By Maheen Kaleem, Stoneleigh Emerging Leader Fellow, ACLU of Pennsylvania
Imagine yourself as an adolescent. A fellow classmate who has been annoying you the whole year finally goes too far—he talks about your girlfriend. As a response, you use profanity, and you and the classmate start yelling at each other. Are you disrupting the classroom? Of course. The teacher hears the two of you. Instead of pulling both of you aside to have a conversation, or sending you to the principal’s office, he summons a police officer from the hallway.
That police officer has three options. He can take you to school authorities and assist the principal in determining what school discipline consequences you will face. He can arrest you and charge you with a misdemeanor or a felony. If your actions are too minor to fit within the definition of a misdemeanor or felony under the Pennsylvania Criminal Code, the police officer can issue you a citation for “disorderly conduct.”
In Pennsylvania, “disorderly conduct” is a summary offense. It is the lowest grade of crime, and if you are a minor, you cannot be imprisoned for a summary offense. Sounds like it’s not that a big deal, right? Until you find out that in addition to being suspended, you have to go to court and you have to pay a fine. You aren’t going to juvenile court because summary offenses are heard in adult court. You don’t have an automatic right to an attorney. It is just you, a teenager, your parent, and the judge in adult court. And it is your word against a police officer’s. You and your family can be ordered to pay fines as high as $300. If you are found guilty, the incident will stay on your record as an adult criminal conviction.
The ACLU of Pennsylvania recently issued a report, “Beyond Zero Tolerance: Discipline and Policing in Pennsylvania Public Schools,” which shows that black and Latino youth are at a disproportionate risk of being removed from school through suspension, expulsion and contact with law enforcement. Once students have one contact with the criminal justice system, they are likely to have further contact. They become alienated from school because of the stigma that comes with being system-involved, some drop out altogether. Convictions for summary offenses create an adult criminal record that later becomes a barrier to accessing higher education and obtaining employment.
Law enforcement officers throughout the commonwealth are issuing citations to students for catchall summary offenses such as disorderly conduct, harassment, and criminal mischief. Study upon study show that these low-level, non-violent acts are characteristic of normal adolescent behavior. Some examples of summary citations include a female student who was cited for telling a fellow student to “f-off” after he had been making inappropriate comments to her, and a student who was running in the hallway and accidentally ran into a teacher. Should this behavior be tolerated in a classroom or school setting? Maybe not. Does this mean that the student deserves an adult criminal conviction on their record? Absolutely not.
A magisterial judge in Pittsburgh recently spoke out against a new Pittsburgh Public Schools policy requiring that all summary citations be approved by the chief of school police before being issued. The judge claimed that sending students to his courtroom was a way to preserve school safety, because appearing in criminal court might “scare” students into compliance. This is the wrong approach. Summary citations are not issued for behaviors that pose a threat to school safety, and they are not issued in any consistent manner. Policies like the one in Pittsburgh decrease the number of citations issued for minor behaviors—they do not prevent school officials or law enforcement from taking all necessary measures to protect the school community.
School is where we learn how to interact with the rest of the world. Children make mistakes. Our first reaction should not be to push certain students out of school and into the justice system. If our goal is to keep our communities safe, we should work harder to keep our youth in school, and to teach all of our students how to resolve conflicts peacefully.
This post is part of a series in honor of Black History Month.
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Maheen Kaleem joined the ACLU-PA in August of 2013. Maheen recently received her J.D. from Georgetown University Law Center in May of 2013 and her undergraduate degree from Georgetown University’s Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service. She has worked on a number of issues related to the women’s rights and racial justice, with a particular emphasis on the rights of incarcerated women and children, and a special focus on the needs of girls in the juvenile justice system.