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Making Danger Out Of Strangers

Childhood on lock-down: Police in middle schools and "stranger danger."

"My daughter hasn't come home from school," my friend told me on the phone last week, a note of panic in her voice.

Our 9-year-olds go to school and play together. We both deplore the fact that kids today don't enjoy the freedom to wander that we did.

But neither of us was extolling the virtues of "free-range parenting" at that moment.

The daughter, it turned out, had stopped longer than usual at a friend's house on her way home. She was fine.

 underscore the fact: we're afraid of harm befalling our kids when they're out of our sight.

Yet the greatest threat to children comes not from "stranger danger" but from the people closest to them.

While the rate of violent crime against younger kids is harder to pin down, incidences of violent crime against adolescents has decreased since 1975, according to this information from Child Trends, an "independent, nonpartisan research center dedicated to improving the lives of children and their families," according to its website.

But you'd never know that from the way we keep our kids under house arrest. Sensational coverage of crime, especially crime against kids, has given rise to exaggerated fear.

My 12-year-old attends one of the six Howard County middle schools taking part in the "Passages" program. , it's a community policing initiative that stations county police officers in selected middle schools.

I'm all for more county resources going into the middle schools they selected. Certainly police are great role models for kids.

But this isn't Officer Friendly* taking part in a career development program. This sounds a lot more like extra police at the village center to prevent loitering or shoplifting.

* Howard County had a police officer named, I swear, Officer Friendly, who visited county high schools in the late 1980s and told us to say no to drugs. Does anyone else remember this?

According to this Huffington Post article, a study of Chicago schools found that having police in schools led to increased arrests of juveniles for behavior that, 20 or 30 years ago, wouldn't have been considered criminal.

The study found that police were stationed primarily in areas with black students, so guess which kids were arrested?

The study's authors talk about a "school-to-prison pipeline" that comes from criminalizing student (mis)behavior and bringing in law enforcement to discipline trouble-makers instead of adding educators and counselors to guide them.

But exaggerated media coverage of school violence - like "stranger danger" coverage - scares people. Never mind that kids are in more danger in their own homes than they are at school.

Giving our middle schoolers after-school activities that don't depend on the wealth and availability of their parents would be a great way to improve the safety of all our kids.

Instead, we're giving some of them "Passages" to jail.

Julia McCready January 30, 2012 at 12:24 PM
How do we know that this isn't an age-appropriate Officer Friendly? The Passages Program is meant to provide outreach and early intervention to At-Risk youth, as defined by attendance, referrals, and grades. The reason we don't know is that the school system hasn't been very open, and because we ourselves don't have personal experience as to what an SRO really does in a school. We are fearing the unknown, and I am hoping that the school system will step up and share information and strategies with the public so that we understand what this means. A bigger question might be why the schools with the greatest concentration of At-Risk students are the schools with the highest minority concentration. I haven't checked those numbers personally. But, if the Passages Program is designed to be a response to a specific need, with a focus of education and mentoring, how does this compare to higher incarceration rates in the Chicago Inner City Schools?
Angela E. February 01, 2012 at 08:00 PM
It is an unfortunate truth in our country that a high percentage of African Americans and especially African American men occupy our prisons. I recently read that as many as 75% of African American males can expect to spend some time in prison over their lifetime (Sokolower, 2011). Having families in prison causes a complex set of issues for children including separation and break-up of families and feelings of shame, isolation, anger and resentment. Police officers in school hallways make children feel like they have already been branded as criminals. When police officers are in our schools, minor infractions are more likely to be treated as criminal offenses. For example, rather than a teacher handling an incident involving spit balls, a police officer might step in and handle it as an assault. All children sometimes make poor behavioral choices but these should be handled at a school level whenever possible and with the understanding that children make mistakes because they lack the maturity and cognitive abilities of adults. A more positive program might expose students to a wide range of mentors and speakers from the community who reflect the students’ diversity and who have attained success in their lives and careers. Sokolower, Jody. (2011). Schools and the New Jim Crow. Rethinking Education, Winter 2011-2012, 26(2), p. 13.

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