When Temper Tantrums Become Criminal

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.


School staff, like those at Creekside Elementary, who overreact to childish behavior by treating it as criminal rob children of a chance toward a successful future. There is a better way. Graduation rates in Baltimore reached record highs after the school system did away with zero-tolerance policies. Out-of-school suspensions decreased 64 percent, and youth crime has gone down. In Denver, parents and students successfully organized to get the school system to implement a commonsense approach to discipline that led to a 68 percent reduction in police tickets, a 40 percent reduction in out-of-school suspensions and higher attendance and graduation rates.

These are just two of several school districts across the country that have adopted disciplinary policies that minimize the role of police and give students, like Salecia, the opportunity to learn from their mistakes. These schools understand that we all lose when we don't nurture our children to their full potential.


Handcuffing young children is never OK. Schools must use more-appropriate ways to intervene when kids misbehave. Calling the police for a 6-year-old's temper tantrum is extreme. Police should be used as a last resort when a true threat to safety exists. 

After originally suspending Salecia for the rest of the school year, the school relented and now says she can return to school, but at what cost? The experience of being handcuffed by police officers in her principal's office has left her scarred. Her mother is concerned about returning her child to a school that treats children the way Salecia was treated.


Join Salecia's parents and Advancement Project in calling for the actions of school officials and city police in this incident to be investigated and for them to be held accountable. We demand that the school put an end to the zero-tolerance discipline policies and that the police end their policy of handcuffing young children.

Schools in Milledgeville and across the country should put the best interests of their students first and immediately end their use of the zero-tolerance approach to discipline. Salecia, and all children, deserve safe, high-quality schools that care about them and give them the opportunity to succeed and dream.


Judith Browne Dianis is one of the nation's leading civil rights litigators and co-director of Advancement Project, a next-generation civil rights organization focused on issues of democracy and race. Find her on Twitter, and continue the conversation at #justice4salecia.