“I love my friends Abby and Faith. Lex was here 2/1/10 .” Alexa Gonzalez penned these words on her desk with a lime-green magic marker, and then added a smiley face. She was bored, waiting for her Spanish teacher to hand back homework at the beginning of class. Shortly after her doodling, the 12-year-old was arrested.
Alexa, a seventh grader at Junior High School 190 in Forest Hills, New York, suspected that there would be some repercussions for her actions, but she was not ready for the handcuffs and the walk across the street to the police precinct. Worse yet, she was hauled out of her classroom, hands cuffed behind her back, in full view of her teachers and of course her classmates.
I don’t know exactly how this could have happened, but I can only assume that Alexa’s Spanish teacher called the principal, who decided that doodling on a desk is a criminal offense, and that an arrest needed to be made. Alexa was detained for several hours at the police precinct, and eventually allowed to leave. (I wonder what questions they asked her during the lengthy interrogation?). Although she had a stellar attendance record, she has not returned to school since. “She’s been throwing up,” said her mom. “The whole situation has been a nightmare.”
“We’re looking at the facts,” says City Education Department spokesman David Cantor. “Based on what we’ve seen so far, this shouldn’t have happened.” Police spokesman Paul Browne added, “Even when we’re asked to make an arrest, common sense should prevail, and discretion used in deciding whether an arrest or handcuffs are really necessary.” So, the authorities made a mistake. That’s understandable, once in a while.
But this is not an isolated case. Alexa is only the latest in a series of New York students to be arrested for a minor infraction. Possibly the most famous is 13-year-old Chelsea Fraser, arrested in 2007 for writing “Okay” on her desk at Intermediate School 201. Others include 5-year-old Dennis Rivera, who in 2008 was placed in handcuffs and sent to a psych ward after misbehaving in kindergarten, and a 12-year-old who was arrested in March 2009 for doodling on her desk at the Hunts Point School.
Across the country, there are plenty more examples of teens and preteens being arrested for seemingly minor offences. In November 2009, a food fight at a middle school in Chicago led to the arrests of 25 students, some as young as 11, according to the Chicago Police Department. And at least 12,000 tickets were issued to tardy or truant students by Los Angeles Police Department and school security officers in 2008. The Strategy Center, a California-based civil rights group that tracks zero tolerance policies, opposes this system. “The theory is that if we fine them, then they won’t be late again,” says
spokesman Manuel Criollo. “But they just end up not going to school at all.”
This is not just about zero tolerance policies gone awry. It’s about wilful cruelty to young people, at the hands of the very people who are supposed to be protecting them. When did zero tolerance become zero intelligence?
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