When a six-year-old boy kicked his school principal last week, the school called in police, not parents.
The student had already been suspended for kicking and biting another official, when he allegedly threatened a teacher and kicked Principal Pat Lumbley. This time, the child was placed in police custody and charged with battery and intimidation.
Read more: School's battery charges against 6-year-old
"In the big picture ... I have to look at school safety and have to look at student safety," Lumbley, an Indiana elementary school administrator, told a local Fox affiliate. The county's police lieutenant defended the decision, adding "putting him into the system can open up avenues perhaps the parents don't have."
But can the penal system really help a troubled kindergartner?
Increasingly, precincts have become de facto detention centers. In Albuquerque alone 90,000 students, were arrested between 2009-2010. In Texas, an estimated 300,000 kids were give misdemeanors in 2010. That number includes children as young as 6.
"You've gradually seen this morphing from schools taking care of their own environments to the police and security personnel, and all of a sudden it just became more and more that we were relying on law enforcement to control everyday behavior," Austin-based juvenile court judge Jeanne Meurer told The Guardian in an investigative report on the policing of children in America. The British newspaper's in-depth article was published in January, four months before a Georgia 6-year-old was carted out of her kindergarten classroom in handcuffs after allegedly throwing a caustic tantrum.
Handcuffs, really? "There is no age discrimination on that rule," a Georgia police chief told local news. The child's parents have started a petition in an effort to change that.
Over the past year, kids under the age of 13 have been arrested, or threatened with arrest, for giving wedgies, having a food fight and spraying perfume. In more serious circumstances, children are facing real prison time over hockey game fouls and threatening classroom notes. One 6-year-old was accused of sexual assault by school officials during a recess game of tag. In order to have the sexual battery charge wiped from his school record, the child's parents had to hire a lawyer to prove that the charges had no legal basis.
Read more: Student hockey player may face criminal charges
"Everyone suffers when adults don't have the skills and support to manage unsafe or respectful behavior such as kicking and tantrums effectively," Irene van der Zande, executive director and founder of Kidpower, tells Shine. Her California-based non-profit program helps schools and parents teach kids safety, respect and tolerance independent of police intervention.
But many school officials feel law enforcement is the only place to turn for help. The rapid increase in school shootings since the Columbine tragedy has left administrators scrambling for better safety measures. Overcrowding, financial cutbacks and access to weapons in the information age are all conditions of new generation and a system struggling to adapt to it. As a result a higher percentage of students between the ages of 12 and 18, say they're more afraid of attack or harm at school than away from school, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. In 2010, 85 percent of public schools cited incidents of violence, theft, and other criminal activity. That same year, 60 percent of schools called in police for backup.
Advocates of school policing believe crackdowns send a message to the student body, and help keep large underage populations in check and safe. Principal Lumbley feels he protected the rest of his elementary school's student body by having a 6-year-old student arrested. But critics say those punitive measures are really designed to protect teachers.
"Teachers rely on the police to enforce discipline," Kady Simpkins, a juvenile defense lawyer, told The Guardian. "Part of it is that they're not accountable. They're not going to get into trouble for it. The parent can't come in and yell at them. They say: it's not us, it's the police."
The hard-line approach isn't only happening in schools. Recently, TSA officials subjected a frightened, crying 4-year-old girl to a pat-down after she ran through Kansas airport security to hug her grandmother. While the family understood the reasoning behind tightened security measures, they didn't feel the understanding was reciprocated.
Read more: traveling with kids and the TSA
"There was no common sense and there was no compassion," the child's grandmother Lori Croft told the Associated Press. The little girl hadn't yet learned about terrorism, but had been briefed on the concept of "stranger danger."
"To her, someone was trying to kidnap her or harm her in some way," Croft explained to the AP.
As for the Indiana 6-year-old student charged with battery and intimidation, it's hard to believe he's any wiser.
"I can't imagine the prosecution being able to sustain a battery charge against a six year old," a New York Family Law Attorney, who chose to remain anonymous, tells Shine. "There is a 'mens rea' or 'state of mind' element to all crimes and I can't imagine a prosecutor being able to successfully argue that a six-year-old could meet the state of mind requirement for battery or any crime for that matter."
That's not to say that kids with severe behavioral problems should be dealt with the same way as other students, but child advocates believe that criminalizing their actions doesn't solve any problems.
"Kids who have trouble behaving well in school can almost always be turned around with preparation, firm, respectful interventions, and a plan of action that gets school officials and parents working together as a team," Kidpower's van der Zande tells Shine. "When adults overreact, the harm done is not only to the child involved but also to other children who witness this."
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