Students arrested – for a food fight?

The news that 25 middle-schoolers from a Chicago charter school were arrested after participating in a food fight is all over the blogs, news and airwaves, from the The New York Times to ABC World News Tonight.  The school said in a statement that “The Chicago police officers who help protect our school, concerned about potential injuries resulting from the fight, felt it was necessary to arrest those responsible.”

This brought to mind a discussion the Board had just last night, over a resolution to fund “increased police presence” at several middle schools in SFUSD (total cost – $40,000, our commitment to a school climate grant we received jointly with SFPD). Commissioner Fewer questioned the expense, wondering whether instead of a “presence,” police officers could provide training to teachers in de-escalation techniques. According to Ms. Fewer (who should know, since she’s married to an SFPD officer), police officers receive deep training in de-escalation, and could actually provide great support to our teachers in defusing tense situations in the classroom. Commissioner Kim additionally pointed out that increasing police presence at our schools is at odds with our new Restorative Justice policy, passed last month.

While we ended up postponing a vote on this expenditure until we can get more information about whether the presence of “School Resource Officers” (SFPD officers stationed at schools) is being “maintained” or “increased,”  this news from Chicago underscores the concerns about the point of police presence in our schools. Personally, I think the presence of the right SRO can contribute in a positive way to school climate — promoting a positive and two-way relationship between law enforcement and families, for example, as well as de-escalation techniques for adults to use when working with troubled youth. But as the mother of two teens who were arrested in the Chicago incident points out, it’s pretty ridiculous to arrest a teenager for throwing a carrot.

I also wonder whether the race of the students played a role in the police reaction – the charter school where the incident occurred is primarily comprised of African-American students. Maybe I’m being too sensitive, but I keep thinking about the scene in the movie “Animal House” where a food fight involving white students is portrayed as exuberant fun. (Without too much effort, I also found this pretty funny clip of Michael Jackson and Macaulay Culkin staging an elaborate pie fight.)

So I think it’s appropriate to question “zero tolerance” policies in situations like this. The point of restorative justice is to be sure that discipline frameworks actually address the wrongs resulting from anti-social behavior, and I’m not sure that arresting students (which enrages their parents and endangers their futures) for an offense like this is in any way effective discipline. Why not instead ask the students to clean the cafeteria until it sparkles?

seniorislandI’m also reminded of a senior prank my friends and I perpetrated at Berkeley High School a few days before graduation in June 1984. One night we drove a car on to the campus, unloaded several hundred pounds of sand, a boat and a palm tree, commandeered a few picnic tables and spent the next day lounging in our self-created “Senior Island,” ordering off all underclassmen and thinking we were pretty much the bomb.  The then-administration of the school was incredibly tolerant, (probably too much so, since we also refused to attend class), only asking us to remove all of our traces at the end of the day (which we did).  It was memorable, largely harmless, and utterly against the grain of what should be going on in schools. If students tried such a prank today, would administrators feel they had to call police to intervene? I hope not.

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