamine and how to load an assault weapon. These are things he learned inside the system.
“As an appointed judge, I have the ability to go back and look at that ‘lock ‘em up and throw away the key’ legislation all over America,” Edwards said. “See, I believe that that paradigm has to be eradicated … we have to educate our kids.”
Edwards’ school, Innovative Concept Academy, serves as a testament to his commitment. The judge provides an opportunity for juveniles who have been expelled from the city's public schools, who are on parole or who appear in his courtroom to have a second chance at education in an environment specifically structured to meet their needs.
Smiley maintains that America continues to play a “high-stakes game” with its youth. He cites overcrowded classrooms, inexperienced teachers, the “unholy trinity of drugs, parental neglect and violence” and a system that routinely forces kids out of classrooms and into courtrooms as recipes for disaster.
“Zero tolerance does not work,” he says. “We don’t expect adults to live lives of zero tolerance so how can we expect children to live lives of zero tolerance? Zero tolerance is completely incongruent with what it means to be a child. Being a child means making mistakes and hopefully learning from those mistakes.”
In “Education Under Arrest” and armed with a bevy of viable options to criminalizing children, Smiley asks whether we want to be defined as a “nation of angry criminals or educated citizens.” If the answer is the latter, we are compelled to follow Judge Edwards and others and implement immediate ways to halt the arrest and criminalizing of our youth.