This story first appeared on the TomDispatch website.
Outrage over the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre may or may not spur any meaningful gun control laws, but you can bet your Crayolas that it will lead to more seven-year-olds getting handcuffed and hauled away to local police precincts.
You read that right. Americans may disagree deeply about how easy it should be for a mentally ill convicted felon to purchase an AR-15, but when it comes to putting more law enforcement officers inside our schools, the National Rifle Association (NRA) and liberal Democrats like Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) are as one. And when police (or "school resource officers" as these sheriff's deputies are often known) spend time in a school, they often deal with disorder like proper cops—by slapping cuffs on the little perps and dragging them to the precinct.
Just ask the three nine-year-old girls and an eight-year-old boy who got into a fight at their Baltimore elementary school—then got arrested by real police. Or Salecia Johnson, age six, cuffed and arrested for throwing a tantrum at her elementary school in Milledgeville, Georgia. Or Wilson Reyes, a seven-year-old at a Bronx, New York, elementary school who last December 4th was cuffed, hauled away, and interrogated under suspicion of taking $5 from a classmate. (Another kid later confessed.)
The last of these incidents made the cover of the New York Post, but the New York City Police Department still doesn't understand what they did wrong—sure, the first-grader spent about 4 hours handcuffed in a detention room, but that's "standard for juvenile arrest."
Which is precisely the problem: standard juvenile misbehavior (a five-year-old pitching a fit, a 12-year-old doodling on a desk, a 13-year-old farting in class, a class clown running around the football field at halftime in a banana suit) is increasingly being treated like serious crime, resulting in handcuffs and arrest. If you can't understand why such "consistency" is crazy, please desist from reading the rest of this article.
It seems grotesque that the horrific slaughter of those 20 children in Newtown, Connecticut, will result in more children getting traumatized, but that's exactly where we're headed—with firm bipartisan support.
In his amazing post-Newtown speech last December, Wayne LaPierre, the CEO and executive vice president of the NRA, called for armed guards in all schools—a demand widely hailed as jaw-droppingly nutty. A few weeks later, Boxer proposed $50 million in federal grants to install more metal detectors, surveillance cameras, and National Guard troops in schools, but made her pitch in the caring cadences of a Marin County Democrat. And when President Obama ordered more police in schools (point 18 in his 23-point Executive Order responding to the Sandy Hook tragedy), it was all over.
So here's an American reality of 2013: we will soon have more police in our schools, and more seven-year-olds like Joseph Andersons of PS 153 in Maspeth, New York, getting arrested. (He got handcuffed after a meltdown when his Easter egg dye-job didn't come out right.)
The School-to-Prison Pipeline
In fairness to the feds, similar kinds of local responses were already underway before the LaPierre-Boxer Axis of Tiny Handcuffs even arose. Across the country, from Florida and Connecticut to Tennessee, Indiana, and Arizona, despite tough budgetary times, municipal governments are now eagerly scrounging up the extra money for more metal detectors, surveillance cameras, and armed guards in schools. (The same thing happened after the Columbine shooting 14 years ago.) No one keeps national statistics, but arrests of the 10-and-under set do seem to be on the rise since Sandy Hook. A typical recent case: in January, a seven-year-old at a Connecticut school was arrested by the police for "threatening" a teacher. Jitters are understandable after the trauma of Sandy Hook—but arresting a seven-year-old?
Truth be told, we were already well on our way to turning schools into carceral fortresses before the Sandy Hook slaughter even happened. In fact, the great national infrastructure project of the past 20 years may be the "school-to-prison pipeline." After all, we are the nation that arrested Isamar Gonzalez for being in her high school early to meet with a teacher, then arrested her principal, Mark Federman, when he tried to intervene.
The stats speak as loudly as the anecdotes: of the Chicago School District's 4,600 arrests in 2011, 86 percent were for misdemeanors. That school system spends $51.4 million on security guards, but only $3.5 million for college and career coaches. And for every incident that makes the news, there are scores that don't. Despite a growing body of damning research by civil libertarians of the left and the right, including Annette Fuentes's excellent book Lockdown High, political opposition to the school-to-prison pipeline has proven feeble or nonexistent. Brooklyn State Senator Eric Adams, who represents one of the most liberal districts in the country, has staked out the civil libertarian outer limit by helpfully suggesting that Velcro handcuffs might be more suitable than metal ones for arresting young children.
The metal detector at the schoolhouse door is threatening to become as iconic an American symbol as baseball or type 2 diabetes. Not that metal detectors in place were capable of preventing the massacre at Red Lake High School in Minnesota in 2005: young Jeffrey Weise just barged right in and shot six people dead; nor could the metal detectors at George Washington High School in Manhattan or Paul Robeson High School in Brooklyn prevent teens from getting stabbed. Yet metal detectors and school police proliferate across the country.
One state, however, truly leads the way. Self-satisfied Yankees have traditionally slandered the state of Mississippi as a jerkwater remnant of the past. As for me, I say Mississippi represents the American future. A new report by advocacy groups shows how the Hospitality State is leading the nation in cruel and draconian school over-policing. Felony assault charges for throwing peanuts on the school bus! Dress codes enforced by handcuffing a child to a railing for hours for the crime of not wearing a belt! Cops escorting a five-year-old home for wearing the wrong color shoes! And constant arrests of kids for "disorderly conduct."
Yes, the "Mississippi model" of non-union teachers plus "zero tolerance" discipline is the kind of schooling that some of the best and brightest among our education "reformers" have been touting—and what they are increasingly getting. In fairness, Gov. Rick Perry's Texas is struggling with Mississippi for vanguard status, with cutting-edge surveillance of students and 300,000 misdemeanor arrests in 2010 for "crimes" like tossing a paper airplane. And Massachusetts is a strong contender for third place.