8 Years In Prison for a Harmless Prank? Handcuffed for Doodling? The Increasing Criminalization of Students

Young people are being suspended, expelled and charged with criminal offenses for behavior as innocuous as doodling on a desk.

image: AlterNet

Rania Khalek
AlterNet

A few months back, 18-year-old Tyell Morton was enjoying his senior year at Rushville High in Indiana. Today, he faces the prospect of being labeled a felon for the rest of his life for a harmless senior prank.

Morton was arrested for putting a blowup doll in a bathroom stall on the last day of school. He was caught when video footage showed a man entering the high school in a hooded sweatshirt and leaving a package in the bathroom. Fearing the package might be a bomb, school officials evacuated the premises and called the Indiana State bomb squad. Although no one was injured, no property damaged and no dangerous materials found, Morton, who had not been in any trouble prior to this incident, is being charged with disorderly conduct (a misdemeanor) and institutional criminal mischief (a class C felony), carrying the potential of two to eight years in prison.

Tyrell Morton’s case has received nationwide media attention and there is even a website called Free Tyrell Morton. Unfortunately, his case is hardly the only one of its kind. The overzealous response to Morton’s harmless, albeit immature senior prank, is just the most recent in a long string of over-the-top punishments visited upon American students.

In Pearl, Mississippi, Pearl High School’s rivalry with Brandon High School dates back to 1949. Last year, when big paw prints and the letters B H S were scribbled in bright red spray paint all over Pearl High’s new field house, Brandon High officials launched an investigation. Tyler Dearman and Adam Cook, both 17, were arrested at school and charged with felony malicious mischief.

Young people across America are being suspended, expelled and charged with criminal offenses for behavior as innocuous as doodling on a desk, skipping class, and in the case of Tyell Morton, participating in the well-established American tradition of “senior pranking.”  Suspension and expulsion are poles apart from arrests and criminal charges, but all of these disciplinary measures stem from a zero-tolerance culture that promotes harsh punishment for common childhood mistakes. Why is this happening?

‘Zero-Tolerance’

In cases of violent or dangerous behavior, most everyone can agree that suspension or expulsion may be required by law or necessary for the safety of other students and school staff. But the zero-tolerance culture that spread throughout the American school system following a string of highly publicized school shootings in the ’90s has had unintended consequences.

The rise of harsher discipline for student misconduct paralleled the “tough on crime” rhetoric of the late 1980s and early 1990s. This was further exacerbated by hysteria among legislators about out-of-control youth, fueled in part by frequent news stories of teachers and students being shot or killed in high school classrooms, hallways and cafeterias.

Panic over stories of youth violence led to the 1994 Guns-Free Schools Act, which allocated extra funding to local schools that could demonstrate that when a student brought a weapon to campus, he would be expelled for at least one year and referred to appropriate authorities in the justice system. But policymakers went far beyond this minimum standard, calling for stricter punishment for any disruptive or dangerous actions. While specific policies differ from state to state and even school to school, by 1997 at least 79 percent of schools nationwide had adopted zero-tolerance policies toward alcohol, drugs and violence. (Zero-tolerance describes policies that automatically impose severe discipline on students without regard to individual circumstances.)

Curbing violence and drugs in school is a worthy goal, but the enforcement of zero-tolerance policies has often led to extreme punishments for benign behavior. The Advancement Project describes it well:

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