Your NPR news source

Juvenile Arrests Can Cast a Long Shadow

SHARE Juvenile Arrests Can Cast a Long Shadow
Juvenile Arrests Can Cast a Long Shadow

Tyler Cannon was in his school lunch room when a food fight broke out. (WBEZ/Linda Paul)

Thousands of Chicago area kids are arrested at school each year. Some of those arrests are for offenses as serious as carrying guns to class. Other times, they're for incidents as minor as lobbing apples across the lunch room in an overzealous food fight. But even an arrest that is never brought to court will generate a record that others can sometimes see. And that can cast a cloud over a young person's chance for work and stability later on.

As part of our series Inside and Out, Linda Paul has part one of this story. 

Chart of yearly juvenile arrests in Cook County
Source: Illinois Juvenile Justice Information Authority

Chart of total number of incidents occuring within Chicago Public Schools
Source: Chicago Police Department
For 13-year-old Tyler Cannon, last November 5 started out as a pretty normal day. But that didn't last long.

TYLER: Okay, I'm in first period lunch. So we in lunch period and then, well, kids started throwing food, and a food fight breaks out.

A food fight that by all accounts, was a doozy. Granny Smith apples, oranges, plastic knives and forks, were flying through the air. Kids were ducking, running for cover behind vending machines and some students apparently got minor injuries from foodstuff that had been converted into projectiles.

Soon afterward, the security guard rounded up the kids who were thought to be involved.

TYLER: In all, he picked out like 27 kids.

And in the end? After the kids were questioned, a couple dozen students were handcuffed, arrested and taken to a Chicago Police station.

DAVIS: I am not in the business of arresting students. I'm extremely clear about that.

I've come to Perspectives Calumet Middle School on the south side of Chicago, to talk with principal Tamara Davis. Perspectives is a charter school with what Davis calls a “college for certain” environment. Their campus, which includes two high schools, is patrolled full-time by two Chicago police officers. She works closely with police to create a safe learning environment, and sometimes they ask how she wants to handle student misbehavior.

DAVIS: But in terms of that day? It was their call to arrest the students.

The whole incident, Davis says, was unfortunate. The students were arrested for reckless conduct, charges that were eventually dropped. Her school sometimes uses restorative justice practices like peer juries to address misbehavior, but not apparently on that day.

TYLER: I started to cry because I didn't do nothin' and I'm in handcuffs. And they had them on me tight. So it hurted.

Tyler Cannon is in his living room with his parents, finishing up his story. Because there weren't enough handcuffs, he was handcuffed to another boy and that became a problem when nature called.

TYLER: I pretty much didn't use the bathroom 'cause they were saying we had to go together - and I wasn't fixin' to go to the bathroom with another boy.

The police asked each of the kids some questions, Tyler says, and stamped a number on their arms to prep them for fingerprints and mug shots.

TYLER: And that's when I started getting even more madder 'cause, like now I have a rap sheet? For something I didn't do? And I'm getting fingerprinted and a picture?

Tyler's father Dorian is a Chicago firefighter and he says kids at school are arrested way too easily.

CANNON: I remember when I was growing up, you get into a fight, you went to the principal's office, they called your parents down there and depending on the fight - who started it - they would suspend you, or they'd give discipline according to the situation.

But nowadays, he says, they'll arrest you even if you didn't start the fight. Even if you're just defending yourself.

CANNON: So yeah, I think they arrest these kids for something that should be handled in the school, amongst the teachers, the principal and the parents.  

RAMELIZE: Most of these people that are calling the police don't know that even if you're arrested, but you're not prosecuted, that stays on a kid's record. So it's there.

Azim Ramelize is an attorney and Assistant Commissioner for Chicago's Department of Family and Support Services. As a kid he got in trouble with the law, and he knows firsthand that even an arrest that never lands in court, still generates a record. An arrest record that can potentially hurt a kid later. So if a school is going to have a kid arrested, he says, make sure it's absolutely necessary.

RAMELIZE: Now there are instances where you have to call the police, but on some of this I think we ought to find ways to really handle these kids, and we ought to find ways to handle it restoratively rather than punitively.

Partly to address the needs of the victim, he says, and also because an arrest can be traumatic.

This is the home of another boy who was in that food fight. He's a straight A student, and sensitive boy, we'll call "Jason." On the day of the food fight, he got hit in the head with an apple. And when someone hurled an orange at him, he caught it. And threw it back. That's what got him in trouble, he says.

Boy's voice:
I'm like, I'm getting arrested. For what? For a food fight? For throwing an orange?

All these months later, Jason says, the incident still really bugs him.

JASON: Yeah, I thought about it a lot, really. It just seemed very unfair to me. I didn't even want to go to school any more after that. Didn't even wanna come near the school.

WRIGHT: He was only 12 years old. You arrested him. You fingerprinted him. And you took his dog-gone picture.

That's CS Wright, Jason's auntie and guardian. She's still shaking mad about the events of that day.

WRIGHT: And if I may say, Ms. Paul, and it's no reflection on anybody, but if our children had been another race, that wouldn't have happened. And you know that, and I do too. It was a food fight. But my feeling is that we just think, 'Well, they used to goin' to jail anyway.' And that is NOT how it is. You know, all of our children don't go to jail. All of our black men don't go to jail. Some of the African-American families like us...

And here Ms. Wright points to herself and says, “Our family has a path charted for this young man.”

WRIGHT: We do. Whether they know it or not. So when you did that to him? You did scar him.

The Chicago Police Department has confirmed to WBEZ that arrest records from this food fight were sent to the Illinois State Police. From there, if usual procedure was followed, the files were then forwarded to the FBI, where federal laws regulate who may and may not receive criminal history information for employment purposes.

Maurice Emsellem is policy co-director at the National Employment Law Project in Oakland, California.

EMSELLEM: If a young person is fingerprinted for a juvenile offense, if the state maintains that information and sends it on to the FBI, then that information will be reproduced, maintained, to be released as part of a criminal background check for employment.

There are protections however. Not just any potential employer can get that information. Emsellem says private sector employers do not have access to the FBI files. But numerous government agencies can access these records...
EMSELLEM: when the state laws authorize federal background checks for certain occupations. Health care, security - occupations like that.

The law governing the transmission of juvenile data here in Illinois, changed recently. As of January 1 of this year, it's no longer legal for the Illinois State Police to forward juvenile files to the FBI.

But that still leaves vulnerable the thousands – even tens of thousands – of kids who got arrested before January 1 of this year. Kids who may not understand that it's important for them, when possible, to clear or expunge their records.

Tune in tomorrow for part two of this story. We meet a 20 year old who recently got tripped up on a job hunt because of a school arrest that happened when he was 11.

More From This Show