Childhood Criminalized: Suspended in Elementary School

AP Photo / Jessica Webb Sibley

A nine-year-old Texas schoolboy was suspended from his elementary school for posession of a “magic ring.” Remember the poptart gun? The Nerf gun? The Lego gun? The pointed finger gun? In another time, these typical childrens’ toys would have gotten as little notice as the old fashioned cap gun but in a world where the list of childhood offenses also includes possession of a novelty pen or a Hello Kitty bubble gun, it comes as little surprise that a Lord of the Rings “magic ring” would land Aiden Steward in suspension from his elementary school in Kermit, Texas.

The story spread like wildfire from Yahoo News! to FOX News, originating with the Odessa American’s original report on the budding fourth grade magician who was  accused of “terrorizing” his classmates because he said that he would make them “disappear” with his Hobbit prop.  Unfortunately, in the 21st Century classroom, displays of “make-believe” are not taken with a grain of salt. Instead, they are perceived through a wary eye, often warranting the kind of macabre school sanctioned remediation that transforms kiddies into criminals.

Two years before Aiden’s run-in with campus zero tolerance policies, seven year-old Alex Evans, a Colorado second grader suspended for throwing an imaginary hand grenade while pretending to “rescue the world” from “pretend evil forces,” and, as the New American reported, “Little Alex, it turns out, violated his school’s ‘absolutes’ against fighting and weapons, ‘real or imaginary.'” There was also seven-year-old Christopher Marshall from Virginia, who was suspended for using a pencil to “pretend shoot” a bad guy — his friend, who, in turn, was also suspended for “pretend shooting” Christopher back.

Welcome to public school, a place where the US Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights March 2014 snapshot of the 2011-12 school year showed that boys, as a demographic group regardless of race and/or socioeconomic strata, represented 79% of preschool children suspended once and 82% of preschool children suspended multiple times, although boys only represented 54% of preschool enrollment.

Even a Yale University study revealed that boys are nearly five times more likely to be expelled from preschool than girls.

According to the Texas Education Agency (TEA) Public Education Information Management System (PEIMS), which is the longitudinal database that tracks student population, 5,289,752 students were enrolled in Texas public schools in 2013-14. Of those, 2,572,354 were girls and 2,717,398, boys — In-School-Suspension (ISS) was handed out to boys 921,120 times, that’s 43% higher than girls who only had 390,781 ISS actions filed against them, also according to PEIMS. The TEA reported that the number of all students who served in ISS K-12 statewide in 2013-14 was 524,268, of which 352,868 were boys, 171,400 were girls.

The Texas Education Code 37.005 defines suspension: (a) The principal or other appropriate administrator may suspend a student who engages in conduct identified in the student code of conduct adopted under Section 37.001 as conduct for which a student may be suspended. (b)A suspension under this section may not exceed three school days.

ISS is a newer phenomenon that allows schools to receive their Average Daily Attendance (ADA) dollars, which is the combination of federal and state funds that school districts nationwide receive per student per day just because the child shows up.  With ISS the “suspended” child is sequestered yet housed on the campus and is technically “in school,” rather than an Out-of-School Suspension (OSS), which is treated as an absence.

However, ISS is particularly troubling to Texas Appleseed because,  unlike OSS, there are no limits on the number of days a student may spend in ISS, according to the non-profit organization’s School to Prison Pipeline project. In their backgrounder Texas School Discipline Policies: A Statistical Overview it states, “ISS programs generally do not consist of any instructional time – most ISS programs are run like a study hall, and are not staffed by a certified teacher.”

The report also points out that school districts are required to refer students to ISS for certain types of violations, usually those involving drugs, weapons, or violent behavior. However, the Texas Education Code gives school districts the authority to refer students for “discretionary” offenses that generally include behavior like use of profanity, failure to turn in work, or behavior that teachers label “disruptive.”

Problem is, “disruptive” can be a broadly used term and in the all-encompassing-compliant-or-else environment being fostered and dictated by zero tolerance policies and safe schools plans, the one demographic feeling the self-esteem squeeze in all this are boys.

Jason Steward, the nine-year old’s father told Breitbart Texas that Kermit Elementary School Assistant Principal Danny Camp accused Aiden of being a “racist” in September 2014.  Aiden was a newly enrolled student. The administrator did not even know his son when when he was playing a “hold your breath the longest” game to see whose face would turn reddest. An innocent comment Aiden made about another child’s dark-skin became a socially-charged rally cry for equity. According to Steward, Aiden was scolded by Camp, not for calling another boy black but for mistaking the boy was African-American when he was Hispanic.

Steward tried to explain to Camp that Aiden did not mean anything derogatory and was just pointing out skin color differences.  “How is a nine-year-old boy supposed to know what is PC?,” Steward told Breitbart Texas.

It did not matter. Aiden got his first ISS. The second came in mid-October over allegedly “sexually graphic” material the boy brought into school. It was from the Big Book of Knowledge and was an illustrated science class cut-away belly-only diagram of a pregnancy. Not exactly Playboy.

With the third incident, the Stewards turned to the media. They felt there was nowhere else to turn. The TEA cannot intervene.  Suspensions are considered a local matter, spokeswoman DeEtta Culbertson told Breitbart Texas.

The underlying issues behind the suspensions are not new. In 2001, Christina Hoff Sommers identified a war on boys that grew out of what she termed a misguided feminism. It is one that has emasculated the classroom. By 2013, Sommers worried that the public schools had become too hostile for boys. She wrote, “In grades K-12, boys account for nearly 70% of suspensions, often for minor acts of insubordination and defiance.”

Regardless of racial, ethnic or socioeconomic strata, Sommers pointed out cases of 7-8-9 year-old boys charged with suspensions, yet there was “no insubordination or defiance.” All these youngsters may have been guilty of was was being a boy. Sommers emphasized that in “today’s school environment, that can be a punishable offense.”

This rigidity continues into the middle and high school years. Zero tolerance is the backbone of “safe schools” and “threat assessment” plans that rolled out in public schools long before Columbine (1999) or Sandy Hook (2012). The Safe School Initiative was a joint project of the US Department of Education and the US Secret Service to prevent school shootings.

USA Today reported that these harsh public school zero-tolerance policies took hold in 1994 when “Congress required states to adopt laws that guaranteed one-year expulsions for any student who brought a firearm to school. All 50 states adopted such laws, which were required to receive federal funding. Many legislatures went further, expanding the definition of a weapon and further limiting the discretion of school administrators.”

Today, Texas public education budgets heavily for security systems, in-house campus police and zero tolerance programs; yet, the Bureau of Justice Statistics reported that only approximately 1% of students ages 12 to 18 reported a violent victimization at school. Sommers highlighted that this figure is one-tenth of 1%.  Bottom line, as Sommers suggests, the overwhelming majority of boys are not sociopathic.

Yet, in today’s dystopian classroom, the male student finds himself struggling in a “climate” that generally favors more compliant and less kinetically wired girls.

“Across the country, schools are policing and punishing the distinctive, assertive sociability of boys. Many much-loved games have vanished from school playgrounds,” Sommers wrote, spotlighting that “tug or war” has been replaced by “tug of peace” and dodge ball and tag are considered “bullying” or “human target” games. They are banned in many states.

The Huffington Post reported that in Massachusetts, one Superintendent of Schools said that their district spent a lot of time making sure their kids were “violence free”. In California, pee-wee basketball is “score-free” so as not to hurt the other team’s feelings.

The American Psychological Association (APA) Zero Tolerance Task Force questioned, in 2008, if after 20 years all these zero tolerance policies have only negatively affected the relationship of education “with juvenile justice and appear to conflict to some degree with current best knowledge concerning adolescent development.”

The APA also noted that “Rather than reducing the likelihood of disruption, however, school suspension in general appears to predict higher future rates of misbehavior and suspension among those students who are suspended.”

Sommers, too, wondered about the on-going mad science experiment in public schools. It is designed “to re-engineer the young-male imagination.” She noted that this attempt is only succeeding in one way in the public schools — in sending a clear and unmistakable message to millions of schoolboys: You are not welcome in school.”

Meanwhile, elementary school-aged boys just like Aiden Steward walk away with quite a “ding” on their school permanent records.

Breitbart Texas attempted to contact Assistant Principal Camp and Kermit Elementary principal Roxane Greer for comment but was redirected to Bill Boyd, Superintendent of Schools office. The superintendent’s secretary said they were issuing a press release only on the matter. Breitbart Texas requested it several times. It was not sent to us before press time.

Follow Merrill Hope on Twitter @OutOfTheBoxMom.



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