On September 16, Miami police officer Paul Gourrier was suspended for handcuffing a five-year-old elementary school student.
In Roanoke, Virginia, a sixth-grader was charged with a crime and suspended for a year for bringing a leaf to school that officials mistook for marijuana.
And in Lynchburg, Virginia, an 11-year-old autistic child was charged with a misdemeanor for kicking a trash can, and then several months later with a felony charge of assaulting an officer. The student pushed the police officer when he tried to physically escort the child to the principles office.
News reports of seemingly unreasonable reactions by school officials across the country to student misbehavior have become commonplace – often involving law enforcement.
The most recent and probably the most publicized case occurred Monday in Texas where a 14-year-old Irving high school student named Ahmed Mohamed brought a clock he made to school to show his engineering teacher.
The Irving police department ended up arresting Mohamed, claiming his clock was a “hoax bomb”. The image of a young child in his Nasa t-shirt standing with his hands cuffed behind his back has sparked international outrage and earned Mohamad an invite to The Whitehouse from President Obama.
There has been a great deal of speculation that Mohamad’s arrest was racially motivated, and while that is a distinct possibility, it seems to be part of a larger trend.
Incidents like these are precipitated by the widespread adoption of zero tolerance policies. Following the Columbine shootings in Littleton, Colorado in 1999, school districts nationwide sought to take discretion out of the hands of school administrators and adopt uniform policies regarding rules and discipline.
Under the new regulations, school administrators are required to follow strict guidelines in handling serious rule infractions. Often this means relying on law enforcement to handle issues previously taken care of by school employees.
The intent was to curtail bullying, drugs and weapons – rules which had often been haphazardly enforced. But teachers and administrators often abandon reason and discretion when adhering to these policies with unintended consequences.
It is this kind of inflexible procedure that compels a schoolteacher to report a student showing her a clock he built, leading to an administrator calling the police over something that should have been handled internally.
According to the National Association of School Psychologists:
“Although zero tolerance policies were developed to assure consistent and firm consequences for dangerous behaviors, broad application of these policies has resulted in a range of negative outcomes with few if any benefits to students or the school community. Rather than increasing school safety, zero tolerance often leads to indiscriminate suspensions and expulsions for both serious and mild infractions and disproportionately impacts students from minority status backgrounds and those with disabilities.”
Exacerbating the problem is the reliance of school districts on law enforcement officers to handle any situation that may require physical contact with a student. Even the most well-meaning police officers are often not trained to deal with special needs students, and consequently may treat a student with emotional problems the same as they treat a combative adult.
In cases such as Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District and West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette, the courts have ruled that students do have Constitutional rights, and that school officials can only limit those rights when there is a compelling, Constitutionally valid reason.
In Tinker V. Des Moines, Justice Abe Fortas wrote, “It can hardly be argued that either students or teachers shed their Constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.”
These rights also include the right to counsel, and the right against self-incrimination. Many times minor students are compelled to write statements and answer questions that would implicate them in criminal activity – without access to an attorney or even having their parents present.
Ahmed Mohamed claims that he was questioned for hours and repeatedly requested to speak with his parents before answering questions, but was denied that right.
When questioned about the incident, Irving Police Chief Larry Boyd told reporters that he was “unaware” that the student had asked for his parents, and that it would be investigated. Mohamed’s parents have consulted an attorney.
In Texas, municipalities are shielded from lawsuits in all but extreme cases. Attorneys will rarely take a case to file a civil action against a school district because the chances of them collecting enough to pay even their expenses are negligible.
For Mohamed, the attention has been supportive and positive, but the parents of a child whose rights have been violated will find themselves in the position of having to decide if standing up for their child’s rights is worth putting through the unwanted attention and stress.
Most will decide it’s not worth the fight.