The conversation was a high-level one. It was filled with lots of legal jargon, theoretical propositions, and possibility conjectures about the obstacles and realities of getting the job done. The topic concerned the presence of School Resource Officers, SROs, adult enforcers of law, in the nation’s public elementary and high school classrooms. The argumentations centered on a proposal that I lay before the discussants there present – public interest legal scholars possessing the knowledge and skills for analyzing and creating public policy. Not being a lawyer myself, all I had were the research reports that I read on the pros and cons of SROs in schools, coupled with some scenes from online videos stuck in my head of young children in handcuffs and a female high-schooler being flipped over in her chair and dragged by an adult male serving as an SRO. Since then, another video captured serious abuse at a Baltimore school.
Findlaw.com lists the Sixth Amendment rights possessed by any individual arrested in the United States. Even if they are not citizens, anyone arrested in the United States possesses the right of access to a criminal defense lawyer or a public defender and the right to cross-examine the witnesses giving testimony against them. Although age was not listed as a limiting factor, can young citizens, toddlers to teens, correctly interpret the semantics of Miranda warnings that should precede school police questioning? Can youngsters, without fear or shyness, successfully assert their Fifth Amendment right to be silent and the right to have an attorney present? Who will coach them?
Thus far, the conversation had reached general agreement that where children in school are daily subject to on-the-spot arrests by the official presence of law enforcement personnel in school buildings, such underage citizens simultaneously are entitled to on-the-spot official access to legal representation in protection of their citizen rights. But then, the discussion bogged down into a skeptic debate on personnel funding and the mission goal timelines necessary to achieving nation-wide establishment of school-based legal offices. A rapid consensus was being formed; one that more strongly argued against immediacy of taking action, and suggesting, rather, that while the notion of school-based legal offices is a worthy undertaking, it should become an ingredient of some future agenda. And that’s when the pandemonium broke out.
“There’s a mouse under the table!” I heard myself say.
This unplanned announcement suddenly escaped my lips as I found myself peering intently down at the area beneath the table. All the people seated at the conference table excitedly reacted, immediately pushing back their chairs and bending down to search the floor space under the table. “There’s a mouse?” “Yes,” said I. “And just as the mere possibility of its presence has not only grabbed your full attention, it has roundly aroused your expectation for immediate action toward extermination of the critter. You won’t wait until next week to solve the problem.”
Factually, the image of the mouse is simply a personification of the dilemma that children daily encounter in school. Within what immediacy timeline would the presence of the mouse be eradicated? What levels of economic and skilled exterminator resources would be applied to the problem? What volume of ‘what if’ postulations would be fashioned? The bottom line was that the ‘mouse’ captured the imagination of the persons at the table – including mine. Yet, the image of the mouse under the table had never before cropped up in my mind or speech – it was a spontaneous creation. Its message spurred not only an excited reaction from the table; it effectively conveyed the immediacy of the need to address the at-risk peril children suffer daily. The people at the table “got it.” Incredulously, they got the message. “What a prototypical image,” said one young black male lawyer in amazement.
I knew that there was a 2009 ACLU White Paper stored in the bowels of my briefcase, entitled “Policing in Schools,” written by Catherine Y. Kim and I. India Geronimo, advising that SRO governance documents should delineate “the contours of students’ rights” specifying the details under which an underage citizen should be questioned or searched, the Paper citing the 1969 U.S. Supreme Court’s Tinker v. Des Moines Indep. Cmty. Sch. Dist. conclusion that students do not shed their constitutional rights at school. I knew, too, that the July 2015 Episcopal General Convention Resolution #D068 was listed in the White Paper prepared by the Organization on Procedural Justice (OPJ) brain trust of scholars commissioned by the Diocese of Southern Ohio, calling for the abolishment of the School to Prison Pipeline.
I also remembered an online article on Children in Prison, appearing at the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) website, making known the statistic that nearly 3,000 American children have been sentenced to life imprisonment without parole; and that the 10,000 children housed in American adult jails are daily subjected to sexual assault. The report served as a handout for the Cathedral’s Academy series on Mass Incarceration. Moreover, Dominican University Professor David M. Perry, using the subtitle “Rise of zero-tolerance policies strips school officials of the ability to exercise common sense,” gives three examples of abusive school compliance practices: A 6-year-old girl in Georgia was arrested for having a tantrum. In Virginia, a 4-year-old boy with attention deficit disorder was cuffed and shackled. An autistic 8-year-old in Tennessee was placed in a straitjacket and charged with assault.
So there is no doubt. There indeed is a mouse under the table. It’s called Kids Behind Bars. Prisons for Profit. Ohio Lockup Quotas. School to Prison Pipeline. Jailing Kids for Cash. Tough on Teen Crime. Zero Tolerance Policy. Failing Public Schools. The Prison Industrial Complex. Mandatory Minimums. Juvenile Life without Parole. Systemic Injustice.
“No matter what these children were doing,” writes Perry, “anytime the solution involves placing a child in shackles, the people in charge have grotesquely failed.” All across this nation, says the Center for Public Integrity, children are suffering severe punishments, especially if they have disabilities and are nonwhite.
Yes. These narratives do illustrate the importance of forging long-term solutions. But only after the unremitting threat of violent assault on the bodies and minds of children has been alleviated can the conversation then turn to diverse protracted analyses. In the meanwhile, the spotlight must be on the immediate liberation of children from the potential peril to which they are subjected in schools at any hour and on any given day – criminalizing kids acting like kids. The development and establishment of on-site, school-based legal representation for children accused of ‘crime’ can substantially stem the flow of school to prison pipelines.
Merelyn B. Bates-Mims is a member of Christ Church Cathedral, Cincinnati and is a former educator.