Staff Columnist

Are teens becoming more disruptive, or are adults overreacting?

New reports note increase in law enforcement activity at Iowa schools

Detective Timothy Koch of the Arlington County, Virginia, police department school resource unit displays a Juul device. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Michael S. Williamson
Detective Timothy Koch of the Arlington County, Virginia, police department school resource unit displays a Juul device. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Michael S. Williamson

A new report from the American Civil Liberties Union details a startling trend of criminalizing school children.

Nationwide, schools reported 230,000 referrals to law enforcement and 61,000 arrests during the 2015-16 school year, although the ACLU suggests there were likely many more unreported arrests. That was a 3 percent increase in arrests and 17 percent increase in law enforcement referrals over the 2013-2014 school year.

In Iowa the increases were much greater. Arrests more than doubled between the two school years under review, and law enforcement referrals increased by 58 percent.

Arrests at Iowa schools more than doubled between the two school years under review, and law enforcement referrals increased by 58 percent.

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Students of color and with disabilities are referred to law enforcement more than their white and non-disabled peers, according to the data. Black girls at Iowa schools were eight times as likely to be arrested as white girls, for example, one of the highest disparities in the nation.

These increases are a foreseeable outcome of a concerted effort by federal, state and local governments to invest in school security. Iowa schools have 152 sworn police officers and 73 security guards, according to the ACLU report, and students at schools with dedicated police officers are more than three times as likely to face charges.

The ACLU report also links rising law enforcement activity in schools to a lack of other health and safety resources in American schools. The authors say young people are experiencing higher levels of depression and anxiety than previous generations, and some 14 million students are in schools with police but no counselor, nurse, psychologist or social worker.

Increasing access to mental health professionals certainly is an important priority for state lawmakers and local school board members to pursue. However, many school arrests stem from common adolescent behavior, not directly to any discernible mental health crises.

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Cedar Rapids’ four public high schools have seen a significant increase in drug and alcohol charges this school year, as The Gazette’s Molly Duffy reported last week. Already this year, schools have logged 42 arrests at the high schools, compared to just 16 during all of last school year.

Administrators say that uptick is at least partly attributable to the rising use of e-cigarettes and vaporizers among teenagers.

Unfortunately, it’s difficult to draw meaningful conclusions from statewide arrest data. An Iowa Department of Education spokesperson told Little Village magazine last week that the department does not track arrests in schools.

Similarly, while administrators are required to submit aggregate arrest data to the federal government, they are not required to report the reasons students are arrested.

The ACLU report points out students can be charged for seemingly harmless behavior that educators deem disruptive to the learning environment. They provide real examples of students facing a law enforcement response for wearing saggy pants, spraying fart spray and possessing a maple leaf.

Is this a crisis of children misbehavior, or of adults overreacting? Without more complete data, we can’t say for sure.

• Comments: (319) 339-3156; adam.sullivan@thegazette.com

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