Why It Takes Local Activists to End a School-to-Prison Pipeline
It had been a difficult summer for Darian (not his real name). The 14-year-old had recently lost his father to a homicide. He had grown sullen and prone to angry outbursts and had recently texted to a friend, "You say that to me again and I'm going to kill you," in response to a taunt.
Darian had no history of violent behavior, but the family had grown concerned about his emotional health, according to his grandmother Eunice Haigler. In a phone conversation, she tells me they hoped once Darian started school again in the fall, he would have access to a school counselor who would be able to help him with his emotions.
But on the first day of the new school year, what Darian encountered instead of a counselor was a cop. Municipal police took Darian into custody, charged him with making threats via an electronic device and saddled him with a criminal record. The involvement of police in school-related incidents like Darian's alarms Haigler. Not only are city police more involved, she observes, but uniformed police in schools, typically called school resource officers or SROs, are an ever-present chance of students getting entangled with law enforcement.*
"Since SROs got involved in schools," Haigler says, "our kids are getting arrested for issues that used to be taken care of with a trip to the principal's office." Having police in schools, she maintains, "takes issues out of the school. [The SROs] treat kids as little criminals."
Another student, Denise (also not her real name) displayed behavior problems and impulsivity in elementary school and eventually was diagnosed ADHD with depression and provided an Individual Education Plan (IEP) to ensure her teachers were aware of and responsive to her needs.
Her mother, Tyran Green, tells me in a phone conversation that the system was working well for Denise until her school district changed to a zero tolerance discipline policy, and suddenly every small act of impulsivity Denise committed was resulting in an out-of-school suspension. After her last suspension, during her sophomore year of high school, Denise grew completely despondent and attempted suicide.
Green, a single mother of five children, has had to deal with out-of-school suspensions with four of her children.
"Zero tolerance policies make things worse," says Green. "Many parents complain about these policies but have a hard time voicing those complaints because they have to work two jobs and are too busy or they think it’s a lost cause."
These personal accounts bring to mind disturbing videos that recently went viral, showing an SRO at a South Carolina high school flipping a student out of her chair and a school cop in Texas body-slamming a 12-year-old girl to the ground.
The presence of SROs in schools and the frequent use of out-of-school suspensions both tend to correlate with higher numbers of children and teens being pushed into the criminal justice system. For this reason, these approaches to disciple are often associated with what has become known as the school-to-prison pipeline.
Recent declarations from civil rights groups and policy statements from government officials have called for changes in discipline codes, new guidelines for SROs, and an end to the school-to-prison pipeline. But nothing will likely change for students like Darian and Denise until parents, educators and education justice advocates mobilize on the ground to demand positive changes.
A National Problem
Studies showing the high correlation of out-of-school suspensions to eventual involvement in the criminal justice system are well known among policy circles. A 2011 study by the Council of State Governments Justice Center found that being suspended or expelled from school made a student nearly three times more likely to come into contact with the juvenile justice system within the next year.
A 2015 report from the UCLA Civil Rights Project found that out-of school suspensions are disproportionally used on students of color and students with disabilities. In the most recent year with available data, 16 percent of black students and 7 percent of Latino students were suspended, while the rate for white students was 5 percent. Students with disabilities had suspension rates that were two to three times their peers.
The presence of SROs in school often makes matters worse. A recent study by the American Bar Association found, "A police officer’s regular presence at a school significantly increases the odds that school officials will refer students to law enforcement for various offenses, including these lower-level offenses that should be addressed using more pedagogically-sound methods."
As law enforcement officers in school proliferate, counselors and other support staff have become scarcer. According to a recent study from the Center for American Progress, nearly 35 million children in the U.S. live with emotional and psychological trauma, yet "only a fraction of these students—approximately 8 million of them—have access to a school psychologist. Even fewer students have access to a social worker. Across the nation, only 63 percent of public schools even offer all students a counselor."
Darian and Denise attend schools in Virginia—Spotsylvania and Portsmouth, respectively—where problems associated with overly harsh school discipline policies are worse than in virtually any other state.
Virginia, Nation's Worst
According to data obtained from the U.S. Department of Education in 2015, "Virginia schools in a single year referred students to law enforcement agencies at a rate nearly three times the national rate," according to a report from the Center for Public Integrity.
CPI found that referrals "turned into thousands of complaints filed in courts, many of them against preteens. The most frequent complaints are for disorderly behavior."
Among the individual cases CPI examined was a 12-year-old girl who was charged with four misdemeanors, including obstruction of justice for “clenching her fist” at a school cop. In another case, an 11-year-old boy, diagnosed as autistic, kicked a trashcan during a tantrum and was charged with disorderly conduct by the SRO who witnessed the event.
Haigler knows of similar incidents at the schools her grandchildren attend, including a young boy charged with damaging property for knocking over a potted plant and an elementary student who was suspended for wanting to go to the bathroom.
Out-of-school suspensions and encounters with law enforcement during teen and preteen years can have lifelong consequences for students. As the authors of the UCLA study cited above write, "The damage wrought by this 'pipeline' does not end with prison; it goes on to cause voter disenfranchisement, degradation of health and culture, and a shorter life expectancy."
The alarming data related to school suspensions, SROs, and their impacts have started to influence policy makers and the advocacy work of national organizations.
Getting Attention At The Top
Faced with the scathing revelations of Virginia's top rank in the school to prison pipeline, Governor Terry McAuliffe announced in 2015 "a new initiative aimed at decreasing student suspensions, expulsions and referrals to law enforcement," according to local news sources.
The initiative was spearheaded by Anne Holton, who was Virginia's Secretary of Education at the time. (Holton is the wife of Tim Kaine, the vice-presidential candidate for the Democratic Party.) The initiative called for "joint training for school administrators and school police officers so both groups are aware of the dangers of criminalizing kids," according to a report by CPI.
The Obama administration has taken similar action. Recently, "the Department of Education and Department of Justice," according to U.S. News & World Report, "sent letters to states and school districts emphasizing the importance of well-designed training programs for school resource officers."
National civil rights groups urge stronger action. As Education Week reports, Dignity in Schools, a coalition of over 100 organizations promoting alternatives to zero-tolerance discipline policies, recently called for the removal of law enforcement from schools and for new forms of discipline and student supports.
Pronouncements from government officials and national advocacy groups are helpful. But local advocacy is as important, if not more so.
Action Needed on the Ground
In Virginia, despite the initiative being put into place by the governor and his education chief, incidents of overly harsh discipline and problems related to the presence of SROs persist.
As the Washington Post reports, a 15-year-old student recently went on trial in a Prince William County courthouse for stealing a 65-cent carton of milk in the school cafeteria. In Richmond, high suspension rates have prompted black students to file a civil rights complaint against their school district, alleging that discipline practices in their schools are unfair.
In Spotsylvania, Portsmouth and other communities, the grassroots advocacy group Virginia Organizing is mobilizing parents and education justice advocates to demand alternatives to suspensions and more restrictions on SROs. VO is an affiliate of People's Action, a nationwide network of 29 advocacy groups and some 600 organizers.
In Spotsylvania, VO activists have attended school board meetings to call for alternatives to out-of-school suspensions, according to the organization's website. They've also demanded the school district follow guidelines issued by Governor McAuliffe governing the placement and duties of SROs.
Haigler, whose grandson Darian's criminal charges took nearly two years to resolve, is part of the effort to insist the district review the memorandum of understanding governing SROs and ensure that officers' duties are confined to safety and restricted from getting involved in student behavior matters.
"I've worked very well with educators," she says, "but SROs haven’t been trained in cultural competency … and make the mistake of treating kids like little adults."
In Portsmouth, where schools issued more than 2,200 suspensions in the 2014-2015 school year, VO has helped organize a group of parents, educators, and local activists, called Community Advocates for Portsmouth Students (CAPS), to "raise awareness of the problem, create solutions, and work with the school board to reduce the numbers."
According to the article, Green, a CAPS member, is helping to get parents more involved in the advocacy effort. In my interview with her, she tells me the first duty of all parents is to get informed and get involved.
"Teachers aren't the problem," she says. More often than not, they are overworked and under-supported by the school administration. So parents have to be their children's best advocates.
To prove her point: her four older children graduated high school, despite three of them having to deal with school suspensions, and eventually became college graduates as well. She is anticipating that Denise, now a senior in high school, will eventually be a college graduate too. She is a straight-A student. The school suspension that drove her to attempt suicide almost robbed her of that bright future.
*Correction: This article was amended to clarify the type of officer who arrested Darian. He was arrested by a municipal police officer, not an SRO, as previously stated.