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Like most every afternoon after school, Joshua Foster makes his way down the three skid-guard-covered steps of the orange school bus. With his little brother Isaiah, he walks the 30 feet of concrete driveway to his home, a modest pink bungalow on a busy corner lot in Boynton Beach.
Joshua, gangly limbed and big-eyed, is a typical 11-year-old in many ways. He likes to play with Isaiah, enjoys surfing the Internet, and adores books and animated videos. He fusses when he's tired and can be as stubborn as a broken cork in a bottle.
But Joshua isn't like most boys his age, and it takes only a few moments after he enters the family living room to understand how autism and cerebral palsy affect him. He bobs and weaves as he walks, a symptom of the cerebral palsy that gave him a shortened left leg and an uncoordinated gait. He hums quietly to himself as he heads for the couch where his mom and dad, Darlene and Salah Foster, are seated. She's got big, brown eyes, dancing as she talks in a rapid-fire cadence. He's slim with short hair and a black mustache, and compared to his wife, he's downright laconic.
"He's always had the balancing issue," Darlene says of Joshua. "He walks labored, but we're always... whoaaaaa!" she whoops as she puts her arms up. Joshua plops between them, arms and legs flailing like a windmill. He cuddles next to his mom and lays his legs across her lap. He gazes at nothing in particular, as though he's trying to recall the details of a story.
"This is the autism," Darlene explains matter-of-factly. "Our big issue with Joshua is that he's always crawling up on people's laps and cuddling with them. What can I say? He's a cuddly kid."
So it might be hard to believe that this is the same boy whom school police charged in the fall of 2003 with battery on a School Board employee, a felony. At age 9 barely able to speak or take steps without a walker Joshua was accused of knocking a school aide to the ground and pummeling her.
As outlandish as the charge might have seemed, Joshua and his family found themselves swept up in the prosecutorial machine dedicated to "zero tolerance" of school crime. The crackdown on kids in schools has happened across America, but Palm Beach County is particularly harsh, according to civil rights watchdog groups. State legislators, administrators, school police, and prosecutors now labor under a system whose unspoken mantra seems to be, "It takes a village to criminalize a kid."
As the juvenile crime rate rose in America during the 1980s, so also grew the belief that a generation of "superpredators" was creating havoc in school. A simmering stew of criminals-in-the-making who were believed to possess no conscience and no mercy, these kids would not respond, many police authorities and lawmakers said, to rehabilitation. That outlook seemed substantiated in the 1990s with a number of highly publicized school shootings even as juvenile crime rates were actually falling throughout the decade.
But while the feared army of superpredators never evolved from the "crack babies" of the 1980s, the irrational fear of children marched ahead, along with a philosophy of zero tolerance in some schools that's turned childish pranks into felonies and youthful indiscretions into hard time behind bars. In many of today's locked-down schools, plinking tin cans with pebbles is imagined as hurling deadly missiles and mooning is labeled a sexual assault.
"Zero tolerance used to be applied only to bringing guns to school," says Barbara Briggs, an attorney with the Palm Beach County Legal Aid Society. "Now it's for any misbehavior, which is almost like zero tolerance for kids, because kids make mistakes."
In March this year, the Advancement Project, a Washington, D.C., civil rights watchdog group, issued a report examining arrests in school systems in Denver, Chicago, and Palm Beach County. The latter was chosen for a closer look because of a previous series of reports by the National Coalition of Advocates for Students and the Community Alliance for Reform in Education, which found that the county's black students were more likely to be suspended than fellow white students.
Established in 1984 with just four officers, the Palm Beach County School District Police Department has grown to 184 sworn officers (20 percent of whom are black), maintains a K-9 unit, and cruises in a fleet of squad cars. Supported by an annual budget of more than $8 million, the department has arrested thousands of kids in the past five years.
Reflecting the national trend, the department's original emphasis on prevention and helping at-risk students morphed into something more aggressive through the 1990s. In 1997, the Florida Legislature mandated that all school districts adopt a policy of zero tolerance for crimes involving drugs, firearms, and other serious offenses. Violations required expulsions for up to a year. In 2000, 13-year-old Nathaniel Brazill shot and killed his seventh-grade teacher in Lake Worth Middle School after being sent home for throwing a water balloon. The shocking incident heightened the role of the school police as enforcers.
This crime-fighting mentality has especially hammered minority and disabled students in the district's 24 high schools, 26 middle schools, and 93 elementary schools. Black students account for almost 30 percent of the district's roughly 170,000 students. During 2003-04 school year, however, they accounted for a hefty 64 percent of the 1,105 school-based arrests, according to the Advancement Project's analysis issued last spring.