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Schools Working to Distinguish Misbehaving From Criminal Acts
by Molly Ball, Las Vegas Sun, January 21, 2005

The high-school senior thought he was just pulling a harmless prank when he mooned a bus from his car in the parking lot.

But he wound up in court, facing a charge of open or gross lewdness.

The legal action threatened his graduation, his college scholarships and his permanent record and could have forced him to register as a sex offender if convicted, a school official said.

"He just did something stupid. They didn't need to arrest him," Edward Goldman, associate superintendent for education services with the Clark County School District, said of the incident that occurred last year.

"It could have been handled administratively," Goldman said.

But Goldman and those involved in the juvenile justice system say students today often face arrest for their behavior at school, behavior that in the past might have merited a note home to parents, detention or suspension.

The criminalization of school behavior is a national trend with roots in the increased presence of police on school campuses and in parents' threats to sue, officials in the justice and school systems say.

With the hiring of a new school police chief -- Hector Garcia, formerly of Florida's Sarasota School District, is to take over on Feb. 14 -- Goldman and others say they hope they can work with school police to make sure school arrests are handled more appropriately.

Drugs and violence at grade schools are also pervasive problems, and most of the time the school police serve an important function, the critics say. But they shouldn't be booking kids who shove each other in the hallways.

"A fistfight in the hallway becomes an assault and battery," said Juvenile Judge William Voy. "Instead of handling it at the school level, they're being prosecuted by the (district attorney's office)."

Voy said he met recently with school district Superintendent Carlos Garcia and county Juvenile Justice Services Director Kirby Burgess to discuss the issue.

"The pendulum needs to swing back the other way," Voy said. "There's this idea that everything that occurs at school is a criminal act, and it's an absurdity."

Anxious

Because of the fear of being sued, schools are anxious to pass infractions on to the police so the school can't be accused of failing to act, Voy said.

The mooning case, for example, was propelled forward by the complaining mother of one "victim," according to Voy.

"We have to have the school take more responsibility for determining what the conduct is from the get-go -- is it criminal, or is it a behavior problem?" Voy said.

Burgess, who heads the county's juvenile justice agency, said unwarranted school arrests were responsible for some of the juvenile justice system's large caseload.

"Times have changed," he said. "When I was going to school, two kids would get into a fight and that was the end of it. They'd be kept after school or sent home for their parents to deal with it."

These days, the outcome may be very different.

"School police don't have any alternative but to arrest the kid because the (other child's) parents are screaming that they want to press charges," Burgess said.

Burgess said he was working with the school district to address "how to determine if a case rises to our level or if it's a school problem."

Goldman, who oversees school discipline, agreed that there is a problem but said it's not up to the school district to solve.

"Back in the old days, we didn't have bona fide police on campus," he said. Now, with two armed cops at every high school, principals are no longer in control, he said.

"(School police are) not there to enforce our rules. They enforce the law," Goldman said. "We're civilians. We can't tell the police what to do."

It's up to school police to consider the circumstances before making an arrest, Goldman said. And in these days of gangs and guns, violence must be nipped in the bud before it gets out of hand.

But that doesn't mean every infraction merits prosecution, he said.

When officers witness crimes, they have some discretion, Goldman said. "They don't ticket everybody who's going 70 miles per hour."

Goldman said the district plans to work with the incoming chief to make school arrests more "reasonable."

The police force, which was established in 1989 and now has 156 officers, is working with the district attorney's office on the issue -- a meeting was held Jan. 14, school police spokesman Officer Darnell Couthen said.

Latitude

Officers do have latitude to determine whether the seriousness of an offense merits handing a student over to the school for discipline, a citation -- charging someone with a crime without taking him into custody -- or an arrest, Couthen said.

In fact, despite the school district's skyrocketing enrollment thanks to the region's growth, arrests have been decreasing since 2000, while criminal citations have both increased and decreased from year to year, according to school police statistics.

In the 2003-04 school year, school police arrested 635 people and issued 1,959 criminal citations, down from 852 arrests and 2,219 criminal citations the year before.

It is not clear why arrests at schools increased almost every year from 1991 to 2000, then began to decline.

Couthen said the declining arrests were the result of more manpower. Because the school officers focus on prevention, he said, adding cops leads to fewer arrests. But the decline in arrests does not correlate with a large increase in the number of police.

In most cases involving misdemeanors and gross misdemeanors, school police will issue citations, Couthen said. But it depends on the situation, and keeping the school safe must be the first priority, he said.

"There may be a difference of opinion in some cases, but it's an officer discretion issue, and we leave it solely up to the officer involved," he said.

"Those who work in juvenile detention may not have the whole gist of what's going on in the field," Couthen added.

But he said the police were open to input from the juvenile justice system and acknowledged, "We may need to establish some kind of criteria."

Children's futures may be at stake, as in the case of the mooner who lost college scholarships, Goldman noted.

Goldman recalled the mooning incident with some amusement. The senior intended simply to flash his behind out the driver's-side window at a bus full of other students, but he stumbled and got his underwear caught on the car's steering wheel -- trapping him and blaring the horn.

As a result, "the entire parking lot came over to see what was going on, so the whole school saw it," Goldman said.

Charged with lewdness, which is a gross misdemeanor on first offense, the student was suspended, missed weeks of school and incurred hefty legal bills, Goldman said.

When the case got to court, Voy dismissed the charge and reinstated the student at school, according to the judge.

Goldman recalled another case that he said occurred earlier this month. An 18-year-old senior was stopped for speeding in the parking lot at Cimarron-Memorial High School, and police spotted a small knife in the car.

"Technically, you can't be in possession of any type of weapon on school property, so the cop searched the car," Goldman recalled.

In that search, the officer found a BB gun, which would have been legal a block away, and arrested the student for weapons possession on school property. Since the youth was 18, he was sent to the Clark County Detention Center, not the juvenile facility, Goldman said.

Right enforcement

The laws against weapons on school property are needed, Goldman said, but their enforcement should be appropriate.

The student in question was "a good kid" with no disciplinary record, headed to college in the fall. He hadn't threatened anyone with the weapons; a police warning and school punishment would have sufficed to discipline him, Goldman said.

"You've got to consider the outcomes here," Goldman said. "Now he may not graduate, he's three weeks behind in school because of his legal problems and his parents have to spend thousands of dollars on his legal defense."

Goldman added, "I hope he gets a good lawyer and they get him off and get his record cleaned."

School arrests are just one aspect of disciplinary policies that have gotten out of control at the expense of students and teachers alike, some experts say.

Many schools across the nation have "zero-tolerance" policies like Clark County's, where discipline is mandated for possession of drugs or weapons.

In Clark County, the policies have led to students being suspended for having box cutters in their cars or disciplined for bringing cough syrup to school, prompting complaints from parents.

School officials defend zero-tolerance as necessary. When it comes to drugs, Goldman said, even over-the-counter medications like Tylenol must be dispensed by the nurse's office to prevent them getting into the wrong hands.

Losing trust

But some national authorities on education say such policies turn schools into jails, prompting students to lose trust and disengage.

"There is no question that the way school discipline policies are now is not doing anybody any good," said Jane Sundius, director of the education and youth development program at the Open Society Institute-Baltimore, a foundation backed by financier George Soros.

"These policies create an environment where misbehavior is viewed as criminal and scary," she said.

Schools need more resources for counseling and other ways of dealing with misbehaving kids without punishing them, Sundius said.

Pedro Noguera, a professor at New York University's Steinhardt School of Education, said punitive discipline policies and policing of schools have been on the rise nationally since the 1999 shooting at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo.

"We are often responding to relatively minor offenses that were never treated before as criminal, and we're using it as a way to induct the children into the criminal justice system," Noguera said.

The policies tend to be applied disproportionately to poor and minority children, he said.

"Discipline in a school setting always has to be related to educational goals and not be punitive," he added.

Public fears about school violence, he said, are groundless and based on a few sensational events; in fact, the incidence of school violence has been dropping for years.

"The facts are that schools are some of the safest places in our country for children -- that is, they're safer than our homes," he said.

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