When Temper Tantrums Become Criminal

Your Take: Another black child is handcuffed for a meltdown in class. Blame zero-tolerance policies.

Salecia Johnson (WMAZ-TV)
Salecia Johnson (WMAZ-TV)

Salecia Johnson cannot sleep at night. According to her mother, Constance Ruff, the 6-year-old wakes up repeatedly through the night screaming, “They’re coming to get me!” Last week the kindergartner was handcuffed and arrested by police at Creekside Elementary School in Milledgeville, Ga., and taken to the police station for having a temper tantrum after school officials called the authorities. She is traumatized.

This is not the first time a kindergartner has been arrested for a temper tantrum. In 2005 in Pinellas County, Fla., another little African-American girl, J’aiesha Scott, had a temper tantrum after a jelly-bean-counting game ended. She was taken to the principal’s office, where three police officers came in after the tantrum was over. They pulled her up out of her seat and forced her arms behind her and then handcuffed the little girl. She was left in the back of a police cruiser for hours while she cried for her mommy.

It has happened again. Another little African-American girl has been treated like a criminal. There are countless other children of color who suffer similar trauma at the hands of adults in schools.

Salecia, like J’aeisha, has had an early ride on what we call the schoolhouse-to-jailhouse track. They, like millions of other children in this country, are victims of the school-to-prison pipeline — a system of zero-tolerance policies in schools across the nation that takes an unyielding approach to student discipline and in which children of color are punished more often and more severely for minor misbehavior than their white peers. It is a system in which common sense becomes irrelevant as intolerance reigns and the consequences are high: academic failure, criminal charges and damage to the psyche.

Children of color are most affected. Data released by the Department of Education in March show that black children were suspended three-and-a-half times more often than whites in 2009-2010, and African-American and Latino children accounted for 70 percent of school-based arrests. 

Zero-tolerance discipline is used for minor actions most appropriately addressed by parents, teachers and administrators. As schools become less tolerant, students are increasingly suspended for tardiness, talking out of turn in class, failing to wear uniforms and engaging in schoolyard scuffles. Even worse, schools have upped the ante by turning these actions over to the police. Handcuffs now await many children who participate in such adolescent indiscretions as talking back to an adult, writing on the desk and, yes, even engaging in temper tantrums.

A 14-year-old Florida girl recently spent 21 days in jail for hitting another student with a pencil. In Denver, a 10th-grade Latino student was taken down to the police station and booked for writing on the bathroom stall with a marker. A 2009 food fight in a Chicago lunchroom left 25 middle school kids with criminal charges.