stephanie jones

Handcuffing Kindergarteners – Making Criminals of Children (of color)

In Uncategorized on April 18, 2012 at 6:18 pm

Really? Educators – people who are supposed to be trained in understanding children’s perspectives, understanding how behavior escalates and how to calm children, and understanding how to create conditions in the classroom where everyone can be successful – are calling the police on six year olds?

And…get this…the police are handcuffing six year olds and taking them to the police station?

Well, this story is finally getting some national attention and hopefully our public will be outraged that young children can be treated with such indifference, as if they are criminals already, not little people who often have to spend their entire school days in classrooms where there is little to no fun, little to no respect, and lots and lots of discrimination.

I’m not commenting about this particular story here – I know nothing about the school, the teacher, the administrator, or this child. But I do know I’ve witnessed too many examples of teachers humiliating young children (of all races, but yes, of color), and I do know that our country has spiraled out of control in its efforts to get as many people as possible into the criminal justice system – and now we’re starting with six year olds.

This happened to a child in my daughter’s school a couple years ago and my head just about popped off when I read about it in the local news – no one in the school felt it necessary to share this information with families. “What if my child had acted in the same way?” I asked teachers familiar to the situation – you know, my lilly white little girl from a middle-class family and a mother who is a professor? Would she have been toted off in a police car?

I doubt it. And if she had been, I would likely have followed in a police car of my own after making all kinds of trouble at the school. Children are not to be handled like criminals – and I will fight over that.

The boy at my daughter’s school was African American.

The little girl in this most recent story is African American.

Trayvon Martin was – well…you all know the story.

We have a serious problem in this country, and folks better wake up. Mother Jones hasn’t jumped on this story yet – but a 2011 Education Round-Up shows a disgusting, ugly, despicable trend of making criminals of children and families who are often struggling just to make it in the world.

I can hear my undergrads in the back of my head…”What would you have done Stephanie?” Well – I have faced similar situations in my own first grade classroom, so I can give some specifics – at least from those examples. When a child is angry, you don’t push them into a corner, you don’t belittle them, you don’t necessarily try to physically restrain them. You give them a little space, some big paper and crayons or markers to draw out their rage, a mini-trampoline to jump a bit, and you check in to see if/when they want to talk or need your help for something. Some children like to hear music to help calm them down, others might like to scribble or write or dance or just lay down and cry. In my experiences, these outbursts don’t happen out of the blue, but they are rather produced from existing conditions in the classroom. Sometimes (maybe most of the time) children can’t even articulate exactly what it was that prompted them to behave in such ways – but somehow their bodies felt that something had gone terribly wrong, and without knowing what else to do, they have screamed, hit, thrown things, etc.

In one very severe case, I worked with the nurse, the counselor, the principal, and the parents and the decision was made to call a health professional to help. The child then attended in-patient and out-patient treatment and, over time I hear, thrived in a variety of educational settings. This was a very severe case that lasted across months, and never, never did the word “police” or even “punishment” ever enter into the thoughts or discussions of anyone involved. 

Children often know – or feel – when they are disrespected, devalued, not seen or heard as fully human. And in moments and over sustained time of not being “recognized” as a person with dignity, things often go wrong.

Handcuffing is not the answer. Criminalizing is not the answer. Punishing is not the answer.

I am in education for a reason, I often tell my adult students, and I am not in criminal justice for that same reason.

Learning more about children’s perspective is one way to begin, and having a commitment against criminalizing children will help us get there.

  1. Great piece. I can only hope that my kids’ teachers are as caring as you. And I can understand what you mean by the fact that you went into education for a reason and not into the criminal justice field for that same reason. However, it’s exactly why I am going into the field. If we don’t get more socially accepting caring people in the field of Criminal Justice, especially Juvenile Justice then things really will never change and will only get worse. We have to start somewhere. However, I think that scrutiny and bureaucracy that schools are under these days to be really looked at. Everyone seems to be too scared or burnout to even care about helping a child such as the one in this story. Sad.. but true.

    • Hi Oneofeach4me,
      Thanks for your comment, and I completely agree with you that caring, thoughtful people need to be in all public service positions -education and criminal justice included. Since most of the tools available for law enforcement folks to use are inherently punitive (arrest, probation, incarceration, high court fees and fines), I wonder where the powerful role of pedagogy might come into play. My comment was mostly pointed at the tools available to us to use in the workplace and the very different role education can take on to ’empower’ and motivate people rather than the use of ‘corrections’ to get people to conform to laws that may or may not make sense.

      All that to say, I love hearing that you and I sound like we might have similar commitments, and that you are planning to go into the juvenile justice line of work. Perhaps we will both work on making sure kids don’t get there in the first place:)


  2. Hi this for Stephan jones I need advice on crct

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