Most parents would be horrified if their child was taken away in handcuffs for routine classroom misbehavior. The mother of a 13-year-old Cleveland Elementary School student in Albuquerque certainly was when her son was arrested for burping during class.
Yet, in a recent editorial, the Journal suggests that it was somehow frivolous for her to seek the court’s help to right a system that sees nothing wrong with jailing a child for burping. However, as the Journal’s editorial board no doubt already knows, the courts are where we decide many important issues that pertain to civil rights and education.
In its 1954 landmark decision, Brown v. Board of Education, the United States Supreme Court reminded us abut the fundamental importance of education in our society:
“[Education] is the very foundation of good citizenship. Today it is a principal instrument in awakening the child to cultural values, in preparing him for later professional training, and in helping him to adjust normally to his environment. In these days, it is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunity of an education. Such an opportunity, where the state has undertaken to provide it, is a right which must be made available to all on equal terms.”
Through public education, we teach children how to be part of our society. In the classroom appropriately focused on academic growth, teachers inevitably instruct their students on how to sit, pay attention and meet sensible expectations about how to succeed in class.
When students make inappropriate jokes, interrupt, throw spit wads and, yes, fake burp, it is the job of our public education system to help them learn how to behave better rather than worse. Indeed, responding to such misbehavior is teaching – and it can be teaching even more valuable than administering a spelling test.
Every day, all across the nation, classroom teachers take children aside when needed to teach them proper behavior or to give them extra academic support. This is not disruption of the educational process, it is education itself.
Calling in law enforcement to address routine misbehavior is not just poor judgment, it threatens the foundation of one of our most valued public responsibilities. This case is not simply about a 13-year-old jokester who acted as class clown by burping in class. The reach of this case extends much further to countless future New Mexican schoolchildren who will undoubtedly make mistakes, carry themselves inappropriately and act irresponsibly, but who by no measure deserve to be arrested, detained and saddled with a criminal record so early in their young lives.
Empirical evidence demonstrates that children of color and children with disabilities are much more likely than other children to be subject to illegal arrests. As a result, our most vulnerable children have even less access to the public education they require to succeed.
Worse, instead of helping children imagine themselves in college or gainfully employed, unlawful arrests entangle youth in our criminal justice system. And, again, evidence proves these entanglements correlate with later going to jail or prison. Honest law enforcement officers will acknowledge this truth in a heartbeat.
When such important rights are at stake, judicial review is essential. Access to judicial authority is our best hope for holding public officials to account.
In this case, the government failed to correct itself. In response to commonplace middle school misbehavior, neither the school administrator nor the officer used basic common sense and we maintain that they failed to meet their legal obligations to this student.
Courts guard against abuse of power, ensuring that individual rights are not trampled. The Journal got it wrong; making sure children have access to public education deserves judicial review.