Juvenile Justice

Mistakes Kids Make….the School Suspension Boondoggle….”Education Under Arrest”

A brand new initiative called “Mistakes Kids Make,” sponsored by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, created the video above and is busily gathering stories from adults who have made mistakes as kids but whose lives were not blown apart. To encourage others to come forward, the organizers have posted some mini-stories by famous people who did dumb, and in some cases scary and/or tragic things as kids, but who turned out okay—as most kids do, if given half a chance and some caring adult help, when needed.

(For instance you may have known the “mistake” stories listed about Laura bush and about Steve Jobs, but I didn’t.)

The site also lists a string of relevant facts:

The US locks up nearly five times the number of kids as any other nation in the world.

Only five percent of kids who get arrested, have committed a violent crime. Yet they often are given the same treatment as the youth who commit more serious crimes.

66 percent of kids who are incarcerated, never return to school

All terrific stuff. But do sites like this one actually help to motivate lawmakers to work for saner public policy? I wonder. It would be good to think so.


Brian Palmer of Slate asked a group of experts why school suspension was so over-used.

Why is suspension such a common punishment?

Because it’s familiar, cheap, and convenient. It’s also demonstrably ineffective. Its deterrent value is low: A 2011 study showed that Texas students who were suspended or expelled at least once during middle school and high school averaged four such disciplinary actions during their academic careers. Fourteen percent of them were suspended 11 times or more. Suspensions don’t even seem to benefit the school as a whole. In recent years, while Baltimore city schools have dramatically reduced suspensions, the dropout rate has been cut nearly in half.

Still, surveys consistently show that parents support suspension, because it keeps those students perceived as bad apples away from their peers. Principals continue to rely on suspension, in part because it creates the appearance of toughness.


We mentioned this Tavis Smiley special before, but now that it’s coming up soon, it bears mentioning again.

Here’s a clip from the story about the special by the LA Sentinal’s Thandisizwe Chimurenga:

…Smiley says his decision to focus on “the connection between the juvenile justice system and the dropout rate among American teens” was a logical outgrowth of his concern about poverty.

“I’ve been talking about the issue of poverty for quite some time and this is another one of those poverty tentacles, he said. “I wrote about it in the book I did with Dr. Cornel West, The Rich and the Rest of Us: A Poverty Manifesto, but I’ve talked about it in a number of different forums over the years and I’ve done other specials about education but … ‘Education Under Arrest,’ this particular special focuses uniquely on the school to prison pipeline and how it is that we are criminalizing our children. So, my interest in it has always been there.”

According to Smiley, one out of three teens arrested in this country are arrested at school.

“The stuff that I used to get sent to the principal’s office for – foul language, getting into a fight, disruptive behavior, missing school, chewing gum in class, getting caught too many times chewing gum – kids are now being suspended for; they’re being expelled for, and they end up in front of a judge and that get’s them a criminal record. And they end up on lockdown. We’re criminalizing our kids and its’ all because of this notion of ‘zero tolerance.’ This idea of ‘zero tolerance’ does not work,” said Smiley.

1 Comment

  • The threat of overwhelming punishment will never deter 100% of the conduct proscribed under zero tolerance policies. Kids don’t think about consequences the same way adults do. Discipline policies need to be written with the expectation that some kids will break the rules and those in-charge need to have flexibility to address the unique situation. Zero tolerance and criminalization of bad behavior are part of a trend among educators to abdicate responsibility for maintaining good order and discipline in the classroom. This allows the educators to displace responsibility for their weak classroom leadership by blaming the students who are misbehaving.

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