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"Money, Money, Money, I love Money" ~ Mrs Feydo (Calk Elementary)

Unruly Students Facing Arrest, Not Detention

Published: January 4, 2004

The 14-year-old girl arrived at school here on Oct. 17 wearing a low-cut midriff top under an unbuttoned sweater. It was a clear violation of the dress code, and school officials gave her a bowling shirt to put on. She refused. Her mother came to the school with an oversize T-shirt. She refused to wear that, too.

''It was real ugly,'' said the girl, whose mother did not want her to be identified.

It was a standoff. So the city police officer assigned to the school handcuffed the girl, put her in a police car and took her to the detention center at the Lucas County juvenile courthouse. She was booked on a misdemeanor charge and placed in a holding cell for several hours, until her mother, a 34-year-old vending machine technician, got off work and picked her up.

She was one of more than two dozen students in Toledo who were arrested in school in October for offenses like being loud and disruptive, cursing at school officials, shouting at classmates and violating the dress code. They had all violated the city's safe school ordinance.

In cities and suburbs around the country, schools are increasingly sending students into the juvenile justice system for the sort of adolescent misbehavior that used to be handled by school administrators. In Toledo and many other places, the juvenile detention center has become an extension of the principal's office.

School officials say they have little choice. ''The goal is not to put kids out, but to maintain classrooms free of disruptions that make it impossible for teachers to teach and kids to learn,'' said Jane Bruss, the spokeswoman for the Toledo public schools. ''Would we like more alternatives? Yes, but everything has a cost associated with it.''

Others, however, say the trend has gone too far.

''We're demonizing children,'' said James Ray, the administrative judge for the Lucas County juvenile court, who is concerned about the rise in school-related cases. There were 1,727 such cases in Lucas County in 2002, up from 1,237 in 2000.

Fred Whitman, the court's intake officer, said that only a handful of cases -- perhaps 2 percent -- were for serious incidents like assaulting a teacher or taking a gun to school. The vast majority, he said, involved unruly students.

In Ohio, Virginia, Kentucky and Florida, juvenile court judges are complaining that their courtrooms are at risk of being overwhelmed by student misconduct cases that should be handled in the schools.

Although few statistics are available, anecdotal evidence suggests that such cases are on the rise.

''Everybody agreed -- no matter what side of the system they're from -- that they are seeing increasing numbers of kids coming to court for school-based offenses,'' said Andy Block, who assisted in a 2001 study of Virginia's juvenile justice system by the American Bar Association's Juvenile Defender Center. ''All the professionals in the court system were very resentful of this. They felt they were being handed problems and students that the schools were better equipped to address.''

According to an analysis of school arrest data by the Advancement Project, a civil rights advocacy group in Washington, there were 2,345 juvenile arrests in 2001 in public schools in Miami-Dade County, Fla., nearly three times as many as in 1999. Sixty percent, the project said, were for ''simple assaults'' -- fights that did not involve weapons --and ''miscellaneous'' charges, including disorderly conduct.

Many of the court cases around the country involve special-education students whose behavior is often related to their disabilities, Mr. Block and others say.

In an elementary school in northeastern Pennsylvania, an 8-year-old boy in a special-education class was charged with disorderly conduct this fall for his behavior in a time-out room: urinating on the floor, throwing his shoes at the ceiling and telling a teacher, ''Kids rule.''

''Teachers and school administrators know now that they can shift these kids into juvenile court,'' said Marsha Levick, legal director for the Juvenile Law Center of Philadelphia, which is representing the boy and has asked that the charges be dismissed. ''The culture has shifted. Juvenile court is seen as an antidote for all sorts of behavior that in the past resulted in time out or suspension.''

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