Criminalizing First-Graders

If you’re going to be six years old at some point in your life (and most of my readers have probably moved beyond that point) it is important to (a) carefully select where you choose to live and (b) behave. This is all brought to mind by a recent mailing from the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) describing a lawsuit it has filed on behalf of a 6-year old called J.W.

J.W. attends the Sarah T. Reed Elementary School in New Orleans, is four feet tall and weighs 60 pounds. He is not unfailingly polite. Indeed, on two occasions in May he was downright rude. On the first occasion he talked back to a teacher. Realizing that such activity could lead to a full-scale insurrection by 6-year olds if permitted to go unpunished, J.W. was arrested, handcuffed and shackled to a chair. (Nothing was stuffed in his mouth so he could, in theory at least, have continued talking back.) J.W. did not learn from this episode. In less than a week, he was involved in an argument with another 6-year old over who could sit in a given chair in the lunchroom. J.W. was on the losing side of that argument and was once again handcuffed and shackled to a chair.

The effect on J.W. has not been what school officials had hoped. Being trained educators they had been taught that using those techniques on six-year olds would not only help the 6-year olds see the errors of their ways but would eliminate the need for water boarding or other forms of discipline when the children were older. They were wrong. His parents say that he is now afraid of school, the police and teachers and is completely withdrawn. School officials explained that the arrest and restraints imposed were required under school rules. The educators may have help in changing the rules. The Southern Poverty Law Center, has filed a class action lawsuit alleging that the school principal and other officials had “provided a clear directive to all employees. . . that students were to be arrested and handcuffed if they failed to comply with school rules.” There’s no way of knowing how that suit will turn out but thanks to the behavior of a student and school officials in a school in Dade County, Florida, we may have a clue.

Isiah Allen got in trouble on October 20,2004. Isiah was six years old, three feet five inches tall and weighed fifty-three pounds. He allegedly behaved disruptively in class and was taken to the principal’s office for misbehaving. Instead of standing contritely he had a tantrum and consequently was locked in the principal’s office. While alone he smashed a picture frame. Upon hearing the glass break the adults re-entered the room and found Isiah standing motionless in a corner holding a piece of broken glass. When the police arrived he was still standing there. Unresponsive to the police officer’s ministrations it was finally decided the best way to handle the situation was to taser Isiah. He was, according to the complaint that was filed in the court case, tasered with 50,000 volts and handcuffed while vomiting. The taserers were sued and in due course the case got to the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals that concluded that if the alleged facts were proved “the unlawfulness of the conduct was readily apparent to an official in the shoes of these officers.” (There is no report of what happened when the case went back to the trial court.) Our final example of how tough it is to be a six-year old is again brought to us courtesy of Florida. The child in this case, Haley Shalansky, was neither tasered nor shackled.

Haley was a 6-years old student at Parkway Elementary in Port St. Lucie, Florida weighing only 37 pounds. According to the sheriff’s officer Haley was asked to do something by her teacher, became upset and stormed out of the classroom. Her behavior was a ticket to the principal’s office where she had a tantrum and, according to the sheriff’s incident report: “kicked the wall, went over to the desk and threw the calculator, electric pencil sharpener, telephone, container of writing utensils and other objects across the desk.” She was handcuffed and taken away in a police car.

The next day she again had a tantrum in class but this time was taken away and committed to a mental health facility. The school says the parents have missed many scheduled meetings to discuss Haley’s behavioral problems. The lesson for the parents is obvious. If you miss enough meetings with school officials when summoned, your child may end up in a mental health facility.

Describing its reason for getting involved in J.W.’s case SPLC explains that: “All across the nation, schools have adopted draconian ‘zero-tolerance policies that treat children like criminals and turn schools into prison-like environments.” Based on the foregoing, it is hard to argue with that conclusion.

CHRISTOPHER BRAUCHLI can be e-mailed at brauchli.56@post.harvard.edu.





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