Until he got arrested for allegedly assaulting his teacher, Kyle Thompson liked his fourth-period biology class at Harrison High School. The teacher, Beth DiPonio, was young and easy-going. She danced when she was teaching a concept about motion, and let her students use their phones for class-related work.

There were only about ten minutes left in class on the day last March when Kyle got in trouble. The students, nine and tenth graders, were supposed to be doing their own work.
At a basketball game a few days earlier, Kyle and a bunch of friends had made a “Hit List.”

“It wasn’t really to hurt anybody,” Kyle said. “It was actually, all of my close friends was on it.”

So were the school principal, Lawrence Stroughter, and the biology teacher Beth DiPonio. Next to each person’s name was the reason they were on the list: Principal Stroughter was an “Applesauce Head,” while Ms. DiPonio was a “fucking squished bunny.”

The afternoon of his arrest, Kyle and a friend were horsing around, and his friend took the “Hit List” out of Kyle’s notebook. DiPonio noticed them laughing, came over and saw the paper, and tried to take it away.

She declined to be interviewed for this story, but in her statement for the school district, she wrote: “I walked over and asked them what they were doing. [Kyle] laughed and said, ‘it’s my Hit List and you don’t want to see it.’”

The two struggled over the note. In Kyle’s version of the story, it was no big deal: “When we were pulling it back and forth,” he said, “she was laughing at first, so I thought it was just as a joke. But she got serious, and I let go, and it was over.”

DiPonio described it differently. “[Kyle] immediately got defensive and jumped towards me, wrapping his arms around me, with his hand over my hand that was holding the ‘Hit List,’ in an attempt to retrieve it,” she wrote. “I tried walking towards my back door to get assistance from another teacher. [Kyle] would not let go of me and pulled me with great force as I tried to walk towards the door. Multiple students tried to get [Kyle] off me. This entire time, he tried to pry my hands open and would not let go of me.”

Several students wrote witness statements that corroborate Kyle’s version. In the police report, though, the officer wrote that when he spoke to Ms. DiPonio almost an hour after the incident, she was “still shaking.”

Kyle ended up in the principal’s office, where he was searched and asked to write a statement. He was then handcuffed, arrested, and taken to the police station. The principal called his mother, Lisa Thompson, to pick him up.

Kyle is one of thousands of kids arrested in school every year. A disproportionate number of those arrested are African-American boys. About a third of U.S. schools have a regular police presence on campus; some school districts like New York City and Philadelphia even have their own police forces.

As the number of law enforcement officers on campus has gone up, so too have the number of arrests, often for low-level misdemeanors. The problem has gotten so severe, this month the Obama Administration issued a 35-page document outlining recommendations for alternative forms of discipline. Attorney General Eric Holder spoke at a press conference to announce the recommendations earlier this month.

“Effective discipline is, and always will be, a necessity,” he said. “But a routine school discipline infraction should land a student in the principal’s office, not in a police precinct.”

Lisa, Kyle, and Kyle’s older sister, Troy, live in Farmington Hills, Michigan. Farmington Hills is a nice suburb northwest of Detroit: modest houses with backyards, strip malls with Starbucks and fitness studios.

Harrison High School, where the incident occurred, is a mid-sized public school known for its football team. Kyle plays football, and his family moved to the neighborhood, in part, so that he could go to Harrison. (It’s worth noting —because his teacher was so afraid of him—that Kyle plays football, but he’s not a big linebacker type. He’s long and lean, more like a runner. One of his former coaches told me that it was sometimes hard to coach Kyle, because he just wasn’t aggressive enough.)

Kyle was arrested by what the Farmington Hills School District calls a “school liaison officer.” Sometimes called a School Resource Officer (or SRO), these are police who are placed in schools to protect students, teachers, and administrators from all kinds of threats, from gang violence to outside intruders.

Mo Canady, executive director of the National Association of School Resource Officers [www.nasro.org], an organization that trains law enforcement to work in schools, said SROs are not meant to be disciplinarians. “You don’t want the administration relying on the SRO to come and deal with every circumstance that seems a little out of control,” he said.

He acknowledged, though, that circumstances aren’t always clear.

”There certainly is a line where something crosses, for instance, from a shoving match to an assault,” he said. “And so when a teacher says they’ve been assaulted, that has to be investigated to some degree. We can’t have teachers being assaulted any more than we have anyone else being assaulted.”

Part of the challenge is the difficulty in differentiating between a shoving match, which can be handled in the school office, and an assault, which might need to be handled at the local precinct. Steven Teske, a juvenile court judge in Clayton County, Georgia, near Atlanta, has tried to help his district see that, and act accordingly.

“Really what this comes down to,” he said, “is…this a student who scares me, or is this a student who makes me mad?”

He said sending the kids who fit the latter category into the juvenile justice system can sometimes push otherwise decent kids towards delinquency. It also clogs up the court system, making it harder to deal with the kids who really do need to be there.

“I’m dealing with truly delinquent kids who are breaking into homes, stealing cars, pulling guns and knives on people,” he said. “Protecting the community from those types of things requires that I not be over-burdened with the kids who make us mad.”

The legal principle of mens rea means some things can only be a crime if there is criminal intent. That is, an incident only counts as a crime if the person involved meant it to be.

“If we already know that kids are neurologically wired to do stupid things…then how can there be a criminal state of mind?” he asked.

He says schools are supposed to act in loco parentis, which means “in place of the parent.” Few parents would call the cops on their kid for fighting or talking back, so schools shouldn’t do so either.

A few years ago, when Teske realized the extent of the problem in his district, he put together a group of stakeholders, including school officials, law enforcement, parents, and students. They made a list of misdemeanors that would no longer be immediately referred to the criminal justice system, and they came up with other ways of dealing with problems. The result, almost immediately, was that many fewer kids ended up in court.

The other problem is that when police do question or arrest students in schools, it can raise some tricky legal questions.

When Kyle Thompson was taken to the principal’s office that day in March, for example, the principal asked Kyle to write down what had happened, then called the police officer who was assigned to the school.

“The police officer checked my bag and checked my shoes and my pockets for any weapons or anything,” Kyle said, “and then the principal told the police officer to take me to the police station.”

There, the police fingerprinted Kyle, and took his mug shot.

“The scariest part was probably being handcuffed and inside there and just realizing that I’m in there,” Kyle said. “I know I shouldn’t be in there with people that done something wrong. I know I made mistakes, but I just didn’t think it was as big as others.”

No matter the severity of the incident, Kyle—like all of us—has certain legal rights.

Kristi Bowman, a law professor at Michigan State University, says the Constitution protects us from unreasonable search and seizure, but in the school context, the bar is much lower for what is considered reasonable.

“Those are very different than the rights a citizen would have on the public streets,” she said. “For example, schools need to have reasonable suspicion that a student has violated a school rule and then their search has to be reasonable in scope.”

In other words, it’s a lot easier for a principal or other school official to search a student’s backpack or locker than it is for a police officer to search a citizen’s car.

The Supreme Court made this clear in a case called New Jersey v. T.L.O.. In 1980, a high school freshman named Tracy Lois Odem—T.L.O. refers to her initials, because she was a juvenile—was caught smoking in the school bathroom. An assistant principal searched her purse, and found evidence that she was dealing marijuana; she was put on probation. Odem complained that the school had violated her rights by looking in her purse.

The Supreme Court eventually ruled that states have a duty to provide a safe school environment, and that if a teacher or administrator has reason to believe that a school rule has been broken, he or she can search students’ private property.

But that interpretation could be different if sworn law enforcement officers are present in the school on a regular basis, because it raises questions about whether the officer is acting as a school administrator, or as a regular officer.

For example, police are supposed to read a suspect his or her Miranda rights—“you have the right to remain silent, anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of the law”—before asking a suspect questions. The Miranda rule does not apply to school principals questioning their students, but what about a police officer assigned to a school?

In fact, said Bowman, “Miranda warnings are almost never required in schools.”

Nobody read Kyle Thompson his Miranda rights, and he didn’t have a lawyer (or even his mother) present when he wrote his statement for the principal. But when students get arrested and charged with a crime, there should be questions about how evidence is gathered, and how questioning is conducted.

About ten days after Kyle’s arrest, there was a disciplinary hearing with the assistant superintendent.

”She just kept saying, ‘well, you know what Kyle?’” Lisa Thompson remembered, “‘You seem like a nice kid and your mom seems like she really cares’ and she kept saying, ‘You are exactly the kind of kid we want at Harrison. Your mom is exactly the kind of parent we want at this school.’

“She said that, I don’t know, five times,” Thompson continued. And she said, ‘unfortunately Mom, I’m going to have to tell you something you don’t want to hear…I’m going to have to, I’m going to have to expel him for 180 school days.’”

The district charged Kyle with assault, even though Lisa pointed out that the district’s disciplinary policy requires intent to charge a student with assault. That is, if Kyle didn’t mean to hurt his teacher, then it wasn’t assault.

In an email, the assistant superintendent, Catherine Cost, argued that Michigan’s zero tolerance policies were to blame.

“In Farmington, we strive to consider each student and any incident separately and individually, taking all facts and circumstances into account,” she wrote. “Zero tolerance takes away the flexibility of school districts to individualize the consequences commensurate with the circumstances.”

Kyle is African-American, but there is no evidence that Kyle’s race relates to why he got in trouble. Harrison High school is about half white and a third black. The principal is black. The biology teacher, Ms. DiPonio, is white.

But across the country, the data show that black students are much more likely to be arrested than white ones. In one Texas county, for example, where the NAACP and others filed a complaint last year, police gave black students citations for misdemeanors four times as often as white kids.

Lisa Thompson said she feels like the school considered Kyle guilty from the beginning.

“He’s been treated like he’s committed a crime ever since it happened,” she said. “And he’s been punished and penalized ever since it happened and it’s so excessive.”

After his suspension, Lisa tried to get Kyle into another school, but because of his disciplinary record, even private schools wouldn’t take him. Before this incident, his life had centered around football. His suspension, and its ancillary effects, made it awkward to hang out with football friends, who were excited about games, summer camps, and college recruiters.

“I can’t play football so really I just throw the football around with my friends, play videogames, watch TV,” he said. “And I go out sometimes, but I don’t really see my friends as much.”

Lisa Thompson says she’s disappointed with the school district’s response. “In a position like a teacher or a social worker or somebody who’s responsible for children and their lives, I expect more,” she said. “It’s clear this has done way more damage than good.”

The end of Kyle’s story might seem anti-climactic. At his trial in December, Kyle pleaded ‘no contest.’ The prosecutor dismissed the charges. In an email, the principal told me: “The Kyle Thompson incident was an unfortunate series of events that resulted in a legal judgment. Since the court hearing, everyone involved is still trying to move on and find closure in their own way.”

For Kyle, starting over has meant enrolling in a new, Christian school, where he’s earning A’s. Lisa Thompson says he’s more introverted than he used to be, and he hasn’t wanted to try out for another football team. He lost a year of school, and his mother says he’s not the same kid he was before this happened.

The school district changed his disciplinary record to a long-term suspension. The assault charge is gone. Lisa Thompson and her lawyer, meanwhile, are working on a civil case against the school district, the assistant superintendent, and the school police officer.

It’s hard to know whether and how Kyle’s story might have played out differently had there not been a police officer on campus. What is clear is that there are now more police in schools, and more kids are arrested for behavior that in the past might have just earned them a detention, not a criminal record.

Professor Imani Perry, Princeton University was an advising scholar on this story.

Special thanks to the American Civil Liberties Union for their help with the story.

Suggested reading:

San Francisco takes lead in defining role of school police, sets limits on interrogations and arrests.

With Police in Schools, More Children in Court

U.S. Department of Education, School Climate and Discipline