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Zero Tolerance Policies & Police Officers in Schools Don’t Mix: FL Teen Charged with Felony After a Failed Science Experiment

The Nutty Professor was a landmark role for both Jerry Lewis and Eddie Murphy. As I’m sure you all know, the main plot line is driven by the scientific prowess of the professor, who develops a serum that transforms him from a science-loving nerd into a smooth-talking, lady-chasing hunk. The movie is a parody of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and, fittingly for the comedians who have played the main character, it is hilarious. The original 1963 film was even selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”

However, the recent transformation of a 16 year old girl, who “mixed some common household chemicals in a small 8 oz water bottle on the grounds of Bartow High School . . . [which] caused a small explosion that . . . produced some smoke, [but] . . . [n]o one was hurt and no damage was caused,” into a felon stretches the limits of my imagination. Unfortunately, this type of story is also culturally, historically, and aesthetically significant: the school-to-prison pipeline disproportionately affects youth of color, and women (especially women of color) continue to be underrepresented in the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) fields – a topic even NASA has begun to address head-on.

I guess truth really is stranger than fiction.

According to reports, the student was taken into custody by a school resource officer (“SRO”) and charged with “possession/discharge of a weapon on school grounds and discharging a destructive device.” The student was subsequently expelled from school and will be charged as an adult. This is, sadly, yet another example of overly harsh school discipline practices. And a recent report from the UCLA Civil Rights Project found that, while black boys have the dubious distinction of having the highest rates of suspension, black girls in high school are suspended at higher rates than males from all other racial/ethnic groups.

The school’s own code of conduct indicates that it should take a progressive approach to discipline that that “consider[s] the student’s age, exceptionality, previous conduct, probability of a recurring violation, intent, attitude, and [the] severity of the offense.” The introduction of police officers, or SROs, into the school environment bypasses this measured and thoughtful approach and treats even minor violations as criminal acts.

The student told police that she was conducting a science experiment – according to the police report, she mixed toilet bowl cleaner and aluminum foil – and was just as surprised as everyone else with the result. Certainly, it’s fair to say that she made a mistake by performing an unsupervised experiment on school grounds, but shouldn’t schools be in the business of encouraging students to explore the world as opposed to locking them up? Girls, and especially girls of color, are grossly underrepresented in STEM fields. Currently, women make up nearly half of the U.S. workforce, yet they account for only 24% of STEM jobs. Women are also the majority of students on college campuses, but in 2009, they earned only 19 percent of physics bachelor’s degrees, and received only 16 percent of bachelor’s and 22 percent of master’s or doctorate degrees in engineering and engineering technologies (NWLC Fact Sheet on Title IX and STEM).

The tragedy of this situation is that this is not the first, nor is it likely to be the last, instance of kids becoming trapped in the school-to-prison pipeline for behavior that could have easily been dealt with by school personnel. The school’s defense is that students need to understand that there are consequences to their actions, but the school needs to learn that there are consequences to its actions as well:

  • Students suspended, expelled, or arrested in school are more likely to drop out or graduate late.
  • Suspended students miss class time and are more likely to do poorly in school.
  • Young people who do not finish high school are more likely to go to prison than students who graduate, and women without a high school diploma are especially likely to be unemployed, to earn low wages if they do find jobs, and – as a result – to have to rely on public support.

Let’s end the experiment with zero tolerance. High schools should send kids to college, not prison.

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