A 14-Year-Old Is Facing Trial for 'Stealing' a Milk Carton - and It's Part of a Huge Problem

October 1st 2016

Mike Rothschild

When 14-year-old Ryan Turk forgot to grab a .65 cent carton of milk from his school cafeteria, it kicked off a chain of events that might either land him in jail, or shed light on a huge problem of over-policing in urban schools.

Turk, who was enrolled in his Virginia middle school’s free lunch program, went back and took a milk carton that be believed he was entitled to drink. A School Resource Officer believed he had cut in line to steal the milk, and grabbed Turk. The student, in turn, pushed the officer away and refused to go to the principal’s office. For this minor scuffle, Turk was arrested and charged with larceny and disorderly conduct. He was also suspended. Refusing an offer to have the charges dropped in exchange for attending a non-judicial punishment program, Turk opted for a criminal trial to prove that he did nothing wrong, and that he was targeted because of his race.

The school is pushing back against the idea that Turk was singled out for being black, because the officer who confronted him is also black. But the policing of schools by armed School Resource Officers (SROs) as opposed to lunchroom staff or teachers, has long been a topic of concern among educators and justice reform advocates. A 2011 Justice Policy Institute report argues that "SROs interfere with the overall opportunity for students to learn, in some cases creating the very sense of fear and violence that they are supposed to prevent."

This “school-to-prison pipeline” has become an increasing problem since zero tolerance policies were expanded from only involving guns to anything from tardiness to pointing fingers in the shape of a gun, the Justice Policy Institute reports. Faced with harsh and unwavering zero tolerance policies for virtually any kind of minor violation, students are being hit with suspension, expulsion, and even arrest for the most miniscule of infractions.

This leads to entry into the juvenile court system, higher dropout rates, increases in anti-social behavior, more extreme crimes committed, and too often, incarceration. According to the Justice Policy Institute, out of school suspensions have doubled in the three decades since the 1970s. There’s also an undeniable racial element to the heavy-handedness of School Resource Officers – about 70 percent of in-school arrests are of black and Latino students, according to Education Week.

Faced with a slew of lawsuits from parents and civil rights groups, along with bad press stemming from violent altercations between SROs and students, the Department of Justice is finally taking steps to slow down the pipeline and soften the response of school-based police officers.

Last Month, the DOJ’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services announced it would withhold federal funding for SROs to schools that didn’t follow a new set of rules. Called "Safe School-based Enforcement through Collaboration, Understanding, and Respect," the new rules recommend formalized partnerships between school districts and local police departments. This would clearly delineate the role of SROs, and mandate more training in child development and inherent bias – training police don’t normally get, even if they’re being posted to schools.

The goal is to turn SROs away from enforcing discipline for minor matters, and back toward keeping students safe and serving as mentors in difficult situations.

The consequences of over-policing of schools are clear, and while the vast majority of SROs aren’t funded at the federal level, the hope is that the rules filter down to the state and local level, easing the level of discipline handed down on minority students – and possibly preventing their first contacts with the criminal justice system.

As for Ryan Turk, he’s made national headlines with his refusal to be branded a thief. This week, a judge set his trial date for November, and he told reporters he’s looking toward to proving his innocence – and avoiding the next stage of the school-to-prison pipeline.