For many teenagers across the country, a visit to the police station is replacing a visit to the principal's office.
According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, police have made about a quarter billion arrests in the last 20 years as tactics change to focus on a zero-tolerance policy toward small crimes. Almost one out of three Americans have a file in the FBI's master criminal database.
These arrests are now starting at the school level. Parents and school officials, concerned by increased drug use and school shootings have caused a greater level of police presence on school grounds, allowing school administrators to now refer minor crimes to the police, turning from traditional school discipline methods of detention into a smaller version of an adult criminal-justice system.
Talking back to the teacher can now be called disorderly conduct, and a fight may end with assault and battery charges, according to Judith Browne Dianis, executive director of the Advancement Project, a national civil-rights group that looks at discipline procedures across the country. Due to differing laws across the country, these police encounters may sometimes result in a police record for the offenders. In some states, 16-year-old children are tried as adults.
In some cases, the police presence is warranted. Last year, police took over 1,200 weapons, including firearms and Taser stun guns, from students in New York City schools, with knives being the most popular weapon of choice, often folded up to appear as credit cards.
This year the Justice Department and the Education Department released guidelines warning police on school grounds to "not become involved in routine school disciplinary matters," with the Justice Department filing lawsuits across the country concerning disciplinary measures.
"We're not talking about criminal behavior," said Texas State Sen. John Whitmire, the Democratic chair of the senate's Criminal Justice Committee, who helped pass a new law last year that limits how police officers can ticket students. "I'm talking about school disciplinary issues, throwing an eraser, chewing gum, too much perfume, unbelievable violations" that were resulting in misdemeanor charges.
According to police, the main way children are entering the criminal system is through schools. Gaps are present in national arrest statistics, and an official number on school arrests is not available, causing many to believe this statement to be true.
The U.S. Education Department's Office of Civil Rights reported 260,000 students "referred" to law enforcement by schools across the country in 2012, with 92,000 students subjected to school-related arrests.
While police have held a presence on school grounds since the 1950s, their presence has grown by 55% between 1997 and 2007 to 19,000 in response to a new philosophy on law enforcement at schools that said, "deal with the small stuff so they won't go to the big stuff, and also it sent a strong message of deterrence," said James Alan Fox, the Lipman Professor of criminology at Boston's Northeastern University.
Schools are now taking time to change the way they look at discipline. In Waco, TX, a pilot program called "Suspending Kids to School" is hoping to keeps kids out of the courts and in the school system. Instead of facing the criminal justice system, students are sent to student court, where they face a panel of their peers and are subjected to sentences such as community service.
"I am only looking at discretionary offenses. Behavioral issues. You've spouted off in class, you've used profanity," said Charlene Hamilton, director of the Suspending Kids to School initiative. "You've scuffled with another student in the hallway. These are not offenses where you should lose your right to an education."