MURFREESBORO, Tenn. — Police handcuffed multiple students, ages 6 to 11, at a public elementary school in Murfreesboro on Friday, inspiring public outcry and adding fuel to already heightened tensions between law enforcement and communities of color nationwide.
The arrests at Hobgood Elementary School occurred after the students were accused of not stopping a fight that happened several days earlier off campus. A juvenile center later released the students, but local community members now call for action — police review of the incident and community conversation — and social justice experts across the country use words such as “startling” and “flabbergasted” in response to actions in the case.
Parents and community members sharply criticized the arrests of the students at a church meeting Sunday. The Murfreesboro police chief on Sunday cited the incident as a learning experience, a chance to “make things better so they don’t happen again.” The city manager said Sunday: “If something needs to be corrected, it will be.”
It remains unclear exactly how many children were arrested. State law prohibits the release of juvenile law enforcement records, and police have denied a media request for the information. Murfreesboro police didn’t say what state law the kids violated, but parents of several of the arrested children say the kids were charged with “criminal responsibility for conduct of another,” which according to Tennessee criminal offense code includes incidents when a “person fails to make a reasonable effort to prevent” an offense.
At least five of the 10 children reportedly involved are black. The race of the arresting officers is unknown. Police officials have said they plan to complete a review of the arrest incident within the next 15 days.
At a time of heightened tension in the country between police and the residents of the neighborhoods they protect — particularly minority communities — the incident raises concerns regarding several national issues, including the over-disciplining of kids of color, the criminalization of childhood behaviors and the growing mistrust some residents have with law enforcement.
“It’s unimaginable, unfathomable that authority figures would … do something that has such implications,” said Bishop Joseph Walker III, pastor of Mt. Zion Baptist Church of Nashville. “When we, as a community, are telling our kids don’t get involved in violence and don’t get in harm’s way, (arresting them for not intervening) is the most amazing paradox of our society — and it is devastating to us.”
Children, by definition, are immature, said Stephanie Bohon, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville and the founder of the school’s Center for the Study of Social Justice. It’s appropriate to ground them or give them detention, she said, but “when you deal with that kind of behavior by handcuffing children and running them through the legal system, the first thing they learn is the police are there to punish them, and they are not there to help them.”
Children should be held to a different standard when it comes to accountability, Walker said.
“They don’t have the maturity to understand certain situations,” like when to intervene, he said. And to be arrested for not taking action, “They will be forever scarred because of that.”
More than 150 people, almost entirely African-American, gathered at First Baptist Church in Murfreesboro on Sunday afternoon to discuss the incident. One attendee asked why the charges against the children could not be dismissed.
In addition to angry parents and supporters, Murfreesboro Police Chief Karl Durr and City Manager Rob Lyons were in the crowd. Christopher Williams, the school safety and education officer at Hobgood on the day of the incident, said that the Hobgood administration and office staff “handled the situation as wonderfully and as good as they could have.”
A video was taken of the incident, and officers later obtained arrest warrants for students who did not break up the disturbance, said the Rev. James McCarroll, pastor of First Baptist Church. Information about who took the video and how the police obtained it is not clear.
Such arrests, experts say, can damage a decades-old movement by many police forces working to build trust in their districts using community policing.
Fundamentally, community policing is a proactive partnership with citizens to address public safety issues that induce crime, fear and social disorder. It involves police transparency and collective problem-solving where police engage with residents outside of typical law enforcement interactions to address worrisome conditions.
When it works well, the practice helps community members assist police in controlling crime in their neighborhoods. Residents feel valued and validated, and they are invested in the actions and outcomes, rather than feeling that officers only enforce laws with aggressive actions, such as bullying, handcuffs, guns and abuse.
But, with headlines dominated by incidents such as the shooting death of Trayvon Martin and the unrest in Ferguson, Mo., relationships between police and the residents of the neighborhoods they protect — particularly minority communities — have become strained.
Nationally, the number of cases where students have been arrested for incidents on campus are plentiful.
One such case in Baltimore parallels the one in Murfreesboro, where four students younger than 10 were arrested at school for an incident that occurred off campus.
In the 2012 case, Baltimore city police charged four elementary school students with aggravated assault after a fight and were arrested on the Morrell Park Elementary/Middle School campus, according to WBAL-TV.
The American Civil Liberties Union said they were outraged by actions of the officers involved, according to reports. The police department, however, defended their actions saying when there is an arrest that it’s their policy to arrest the individual, regardless of the age, according to Baltimore’s WJZ TV.
In Tennessee, police departments set their own policies and procedures for detaining a student, according to Maggi Duncan, executive director of the Tennessee Association of Chiefs of Police.
The number of incidents involving young children arrested doesn’t raise eyebrows among societal experts.
“Unfortunately, I am not surprised,” said Victor Rios, professor of sociology at University of California Santa Barbara. Rios is author of the book Punished: Policing the Lives of Black and Latino Boys (NYU Press, 2011) and analyzes how juvenile crime policies and criminalization affect the everyday lives of urban youth.
Nationally, Rios said, experts see the collapse of school-based discipline, with educational systems relying more on criminal justice-based punishment where a teacher may call or text a school resource officer for a fistfight or even a spitball flung across the room. In the 1970s, less than 30 percent of high schools across the country had school resource officers, but today 70 percent of schools do, Rios said.
And students often get mixed messages. They are taught to be active bystanders, but then are punished when they don’t step in.
“It’s counterproductive,” Rios said. “It’s teaching them the reverse. You can’t teach people to be peacemakers by violating their own peace, threatening them and making them feel terrified.
“It’s time this behavior towards children and young people stop.”
Walker agrees: “Yes, this is righteous anger,” Walker said. “They are looking for solutions. Looking for accountability.
“Those of us who continue to work tirelessly at bringing the community together to deal with these difficult issues feel a tremendous blow has come to the work we attempted to do.”
So what comes next?
Children should be exposed to what Rios calls restorative justice. Instead of calling police, kids who are caught engaging in or watching a fight and not stopping it should be approached by a facilitator — something known in the business world as conflict resolution and in the therapy world as group therapy. Kids should be asked what happened and then help them learn the lesson: “Hey, you didn’t stop that fight,” Rios said. “Let’s talk about that. What can you do to improve?”
And in the community, what can be done to improve there?
“Really, it takes leadership,” said Gary Howard, an educator with more than 40 years of experience working with issues of civil rights, social justice and diversity, including 28 years as the founder of the REACH Center for Multicultural Education in Seattle.
Leadership, he said, from police, the black community, the white community, public officers and officials.
“Rather than it being a race-based contentious issue, we as a community have to learn from and with each other so we can not just heal this situation but the larger issues that this situation touches.
“The worst thing to do is blame and denial. Trying to blame kids, police, anybody.”
Being proactive together, he said, could be a catalyst for conversation and a catalyst for growth within the community. A coalition of concern.
Contributing: Jason Gonzales and Brian Wilson