Throw a Spitball, Go to Jail

I am a homeschooler, a private schooler and a public schooler, and as such, don't have a strong ideological commitment to any of the above - I think they all have their place. My oldest son has severe autism and attends a private school for children with autism, but paid for and managed by the school district since they have no appropriate placement for him. My three younger boys are homeschooled, which we started not because of a dislike of public schools, but because our local school went to all-day kindergarten when my son Simon was ready to start. His birthday was late November, and at four and a half he still needed a nap and a day that began with a 7:30am bus ride and ended at 3:15 was just too long for him. We were advised to keep him back, but since he'd been reading for two years, that didn't seem wise, so we homeschooled. We had so much fun doing it that we've kept on. We are also public schoolers whenever foster children are in our home, since foster kids can't be homeschooled legally in NY.

My general take on that the rigid lines drawn between home and school are somewhat artificial - that homeschool and public school are actually part of a larger continuum that anyone with children to educate in their lives needs to participate in. Moreover, even if we are committed to one option or a particular educational philosophy, we never know when our ground could shift. Some of the most ardent anti-homeschoolers I know have found themselves home educating when a local public school couldn't meet a child's needs, or when a child was victimized by bullying or laid low by a major health crisis. Many a dedicated homeschool parent has found themselves unable to continue due to a health crisis in a parent, a need to take on new work for economic reasons, a kid who didn't respond well to the dual role of parent/teacher, a disability they were not prepared to respond to at home.

Moreover, in more difficult situations, any of us may HAVE to become homeschoolers or public schoolers - consider a major natural disaster like Katrina in New Orleans which closed many schools for an extended period. Some kids can be out of school for a bit and no harm done - others can't. in a longer term crisis, the community will need to respond to the need for education for kids.

All of which is just a long way of saying that I don't think of myself as an ideological homeschooler. I could probably become one, however, if I lived in Texas. Check this out:

The charge on the police docket was "disrupting class". But that's not how 12-year-old Sarah Bustamantes saw her arrest for spraying two bursts of perfume on her neck in class because other children were bullying her with taunts of "you smell".

"I'm weird. Other kids don't like me," said Sarah, who has been diagnosed with attention-deficit and bipolar disorders and who is conscious of being overweight. "They were saying a lot of rude things to me. Just picking on me. So I sprayed myself with perfume. Then they said: 'Put that away, that's the most terrible smell I've ever smelled.' Then the teacher called the police."

The policeman didn't have far to come. He patrols the corridors of Sarah's school, Fulmore Middle in Austin, Texas. Like hundreds of schools in the state, and across large parts of the rest of the US, Fulmore Middle has its own police force with officers in uniform who carry guns to keep order in the canteens, playgrounds and lessons. Sarah was taken from class, charged with a criminal misdemeanour and ordered to appear in court.

Each day, hundreds of schoolchildren appear before courts in Texas charged with offences such as swearing, misbehaving on the school bus or getting in to a punch-up in the playground. Children have been arrested for possessing cigarettes, wearing "inappropriate" clothes and being late for school.

In 2010, the police gave close to 300,000 "Class C misdemeanour" tickets to children as young as six in Texas for offences in and out of school, which result in fines, community service and even prison time. What was once handled with a telling-off by the teacher or a call to parents can now result in arrest and a record that may cost a young person a place in college or a job years later.

One of the things that has fascinated me as a foster parent is the realization of how afraid many people are of children. Whether this stems back to Coumbine or other issues, a few rare cases of violent children seem to have reshaped our national culture in a way that makes us genuinely afraid of kids. I've had people outright ask whether I worry foster children will kill me in my bed - even though the kids are far more vulnerable than they are dangerous.

Add into this the fact that non-white children, especially boys, are much more likely to be disciplined more strongly for the same things - expulsion rather than detention, and to be judged as violent and extreme for things that would be considered minor in a white or female child, and I admit, I'm pretty strongly suspicious of the impulse to police childhood. That doesn't mean no children are hard to handle or that classrooms aren't hard to manage, but to me this is just one more sign of something deeply wrong in our culture generally.

I was a disruptive teen in high school myself - I was politically aware and active and a bit of an agitator. I had smart mouth, and my dream as a 16 year old pain in the rear was to be a test case for the ACLU ;-) in a high school that I saw as repressive and intellectually deadening. I was fortunate in that my teachers and the school administration were, for the most part, smarter than I gave them credit for, and kinder - they didn't want to ruin the records of young people, and handled my actions appropriately. I can only imagine what would have changed in my life when childhood earns you no grace, only harder and harder crack-downs. The track to prison already begins in school for many kids - do we really need to make the track run faster?


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"One of the things that has fascinated me as a foster parent is the realization of how afraid many people are of children"

Not afraid.

They despise them.

When they're someone else's kids, that is (in the main).

These other kids put theirs in trouble, give their kids "wrong" ideas and are not under the control of the parent, therefore a dangerous and uncontrolled influence on their child.

Jail time at six years? Serves 'em right for being so young!

It really is appalling. I don't know if it's really fear of the kids themselves, so much as it is a "cover your ass" kind of thinking that runs amok in beleaguered institutions. The zero-tolerance stupidities and outsourcing discipline to the police force are all ways that administrators and teachers can evade responsibility for the hard, thankless work of running an institution full of poorly socialized younguns. But I don't want to just blame the schools -- they are underfunded, unsupported by the community at large, and thrust into the forefront of every "culture war" issue that divides us. Teachers are extremely vulnerable these days, and I'm sure they are required to err on the side of over-reaction any time there is something that might be construed as disruptive or as conceivably "criminal". And well, Texas does everything bigger, including apparently educational malpractice.

I think we have backed our schools into this kind of 'pass the buck' approach. Instead of the school board and administrators catching flack -- or lawyer suits -- they invoke the police and court systems.

I think this follows directly from Federal efforts at mainstreaming, and then the nefarious "no child left behind" leveler to mediocrity. The system I grew up under, where the paddle occasionally came into use, where calls to parents were infrequent, because in many homes the parents might inflict significant physical punishment perhaps beyond what the school felt necessary, was remote, reasonably small and rural. And the school board ran the school, not the Feds, not the teachers unions.

When comparing numbers and levels of disciplinary action (not discipline, which is the will to complete a task) among racial and gender divides, please make allowance for cultural divides. Because some homes, some communities, some neighborhoods, are more exposed and accustomed to violence, disrespect, and aggression to varying degrees.

While my school happened to be all white, and as I say small town Midwest farm country, there were neighborhoods and families that were dangerous to themselves and others. I haven't seen anything to make me think that has changed.

As for Texas' approach, I think you have to get the Feds, the lawyers, and the unions out of the classroom as a necessary first step, then to roll back consolidations and return to neighborhood school systems with individual, local school boards. Anything less exposes teachers and administrators to punitive repercussions for going about their daily tasks.

Once you have police in schools they have to justify their presence. The easiest way to do that is arresting children, even if they don't do anything that could be considered criminal.

To really simplfy I think schools need less managers and more teachers and a lot less boring busy work. Let's really educate our kids with our tax money.
I want less 'back to basics' and more physical activity, art and music, philosopy and gardening, astronomy and construction. But then no one would be content with Mc Jobs, TV and shopping and they might end up more like Sharon. Who knows what would happen then. ;-)

I agree with Andy and Brad that the response we are seeing from schools is one of self-defense. They are afraid to be the ones held accountable, afraid of the lawsuits and afraid of the liability insurance, largely because of the mistakes of a school system here or there.

I'm not sure that having local school boards is quite THE answer, although it may be part of the answer. Here, we have very strong local school systems. As such, we have such absurdities as "Bible Man" in mandatory school assemblies during school hours. Yes, forced religious indoctrination on public taxpayer funded time and premises. This is defended by saying that a "majority" of the area wants it, and if you don't like it you should homeschool. Of course if you happen to agree with the teachings of the particular Baptist sect that is being promoted, I guess cancelling math class for a sermon is fine, but for anyone else the local standard is you don't get an education. Somehow I doubt those in favor of Bible Man would be as happy if Qu'ran Man or the Flying Spaghetti Monster got to take up school time with preaching.

Said school district is about to lose their shirt and hundreds of thousands of dollars on the lawsuit because they couldn't be content offering the assemblies after school for students who wanted to attend. In this example, federal accountability is very much necessary.

Likewise, the local authorities are the ones causing the problem in Texas. It's not federal or teacher's union rules that convinces judges to put schoolchildren in jail for the crime of acting like children.

Actually, I'm not surprised at all by this, especially not in Texas. Like my own state, Indiana, they have a state legislature that, near as I can tell, is engaged in the purposeful destruction of public education. That's the most charitable interpretation of any of this I can come up with. Anything that can be done to further disgust people with regard to public education will be done. In our own home district, I cannot imagine this happening, but then our teachers are fairly hip to what is going on here, and they have a supportive superintendent and district leadership who is actively combating the nonsense coming from our state leaders. But in some other districts in our state? Easy. The culture of unacceptable behaviors and responses has sunk down far into our schools. I'll bet most teachers (and probably administrators) are horrified by the excesses of cases like these. But that's not enough to fight the tide of lowering standards, increasing cuts, public shamings, and the general threat of lost employment. They've managed to degrade public education services so badly that people who understand and appreciate public education won't put their children into public schools. So I guess we might live to find out what it's like to live in a democracy without universal education (read: it won't be much of a democracy).

An aside on "I've had people outright ask whether I worry foster children will kill me in my bed"

Not in any way to negate your point of people being afraid of children - but the idea that adopted/foster children were likly to try to kill the families they live with is not new. In "Anne of Green Gables" for example, when Marilla contemplates keeping Anne, people tell her horror stories, including how an orphan girl supposedly put poison in the well and killed the family she was living with.

My thinking on this is that part of the blame must fall on the media. The 24 hour news networks simply need news to fill up the time so any problem in any school is given wider coverage than it realistically needs. Even in the case of Columbine the reporting was such that this could happen anywhere and we needed to crack down on violence in High schools. While Columbine was a tragedy that should have been covered, in the blind rush to find solutions, no one noticed that in the year that it occurred violence in the high schools was down (25 or 50 percent from ten years previously). And no not, "Well, excluding Columbine." School violence was down, including Columbine. Why the need to add police at this point?
If a women or child is missing in Hartford CT, sure it should make the news in Hartford, Bridgeport maybe Springfield Mass. Should it be news in San Francisco? Not really. A missing 15 year old in Bolder Co really shouldn't be news in Hartford, CT either. If the child was a son/daughter of the Gov. or Senator maybe but there's no need for the whole country to know.
If a high school student kills a teacher for not being on the football team it doesn't need 48 or more hours of national coverage. In the immediate area yes big news, out of state not so much, 2000 miles away it's a 5 second blurb. But with MSNBC, CNN etc its on for 40 minutes out of the hour for two or three days. It's just out of proportion to the event and creates false fears. Could this happen to a teacher in your school district yes, More likely the teacher will be hit my lightening.

By Bob Krieger (not verified) on 06 Feb 2012 #permalink

Texas seems to be turning into an utterly disturbing place. It really does sound like something from a dystopian novel after the end of civilisation.

By Richard Eis (not verified) on 06 Feb 2012 #permalink

Wow. I hear all the time about the sorry state of US schooling but this is ... scary.

I live in Canada, and I can't even begin to imagine having a kid arrested for spraying perfume (even if the school were, say, a 'scent-free zone' which many of ours are). The judge would dismiss the charges as a waste of the court's time, for one thing, if any cop were stupid enough as to try to bring that forward.

Is it *really* this bad? It just boggles the mind that it could come to this.

We have our share of problems in schools - kids dropping out, gang violence in some places, kids who need social services intervention and only sometimes get it, all the challenges of meeting the needs of kids with varied abilities - but *arresting* children for behaving like children?

I can't even imagine it.

I work in the local public school system at the moment, and it is basically a holding zone until most of the kids (especially the poor kids) are old enough to be sent to prison. They're treated like prisoners from day one; they have to walk down the halls with their hands clasped behind their heads; food is withheld as a punishment, etc.

OTOH, any of the schools are the way they are because they have become training prisons instead of schools. You have no idea how bad these schools have become. Very little 'education' goes on; most of it is window dressing. The real purpose of the schools are crowd control. Many of these kids today are violent -quite violent, in fact. I have been hit, kicked, shoved, knocked down, and spit on. I've had kids as young as 13 threaten to kill me. A teacher, aide, or sub gets outright assaulted by a student at least once every couple of months. These students are not always in middle or high school, either, and if you think a fourth or fifth grader can't cause some damage, you're wrong. Also, they regularly pull weapons off kids as young as second grade in my district. Those are seven and eight year old children! I don't mean butter knives and the like either -we're talking actual weapons here.

Many schools have gone to uniforms, while others have been forced to ban certain color combinations that point towards various gang affiliations. There was a massive fight in the cafeteria of one elementary school last year between two groups of students -of all ages -who considered themselves as belonging to two different gangs. The youngest students involved were in first grade.

There's a first grader in one of the schools I work at that I'm particularly fond of. He's really smart and really sweet. We get along well. He's also black, from a single-parent family, and has anger management and behavioral issues. He's probably going to end up in prison, just like all the other boys in his school with these same issues. That's what the statistics say, and they push them into it. This little boy is already treated like a criminal, even more so than the other kids. The harder they crack down, the more he acts out. There is NO comprehension that their approach is wrong for any child, much less this child.

It is, of course. This little boy behaves beautifully for me when I'm there. Oh, he still acts out some. He is a six-year-old with issues, after all. But I can get him to act right the vast majority of the time -all without threats, without intimidation, without taking away his breakfast or lunch, for God's sake!

I have become convinced that there is no reforming this system. It is broken beyond repair. It needs to be shut down and replaced.

To be fair, Texas is kind of its own country a lot of the time ;-). I don't think it is that bad in most places in the US - but I think this is pretty scary.


I went to an Illinois suburban school with some excellent teachers, albeit one with high-ish percentages of students qualifying for free lunch (~60%) and mostly black students (I think 60-80%).
The mandatory uniforms was what pushed us into homeschooling. Part of the perception on uniforms likely depends whether you grew up in an area with elite boarding schools or other privates that were considered very good- then maybe the uniforms seem like a sign of excellence?
But for my dad, who had grown up in excellent public schools, uniforms were what they had to wear at places they sent kids for discipline problems (like military school), and prison. To make kids wear them was a sign the kids had issues.
I was high-school aged when Columbine happened. I do think people in the more white suburbs started looking at all teenagers differently then. A lot of my friends into certain types of music got some pretty typically teenaged attitude about being stereotyped based on their tastes. But really, it wasn't worse than (or really, even as bad as) what teenagers in the less white suburbs had already been dealing with since 6th grade or so- uniforms and metal detectors, security guards and surveillance.
So it's not just Texas now. It was Illinois 10-15 years ago (before Columbine). It's Arizona (don't get me started on the strip searched over Ibuprofen case...). It's a lot of places. And people in mostly white suburbs are more insulated- when people said Columbine was "shocking"- that was white privilege.