Criminalizing Adolescence

Think back to your days in middle school (or, as it was known when I went through it, junior high).  I know you don’t want to think about it, because those days in seventh and eighth grade were painful exercises.  The haircuts, the clothing, the cliques, the acne, the bizarre hormone-deranged behavior of your classmates — virtually everything about that period was disturbing and embarrassing.

cafeteria-2It’s important that you fix that grim period of your life firmly in mind, however, to fully understand the story of F.M., a seventh-grader at the Cleveland Middle School in Albuquerque, New Mexico.  The story begins with F.M. in physical education class — the place where, with kids changing clothes and taking showers, adolescent chaos reigns.  F.M. thought it would be funny to disrupt class by fake burping.  No surprise there; adolescent boys have long believed that belches and farts are the height of sophisticated humor, and virtually every grade has a kid who has somehow become a maestro at voluntarily gathering stomach gas and burping it out at the moment of maximum hilarity.  In the adolescent boy pantheon of laugh-producing activity, fake-belching is right up there with being able to make funny noises with your armpit or having a stable of gross jokes to tell at lunch so one of the kids at the table would snort milk out his nose.

When F.M. wouldn’t stop fake-burping, the teacher sent him into the hall — but F.M. kept sticking his head back in and belching some more.  By then, I’m guessing, some of the other boys in class were helpless with laughter, but the teacher had had enough.  He called the “school resource officer,” an officer in the Albuquerque police department assigned to the school.  The officer questioned F.M., who of course denied the belching incidents — and the “school resource officer” decided to place F.M. under arrest and charge him with the misdemeanor offense of disrupting school activities.  F.M. was put in handcuffs, patted down, and driven to a juvenile detention facility, where his mother picked him up later that day.  He also was suspended for the rest of the school year.

In this modern world, the inevitable response to the overreaction by the gym teacher and the “school resource officer” was an overreaction by F.M.’s mother, who sued alleging that F.M.’s constitutional rights were violated.  The school officials involved argued that F.M.’s behavior in fact constituted disruption of school activities under the New Mexico statute, which is why a federal court of appeals recently handed down a 94-page opinion holding that arresting a teenager for repeatedly burping in class wasn’t actionable.

It’s one of those stories that tells you how much things have changed.  When I was in junior high, if one of the class clowns disrupted gym class with belching the gym teacher would have gotten in his face and made him run laps until he puked, or sent him to the vice principal, a severe, scowling former Marine who kept a long wooden paddle hanging on the wall in his office.  There wasn’t a police officer — or “school resource officer” — at the school, and no teacher or school administrator would dream of calling the police on a jerky kid who was fake-burping to impress his classmates.  Paddling?  Sure.  Detention?  Absolutely.  But no handcuffs, pat-downs, or trip to juvenile detention.  And, if a kid was disciplined for disruptive behavior, his parents not only didn’t sue, they always sided with the teachers and school, and the kid was going to get punished on the home front, too.

There used to be a saying:  “Don’t make a federal case out of it.”  It was used to convey that people shouldn’t overreact to some minor incident.  Now we’ve reached the point where the gross, but nevertheless common, behavior of an adolescent boy can lead to arrest and a lengthy opinion by a federal appellate court.

I don’t consider that progress.

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