Tens of thousands of young people get arrested each year in Chicago, and a lot of those arrests happen on the grounds of Chicago Public Schools. Of course, arrests at school happen all across the country.
The connection even has a name: some people say schools are a worrisome ‘pipeline’ to the criminal justice system for many young people. In fact, last December, Illinois U.S. Senator Dick Durbin held the first ever congressional hearings on the topic. One big worry for people who work with kids is the lingering records kids can get from those arrests.
I’m visiting the home of Chicago Public School teacher Valerie Collins, and her son, daughter and I are crowded around a laptop on their dining room table. Valerie’s kids are both public school graduates. I’d heard about a YouTube video that showed a really nasty fight at Sullivan High School in Chicago, and asked them to watch it with me.
“It’s got a million hits!,” Collins is exclaiming. “A million five hits. A million six!”
They’re listening to a television announcers account: “We have video of this and first of all the video is graphic. Okay, it’s literally two girls, 17 and 18 beating up a 14 year old. The 14 year old suffered a concussion.”
I’m here to talk to Collins about arrests at school. She’s a math teacher at Simeon Career Academy, and before that she taught at both Lakeview and Phillips. I wanted to know if fights like the one we’re watching are once-in-a-blue moon events.
Collins says serious fights like this happen at some, but not all, public schools maybe a couple times a year. Her daughter says it “sucks,” but while she was in school she became sort of desensitized to such fights, “I wanna say it starts out as a joke because usually the way these, like fights, start off is off of something so ridiculous, so that it gets around the school and then everyone’s just like, ‘Oh, you know, there’s gonna be a fight this period, you know. Let’s all go out and see.”
“It’s worse with cell phones now,” Collins adds, “because with cell phones they text people that there’s going to be a fight. That’s what they do. They text that there’s going to be a fight and then unless we find out about it, everybody knows except for the administration. That’s what happens.”
There were about 4,600 arrests on public school grounds in 2011. That’s about a fifth of the 25,000 arrests of kids 17 and under that year in Chicago.
But of those 4,600 arrests, only 14 percent were for the really serious stuff, the felonies, like robbery, burglary and fights with serious injuries -- like that one on the YouTube video.
Most arrests at school are for the still troubling, but less serious stuff -- the misdemeanors.
“So you’ve got some smart-mouthed 15-year-old girl, who the teacher says to her, you know, Miss Thang, sit down.”
Here’s Herschella Conyers, clinical professor of law at the University of Chicago.
“And she says to the teacher, ‘You ain’t talkin’ to me.’ And off they go! And the teacher says, ‘I’ll put you outta my room.’ And the student says, you know, ‘I’ll whip your ass.’ Uh --here come the police ! It’s an ag assault. Now. Is the student absolutely wrong? Absolutely. Is there a better way to handle it? Yes.”
Conyers says there was a time when conduct wasn’t governed by the threat that the police would arrest. “It was, you know, here comes the principal, or God forbid - they’re about to call my mother. In those days it would be, could you just call the police and not my mother, you know?”
There were over 3,500 misdemeanor arrests at Chicago public schools in 2011. The biggest category was for simple battery. That could be a punch, a shove, or a fight --seemingly minor confrontations that these days are taken seriously because they can lead to retaliations.
Next was disorderly conduct. Basically? Kids creating a ruckus. No serious injuries.
And the third biggest category? Drug abuse violations. These are usually arrests for small quantities of marijuana, because if it was a large quantity, or drugs like cocaine or heroin—that would be a felony.
That last category, in particular, bothers Conyers' colleague down the hall, Craig Futterman – also a clinical professor of law at the University of Chicago. National studies, he says, show that white kids use and sell drugs at a rate higher than black kids do. And, says Futterman, that’s true in Chicago too.
“Where the vast majority of kids who use and sell drugs in high school are white. The vast majority of kids who are arrested for drugs, and or, worse, go to juvenile jail or go to juvenile prison for drugs, are African-American,” says Futterman.
Here’s what the numbers say about arrests at Chicago Public Schools in 2011. Almost 75 percent -- three quarters -- of all arrests were of African-American students. At the same time, in that same year, African-American students comprised about 42 percent of the student body. In fact in 2011, African American students were arrested at a rate nearly four times that of whites or Latinos.
This kind of imbalance is causing a lot of consternation and was a big topic of conversation at Senator Durbin’s national hearings last month.
Craig Futterman and Herschella Conyers think that lower level offenses, the misdemeanors basically, are better handled within the school. By counselors, social workers and restorative justice practices like peer juries and peace circles.
Kristina Menzel is an attorney who represents kids in juvenile court. She says that when principals request arrest, unfortunately it’s sometimes a way for the school to pass a problem kid on to another system.
“Now part of the problem is schools don’t have money for these services, “ Menzel says. “There’s not money out there for education like there should be. So the schools use the courts to get services for these kids that are problematic.”
There has to be a better way to deal with this, she says, “Since once they’re brought in here, they’re more likely to re-offend. And if they go to the Department of Juvenile Justice, their probability of re-offending goes up even higher.”
As serious as getting arrested in school can be, what happens later can be even more serious. Follow our story of how a juvenile arrest record can mess up a young person’s prospects for finding a job.