Ever since Adam Lanza, egged on by insanity and an itchy trigger finger, slaughtered 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. last December, the National Rifle Association and frightened parents have been calling for more police officers in schools.
I say be careful what you ask for.
I say be careful what you ask for because, more than likely, what you won’t get are police catching students with guns, but police causing more students, especially more black students, to be caught up in the court system for minor infractions that could be resolved in the principal’s office.
I say be careful what you ask for, because now that incarceration has become profitable as well as punitive, once in court, more students risk finding themselves before a judge like Mark Ciavarella Jr.
I got to thinking about Ciavarella, a Pennsylvania judge who in 2011 was sentenced to 28 years in prison for his role in a kickback scheme, recently, as a book about his odiousness in ruining children’s lives to fatten his bank account was released.
In the book, titled, “Kids for Cash: Two Judges, Thousands of Children, and a $2.8 Million Kickback Scheme,” investigative reporter William Ecenbarger details how Ciavarella and another judge, Michael Conahan, accepted millions from the developer of a private detention facility in return for filling it up with thousands of children.
Some of the children were as young as 11.
According to a review of the book in The New York Times, children often wound up at the centers for breathtakingly petty reasons. There was the 13-year-old who found himself detained for throwing a piece of steak at his mother’s boyfriend. There was the 11-year-old who was locked up for calling the police after his mother locked him out of the house.
And there was the 14-year-old who was sentenced for a prank that would usually be regarded as malicious mischief: She painted “Vote for Michael Jackson,” on stop signs.
Obviously, none of that warranted a lock up. But hey, when there’s money to be made by filling detention beds, it creates an incentive to incarcerate, not to rehabilitate.
And now, with the call for more officers in schools, it creates a perfect storm for more of that kind of craziness; a craziness that, for all intents and purposes, will fall heavier on black children.
According to the Times, youth advocates say they are already seeing a surge in criminal charges against youngsters for infractions that warrant a trip to the principal’s office, not to court.
Most of the misbehaviors are non-violent, such as cursing at a teacher, or physical scuffles that don’t involve weapons. Minorities and children with disabilities are disproportionately affected; black children in the school district of Bryan, Texas, are slapped with criminal citations at four times the rate of whites.
Yet many districts are lining up to put more officers in schools.
It’s worrisome not just because there’s no evidence that officers in schools improve school safety. It’s worrisome because this clamor for officers in schools has shades of the same elements that led to the drug war.
That war has led to prisons being filled with people convicted of possession and minor offenses. That situation, in turn, has led to the rise of private prisons and a profit motive for locking people up.
So think about it.
If schools begin to be filled with officers who wind up arresting students for minor scuffles versus full-blown assaults, and if prison profiteers begin to dangle promises of prosperity by building detention centers, then that creates the risk of someone, be it greedy, unscrupulous judges or other law enforcement officials, wanting to fill those centers by getting more students charged with minor crimes.
The profit becomes the aim. And the risk is that misbehaving students can begin to be seen as commodities, not as kids in need of counseling or time to get through growing pains.
Think it can’t happen? Well, it’s already happened in Pennsylvania.
And it’s not too early to be aware of ways in which it could happen again.
Tonyaa Weathersbee is an award-winning columnist based in Jacksonville, Fla. Follow her @tonyaajw. Or like her on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tonyaajweathersbee.