Stop criminalizing Madison’s vulnerable students

School fights should not lead to felony charges.

School fights should not lead to felony charges.


East High School. Photo by Carol Highsmith via the Library of Congress.

East High School. Photo by Carol Highsmith via the Library of Congress.

Editor’s note: Don’t forget to vote in today’s elections, which include races for Madison school board seats and state Superintendent of Public Instruction.

On March 16, a fight at East High School led to the arrest and jailing of a 17-year-old student, who faces the potential felony charge of physical abuse of a child. After a community outcry, Dane County District Attorney Ismael Ozanne is suggesting the matter be handled in Community Restorative Court. As he did in two high-profile cases last year—last summer’s brutal, viral arrest of Genele Laird and UW-Madison student King Shabazz’s mid-class arrest on graffiti charges—Ozanne favors this route as a diversion from the criminal justice system and a productive alternative to address harm in the community without creating a record.

According to a Madison Police Department statement, the East High fight happened in the cafeteria at lunch. A scuffle between the 17-year-old girl and a 16-year-old girl escalated into a bigger fight, prompting eight officers and school security staff to intervene and arrest four people. According to MPD Chief Mike Koval, the context of the fight was deemed probable cause to charge the student with a felony under Wisconsin law (with a note that Koval advocates for pushing the juvenile age limit to 18 years old):

“It should be noted that under Wisconsin law, when someone is age 17 or younger and is the ‘victim’ of a crime, the State considers the victim to have the status of a ‘child.’ Conversely, when someone is age 17 (or older) and has been identified as the ‘offender’ in a crime, the State automatically ‘waives’ this individual into the adult criminal justice system. . .there is no ‘juvenile’ court for someone who commits a crime and is 17 (or older).”

The Madison Metropolitan School District’s Behavior Education Plan (Policy 4502C) defines fighting as “repeated physical contact between two or more students that is harmful, injurious, or disruptive.” Page 36 files fighting under “Inappropriate physical contact (non-sexual)” as a punishable offense, with penalties ranging from staff intervention and administrative discipline to a five-day suspension for high school students. The severity of punishment always comes down to circumstance. In the East High case, an isolated fight elevating into a bigger skirmish, with the age dynamic in play, feeds into the probable cause narrative to involve law enforcement.

But many community members oppose the arrest and Ozanne’s restorative recommendation, saying this involves an admission of guilt over a matter that the school should’ve handled without police intervention in the first place. Madison School Board President James Howard echoed the sentiment in a recent interview with WKOW. While acknowledging the importance of having an educational resource officer from MPD present at schools, he thinks “the school officials should have handled that situation. I don’t think it should have elevated to a felony offense.”

As the case has unfolded, the prevailing narrative is focusing on the accused student’s return to classes without facing the severity of a felony charge over a one-time ordeal. Some are citing her impact as a model student in the East High community: an accomplished AVID/TOPS student on the honor roll and the girls varsity basketball team who brings light to her peers, all fodder for the Black excellence narrative that acknowledges a child like this student must be twice as good to even get the chance to beg for a second chance. While she’ll likely get through this without acquiring a criminal record, she cannot evade an educational environment rooted in the criminalization of her skin.

Her teenage brush with the law illustrates how prisons and classrooms intersect. State law gives prosecutors the option to charge a 17-year-old junior—who fought a 16-year-old schoolmate, in the first known incident of fighting in her high school career—with felonious assault on a child, much as one would charge a person twice her age for laying hands on the same 16-year-old. How else can one explain that MMSD’s Black students were cited roughly 10 times more often and arrested 7.5 times more often than their white peers during the 2015-16 school year? The false equivalency here between a fight at school and actual child abuse is staggering in theory, but commonplace in action in a landscape dead set on negating youthfulness—especially Black youthfulness—in the most literal sense imaginable.

The context of this incident eerily resembles similar legislation changes in Missouri schools, highlighted at the turn of the year by a change in existing law dealing with felony assault charges on school grounds. Before the change, Missouri prosecutors already had the option to file a felony charge against any child knowingly committing physical assault on school property; since January 1, Missouri criminal code removed the school-specific location as an automatic qualifier, meaning schoolyard fights could be misdemeanors depending on the circumstances.

While school districts hold some jurisdiction in resolving student conflict under their own power, the presence of law enforcement in Missouri schools further complicates the matter. For example, if a fight were to occur in front of a school resource officer, the consequences can quickly spiral out of the school’s hands and into the jurisdiction of that officer. Much like the East High situation, the potential for over-policing looms over any and every adolescent altercation, leaving the most targeted and underrepresented populations at risk for another avenue of bias to claim their lives faster than they can decide for themselves.

From Ferguson-Florissant Superintendent Joseph Davis, December 2016:


“The consequences of poor choices and bad decisions – a simple fight – may follow you for the rest of your life. Students: you have the power in the situation. You have the power to make good choices. You have the power to decide you want a good future full of hope and promise… or a future with criminal record that follows you and limits your options.”

Whether in Hazelwood or Dane County, such policies threaten the students they claim to protect, and makes police a daunting presence in schools. Black remains the hue for the proving ground; if no one had organized for this student at East High, she may very well have spent a weekend behind bars for petty fisticuffs. It shouldn’t take another incident like this to get people to reassess the ramifications of heavier police presences in our schools.

When school resource officers function at their best, they’re integral members of a school’s ecosystem, providing trust and security for students. At their worst, they hold the potential to destroy the lives they’re sent to preserve. Should policymakers thrust the world’s burden of personal responsibility upon children and adolescents more susceptible to making bad choices? Does a systemic threat—veiled as a defense mechanism for curbing these bad choices—not whittle one’s childhood down to a cautious dance of life and death, especially for Black and brown children already far more at risk?

Restorative justice should not just happen in the aftermath of a mistake and as a diversion from a broken system. Instead, the restorative justice process must begin with the proactive repair of trust and the policies that violated that trust. Criminal charges should be reserved only for circumstances of the highest severity; it’s why students have a code of conduct to adhere to in the first place. It’s imperative for schools to maintain their power and handle their own problems without seeking to ruin the lives they’re building.

No matter the color or creed, the squabbles of a 17-year-old today should never equal the condemnation of her future.

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