When Congress passed a national school-violence policy in 1994, many states followed with even stricter measures. But those laws, it now seems, are based on a faulty premise: that courts are the best place for disciplining children. The failure of this idea is clear in New York, where zero-tolerance policies have lead to arrests for gun possession on school grounds, but also for relatively minor offenses like shoving. Even nonviolent incidents—doodling, throwing food, back-talking—have landed kids in court, where last year New York sent more than 1,400 minors (average age: less than 16) to correctional facilities. According to a series of recent reports—by the Justice Department and the state Office of Children and Family Services—the institutions don’t help. Nearly nine of 10 occupants commit additional crimes. It’s a “school-to-prison pipeline,” says Judith S. Kaye, the state’s former chief judge.
She hopes the negative publicity will provide a push toward alternative modes of justice (like youth courts, where peers hear the cases of peers), more civics classes (where kids learn the virtues of sociability), and level-headed adjudication—where detention doesn’t always involve a cell.