Ten years ago, six African-American boys in Louisiana got into a fight with a white classmate at school. Rather than breaking it up, school administrators called the police.
Where other students might have been sent home or suspended, the “Jena Six” were arrested and charged with attempted second-degree murder and conspiracy. Together, the boys, ranging in age from 14 to 17, faced almost 100 years in prison without the possibility of parole. District Attorney Reed Walters assumed the boys were guilty before their trials had even begun, warning them, “When you are convicted, I will seek the maximum penalty allowed by law.”
The Jena Six incident turned out to be just the tip of the iceberg in the growing criminalization of school misbehavior, which has matured into a national problem for African-American students. Over the years, schools have introduced a host of policy changes that undermine the safe haven they are supposed to offer children. Mirroring the federal government’s tough-on-crime approach of the mid-1990s, thousands of schools have implemented so-called zero-tolerance policies that drastically raise the stakes for getting in trouble at school. And more troubling still, more and more have come to rely on school resource officers – that is, uniformed cops – to police hallways and classrooms, leading to increased contact between students and the criminal justice system.