Talking back to zero tolerance

In the year that I have worked as a juvenile defender, I have noticed patterns in the types of cases that land on my desk. For instance, now that the school year is in full swing, the overwhelming majority of my juvenile caseload arises from school discipline issues. It seems — at least here in southeast Georgia — as though schools are either no longer interested or no longer equipped to handle discipline in-house.
Almost every public school in my rural circuit has police presence in the form of the School Resource Officer (SRO), a uniformed police officer who maintains an office on the school campus. These officers maintain such a vigilant school presence to deter criminal activity such as drug possession/sale, weapon possession and other violent or dangerous activity. The reality is quite different.
Increasingly, local school administrators are relying on these SROs and a broad Georgia statute that criminalizes “disruption or interference with operation of public schools” to handle children with behavioral problems. What exactly are the definitions for “disruption” and “interference”? That is a great question, as the Georgia Code fails to define either term for the purposes of explaining exactly what conduct the state Legislature sought to criminalize. However, I can tell you that “disrespectful language” and “refusing to follow the commands of teacher” can land a child an invitation to juvenile court.
A child who is found to be delinquent of “disrupting or interfering with the operation of public schools” in Georgia, is subject to the punishment of a high and aggravated misdemeanor. This likely means probation for a length of time with a litany of conditions for the child to comply with, but could also result in a 30-day stay in a Regional Youth Detention Center.
When I was in school, disruptive children were punished by being assigned extra homework, given detention, in- school suspension or out- of- school suspension. The severity of the punishment varied with the severity of the actions; for example, talking back to the teacher might result in after-school detention, while getting into a playground fight would likely result in suspension.

It seemed that pulling the child out of school was a last resort. Now, with many school systems imposing “zero-tolerance” policies for school rule violations, children who are already at risk of being marginalized due to learning disabilities or untreated/undiagnosed behavioral health issues are being pushed out of the learning environment.
My juvenile clients appearing in court as a result of school-related behavioral issues overwhelmingly are minorities. By criminalizing behavior that could be remedied by detention or suspension, these children are being pulled from class before they ever even receive their punishment. Each time the child has to come to court to address the charges, the child is absent from school and is further entrenched in the juvenile-criminal justice system.
What is even more disturbing is that on occasion I will read a school incident report detailing a child’s misbehavior and find that in fact, the child had already been punished by the school. Because corporal punishment was a thing of the past by the time I was attending public school, I was surprised to find that a school incident report would sometimes indicate that the school had already administered corporal punishment on the child, then sent him on to court by pressing criminal charges. This struck me as duplicative, and I argued such on the child’s behalf, to no avail.
Undoubtedly, schools must take strong measures to protect children from drugs, weapons and violence while they are at school. Further, some would argue that a potential 30-day juvenile jail sentence serves to deter disruptive behavior. However, parents and children alike are often stunned to find themselves in court due to a student’s inappropriate outburst or argument with a teacher. In my experience schools fail to fully explain the potential consequences of such behavior.
Zero tolerance policies that allow a child who swears at a teacher to be punished as harshly as one who strikes a teacher, are only serving to highlight injustice in the criminal justice system and clog juvenile courts.

The post above is reprinted with permission from the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange, supported by the Center for Sustainable Journalism at Kennesaw State University in Georgia. 

juvenile-justice-reform_Cheryl-CuttingCheryl Cutting is an assistant public defender in the Juvenile Division of the Atlantic Judicial Circuit, which covers six counties in southeast Georgia. She graduated from the Walter F. George School of Law at Mercer University before practicing with the public defender’s office.
Cheryl works primarily in the juvenile division, representing children up to age of 17 who are charged with offenses in either the juvenile or superior courts. She is also a participant in the Southern Public Defender Training Center, advocating for equal access to quality representation in the criminal justice system.

Photo: Flickr user Just Us 3

Updated: February 08 2018