The charge on the police docket was “disrupting class,” but that is not how 12-year-old Sarah Bustamantes saw her arrest for spraying two bursts of perfume on her neck in class because other children were bullying her with taunts of “you smell.”
“I’m weird. Other kids don’t like me,” said Bustamantes, who has been diagnosed with attention deficit and bipolar disorders and who is conscious of being overweight. “They were saying a lot of rude things to me. Just picking on me. So I sprayed myself with perfume. Then they said: ‘Put that away, that’s the most terrible smell I’ve ever smelled.’ Then the teacher called the police.”
The policeman did not have far to come. He patrols the corridors of Bustamantes’ school, Fulmore Middle in Austin, Texas. Like hundreds of schools in the state and across large parts of the rest of the US, Fulmore Middle has its own police force, with officers in uniform who carry guns to keep order in the canteens, playgrounds and lessons.
Sarah was taken from class, charged with a criminal misdemeanor and ordered to appear in court.
Each day, hundreds of schoolchildren appear before courts in Texas charged with offenses such as swearing, misbehaving on the school bus or getting in to a punch-up in the playground. Children have been arrested for possessing cigarettes, wearing “inappropriate” clothes and being late for school.
In 2010, the police gave close to 300,000 “Class C misdemeanor” tickets to children as young as six in Texas for offenses in and out of school, which result in fines, community service and even prison time. What was once handled with a telling-off by the teacher or a call to parents can now result in arrest and a record that may cost a young person a place in college or a job years later.
“We’ve taken childhood behavior and made it criminal,” said Kady Simpkins, a lawyer who represented Bustamantes. “They’re kids. Disruption of class? Every time I look at this law, I think: ‘Good lord, I never would have made it in school in the US.’ I grew up in Australia and it’s just rowdy there. I don’t know how these kids do it, how they go to school every day without breaking these laws.”
The British government is studying the US experience in dealing with gangs, unruly young people and juvenile justice in the wake of riots in England. British Under-Secretary of State for Prisons and Youth Justice Crispin Blunt visited Texas last September to study juvenile courts and prisons, youth gangs and police outreach in schools, among other things, but his trip came at a time when Texas was reassessing its own reaction to fears of feral youth that critics say has created a “school-to-prison pipeline.”
Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Wallace Jefferson has warned that “charging kids with criminal offenses for low-level behavioral issues” is helping to drive many of them to a life in jail.
The Texas legislature last year changed the law to stop the issuing of tickets to 10 and 11-year-olds over classroom behavior. (In the state, the age of criminal responsibility is 10.) However, a broader bill to end the practice entirely — championed by Texas Senator John Whitmire, who called the system “ridiculous” — failed to pass and cannot be considered again for another two years.
Even the federal government has waded in, with US Attorney General Eric Holder saying of criminal citations being used to maintain discipline in schools: “That is something that clearly has to stop.”