The Plot to Demonize Black Youth -- And Their Mothers, Too

Human Rights

A disturbing trend is increasingly making national news in the United States: poor black mothers jailed for sending their children to schools outside their zoned school districts. The arrests of these mothers may seem novel, but given what we know about the criminal justice system’s propensity for arresting black adults and children at disproportionate rates, we shouldn’t be surprised. Not unlike truancy sweeps that target large numbers of black and poor children with legal sanctions for missing school, arrest for so-called “fraudulent enrollment” has become yet another avenue through which to target people of color.

As it turns out, schools are playing a key role in the demonization of black children – and their parents. As data recently published by the federal Office for Civil Rights – and collected by the Department of Education – has shown, black students often face far stricter school disciplinary penalties than their white peers do. In a recent report, NPR highlighted the fact that black children are three and a half times more likely to be suspended from school than white children. The new data paints a troubling picture of the prevalence of institutionalized racism in schools, and echos the results of a study released by the Southern Poverty Law Center in 2010, which found similar racial discrepancies and noted that suspension rates for middle-school students of color, in particular, had skyrocketed.

This new data documenting racial disparities in schools comes hand-in-hand with fresh information about arrests targeting black people in nonviolent, school-related crimes (like fraudulent enrollment). We have seen a handful of stories about the latter phenomenon in national news media: black women, many of them poor, being arrested and charged with felonies for enrolling their children outside of their designated school district; they are alleged to owe thousands of dollars in back pay for school tuition deemed not legally theirs. In Connecticut, Tonya McDowell, a homeless black woman, recently pled guilty to fraudulent school enrollment. She was simultaneously convicted of drug possession and sales, and received a 12-year prison sentence.

McDowell’s case was reminiscent of the plight of Kelly Williams Bolar, a black mother in Ohio who spent 10 days in jail for allegations of fraudulent school enrollment that were later dropped. Though her penalty was far less severe than McDowell’s, the message being sent was clear: beware to poor mothers who borrow a relative’s or a friend’s address to send their children to a better public school. School districts and judges alike are clearly using these cases as examples to deter other parents from doing the same thing – and, in the process, keeping poor youth of color sequestered in the under-funded, often failing schools in the communities where they live.

You don’t have to look far beyond the schoolhouse doors to see that this kind of racial scapegoating is part of a larger societal trend – for just as black children are disproportionately disciplined with suspension and expulsion in schools, black adults – men in particular – are disproportionately funneled into our criminal justice system for violent and nonviolent crimes alike. A 2011 survey by the Children’s Defense Fund found that black men and women were being incarcerated at 6.5 times the rate of white adults. Black children are two times more likely to be arrested than white children despite comprising just 17 percent of American youth. Plus, the study found that more and more black girls were also facing arrest, pointing to a closing of the gender gap in black arrests.

Looking at the newspaper images of the families charged with fraudulent enrollment, it would be easy to assume that black people are the only ones trying to enroll their children out of district. Yet anecdotal evidence suggests that small numbers of parents – some of them white -- have quietly been doing exactly the same thing for a long time, and without any such serious repercussions.

Vanessa Gatsch remembers her mother’s decision to send her to school outside the district. “After my parents got divorced,” Gatsch says, “we moved to a cheap apartment in a bad part of town, and my mom wanted me to stay in the school we’d been in before... So, she just had an official address on record that belonged to a friend of hers, and all the mail went there. But it wasn’t a huge secret. All my friends knew where I lived, and I didn’t have to hide it. I had to take the city bus home, and it took a long time, and kids saw me at the bus stop.”

But the climate around fraudulent enrollment was much less ominous when Gatsch was in school. Today, because some states – like Alabama – have ramped up efforts to criminalize the infraction (in the name of deterring undocumented workers from sending children to school), the risks are much higher than they used to be, and Gatsch admits that she wouldn’t feel comfortable doing the same thing for her own daughter. Still, she questions the logic behind bringing criminal charges against these mothers. “I just don’t understand how it’s stealing, because the state is supposed to be providing for your children regardless,” she says.

Gatsch is outraged that mothers are being taken away from their families for this kind of offense. “The mothers did what they did to provide the best possible education for their children. How is that terrible enough to take those children from their mothers, to break up that family?”

Jessie Klein, a former school social worker, professor of sociology at Adelphi University and author of The Bully Society: Shooting and the Crisis of Bullying in America’s Schools, echoes these same concerns:  “I mean, it’s so hard to get a good education for one’s child even in the best of circumstances. It’s an appalling trend. I barely know what to say – what mother wouldn’t do everything they possibly could to get their children in a good school? It seems pretty despicable to penalize poor mothers who are just trying to get their kids a good education.”

Race, Poverty and the Truth About Criminal Truancy

In addition to leveling charges of fraudulent enrollment, local criminal justice agencies have also taken to using truancy charges to police communities of color and the poor. Though it doesn’t get quite as much media play, courts in some states have been targeting children of color with truancy arrests, usually in the form of ticketing as punishment for tardiness or unexcused absence. In some states like Florida, municipalities are going even further, arresting the parents of truant children in broad truancy sweeps. The city of Baltimore, Maryland also expanded such arrests in 2011, with upward of 400 parents cited for truancy by April of that year. Barbara Gaskins of Baltimore was arrested in one of these sweeps, and was sentenced to 10 days in jail as a result. Gaskins, who is black, told the Baltimore Sun, “…I'm scared: I've never been in trouble with the law — period… We're a Christian family.”

While there is no credible reason to imagine that truancy arrests would diverge in their racial dynamics from any other arrests involving juveniles, it isn’t easy to provide exact numbers about their racial breakdown. This is partly because truancy is addressed at the state level, with penalties differing widely from state to state. But Jessie Klein believes it’s reasonable to assume the trend toward racial bias holds. “Sociologically, it’s quite clear that mass incarceration rate disproportionately affects black males,” she says. “There are communities where one in four blacks from the community are in prison… It’s the cultural norm in our society, a societal trend. Frankly, I would assume that racial profiling could certainly be a factor in penalizing kids for not coming to school.”

Poor children and families are often the first to face legal sanctions for truancy. Klein suspects that our society’s demonization of poor people leads to disproportionate truancy convictions among poor communities. She may be right. As the Children’s Defense Fund points out, nearly 40 percent of black children now live in poverty in the US, and black children under age five “are more than three times as likely as white children to live in extreme poverty.” If truancy officers are targeting poor areas, they will invariably arrest a disproportionate number of black children, as well as other children of color whose rates of poverty do not accurately correspond to their population size.

Klein cites the Reagan era as the moment when the now pervasive stereotype of the “welfare queen” appeared in national discourse. She notes that it happened “when trickle-down economics became a cultural and political ideology and social and economic programs began to be dismantled. People on welfare began to be demonized then.” President Bill Clinton’s welfare-to-work program, she says, only exacerbated the problem. Klein saw this firsthand: “I had students who were about to graduate – valedictorians at our school – who, because they were 19, were asked to take 20 hours out of their [school] week to work for their welfare.” She saw this as a humiliating measure that was not merely counterproductive (because it took young adults away from school and their studies), but also punished young people precisely because they were poor. 

In her research on bullying in schools, Klein says she saw how profoundly school culture can be impacted by societal ideologies that make it hard for vulnerable children to survive: “The whole message in our society is you have to do everything on your own, and no one will be there to help you. Students said over and over, ‘I asked the principal, I asked the guidance counselor, I asked the teachers – nobody was going to help me, I had to deal with it on my own.’ That’s a horrendous message we give our children, and it’s a horrendous message we give grownups as well. There are some fair indicators that suggest how bad this trend really is – social isolation has tripled, depression and anxiety have reached historic levels, empathy has decreased…it seems to me that this is very connected to this demonization of poor people.”

Similar attitudes would seem to be at play when it comes to truancy arrests: children are largely on their own when it comes to ensuring school attendance and punctuality, with little regard for the realities that might cause excessive absence or tardiness, particularly among poor youth.

It’s a situation Klein knows intimately. In her final five years of teaching, Klein worked in a progressive school in New York City with a mission to help kids who were truant stay in school. As a social worker, it was her job to call students in the morning to make sure they showed up, and to create “positive intervention support measures” that increased students’ incentive to attend school. Her students were children who had been either kicked out of their previous schools or were counseled into leaving. 

Though there were a few students from affluent backgrounds, the vast majority of the students were poor. “Most of the kids were… Title 1 and qualified for the free and reduced school lunch program,” Klein notes. “Many came from very serious backgrounds: homelessness, domestic violence, child abuse, sex abuse, people getting killed in their communities, all kinds of things.” All of which present serious barriers to consistent school attendance. Yet none of their previous schools had bothered to address these issues; there was little attempt to understand the larger social factors that actually lead poor students to skip school. Instead, they were labeled truant, and often enough, punished.

The Case of Los Angeles 

Zoë Rawson, an attorney with the Los Angeles County-based Community Rights Campaign of the Labor/Community Strategy Center, has found patterns that involve the unfair targeting of poor students and students of color when it comes to disciplinary school-based measures in LA -- including nonviolent offenses like truancy. She describes two types of crackdown that led to racially biased outcomes: 

“First, we saw students getting tickets when they arrived late to school, where a police officer would meet them at the door or the administration would send them to the police to get them a truancy ticket. This is under the daytime curfew law, which prohibits students from being out in public during school hours. Another path of enforcement was truancy sweeps, where a school sometimes coordinated with the LAPD -- or sometimes the LAPD would do it on their own -- and basically circled around the perimeter of the school within a block or two and pick up students as they were traveling to school late.” 

Ultimately, she says, “We found that there were far more tickets [issued] in the poorest communities of the city, those situated in East and South Los Angeles. Between 2000 and 2009, there were about 34,000 tickets issued. And 22 percent went to blacks, 62 percent went to Latinos, and a little over 7 percent went to white students. That’s disproportionate to their numbers in the general population, and extremely so for black students.” 

Rawson says this kind of enforcement is ultimately counterproductive:

“It’s actually deterring kids from going to school if they know they’re late and that the first person to greet them will be a police officer. They might not have as much incentive to go to the school that day. And the other thing about these particular tickets in LA is that they had pretty heavy fines that were associated with them – they required kids and their parents to go to court, and frequently fines were anywhere from $250 to even $800 because there were a lot of court fees associated with them. So, that’s a pretty heavy burden on low-income communities, not only the lost time in school that you’re in court, [but also] the lost wages [for] the parents in court, and on top of that the fine that no one can afford.” 

Organizations like the Los Angeles Labor/Community Strategy Center have begun collecting data and information about the over-representation of black students among those convicted of truancy. Sometimes this makes a difference. Rawson explains:

“We organized students. We provided them with legal representation in court, and we did a lot of policy advocacy. We also found some shifts in the attitudes of law enforcement. Police sat down at a table with us, and we showed them the information, which motivated them to take a stronger stance with their officers in terms of not ticketing students just for being late to school… So even though that practice had been going unchecked for the last 15 years, once they sat down with us and we highlighted the problem, they began to at least agree on that point.” 

In February, city officials, under pressure from the Center, voted to “amend the curfew law and put in place some protections for kids who are late to school.” She says the amendment tries to guard against causing unfair hardship to poor communities: “If you are ticketed, at the least the first and second time, the court should be directed to try and allow the student to do services that might address the real issues that lead to all the tardiness. So if it’s a counseling issue, if it’s an attendance plan issue, a mentoring issue, whatever it is – the student now has the opportunity on those first citations to participate in [a supportive program] in order to get the ticket resolved. On the third ticket, there is still the possibility of a fine, but it’s much lower. It’s capped at $20, which ends up being a little over $100 with court fees”— a huge difference from the former charges that spanned $250 to $800. 

What Happens Next? 

As organizers and advocates begin to compare and discuss policies and arrests in various states, a movement is growing to change policies in regions of the country. Though it has recently been guilty of targeting parents, Rawson says the city of Baltimore has become something of a flagship in terms of ending racially motivated school-based arrest of juveniles. Though Baltimore used to have problems much like Los Angeles and other large cities, Rawson notes that “recently they have taken a completely different approach…They are addressing the excessive use of suspensions and expulsions. They’re trying to prevent sending their kids to court, and they’re trying to implement positive behavior interventions at the school level. And they’re doing these things at the district-wide level [as well].” 

According to Rawson, New York City and Chicago have also recognized the need for truancy reform, and are now considering alternatives to the courts. A new mandate in New York now requires police to report racial demographic information on all school arrests. “I think that’s really important,” Rawson says, “and we will be fighting for that in LA.” The fight won’t end there, however: the organization ultimately supports the complete decriminalization of truancy in the state. 

But it seems unlikely that racial profiling – around school access, school attendance, or on the streets – is going to disappear anytime soon. It is imperative that communities rally around organizations like the Labor/Community Strategy Center, collect the relevant data, and lobby their own local governments to change policies. On all fronts, we must continue to contest our society’s apparent indifference to racial profiling and its assumption that black – and now Latino – equals criminality. 

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