Monday, January 28, 2013

The School-to-Prison Pipeline (Part 1)

7-year-old, special-ed student was handcuffed after becoming upset during an Easter-egg decorating activity. The police were called, and they escorted the boy from the school before his mom was able arrive to take him home. She felt "it's like they're trying to get rid of him." The NYPD defended their action, saying that the boy was "acting in a threatening manner."

12-year-old faced misdemeanor charges after refusing to clean up his spilled milk in the school cafeteria. The five-foot, 100-pound 6th-grader was tackled by a police officer after belligerence and 'talking back.'

There is a national trend of "criminalizing, rather than educating, our nation’s children". There are hundreds of examples of children being arrestedhandcuffed, and charged with crimes for misbehaving in schools. These incidents disproportionately affect children of color, as well as those with mental disabilities. Indeed, these demographic factors greatly influence what mischief is considered 'kids being kids' and what is deemed criminal behavior.

Black and Latino children are much more likely to be suspendedexpelled, or arrested than their white compatriots for the same conduct. The National Education Policy Center has found that most suspensions are against Black students, and that ~30% of Black males in middle school have been suspended at least once. Furthermore, schools that are comprised of large Black and Latino student populations are more likely to be targeted by building searches. These trends in schools closely parallel the profound racial disparities seen in arrests and prosecutions in the adult word (see post: Incarceration: The New Jim Crow).

While the children in each of the above examples were indeed misbehaving in school, there is question as to whether the involvement of law enforcement was necessarily in each case. Adults are naturally given authority over children, but those adults hold the same biases and stereotypes that affect us all. As a consequence, children of color lose the right to due process at a early age because the 'truth' is assumed to the version told by their teachers and principles.

For this reason, the United States Justice Department recently released an investigation finding that the constitutional rights of school children are being violated. They report that "children arrested in local schools become entangled in a cycle of incarceration without substantive and procedural protections required by the U.S. Constitution." Thomas E. Perez, Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division asserts that “the systematic disregard for children’s basic constitutional rights by agencies with a duty to protect and serve these children betrays the public trust.” The specific rights violations committed by the Mississippi law enforcement division that was investigated include:
  • "Failure by MPD to adequately assess probable cause that an unlawful offense has been committed prior to arresting children at local schools; 
  • Failure by the Lauderdale County Youth Court to provide children with proper procedural due process, including by making untimely and inadequate probable cause determinations;
  • Failure by the Lauderdale County Youth Court and the Mississippi DYS to provide children procedural due process rights in the probationary process, especially with regard to alleged probation violations; and
  • Failure by all entities to ensure substantive due process for children on probation by incarcerating children for school disciplinary offenses without any procedural safeguards."
Often, arrests are made in response to non-violent offenses like 'disruptive conduct' or 'disturbance of the peace;' essentially, children are being criminalized for throwing temper tantrums. According to the ACLU, "students have been arrested for throwing an eraser at a teacher, breaking a pencil, and having rap lyrics in a locker."

In response to horrifying school shootings, the national instinct is to increase security forces in public schools (see post: The Pathology of Mass Shooting). Alan Singer suggests that "public fear of school violence was ignited by the Columbine shootings in 1999. Although the perpetrators were white and the incident had nothing to do with race, black and Latino students in inner-city schools increasingly became the target of the anti-crime, anti-violence programs." We buy into the media narrative of rampant gang violence and drug peddling on school property, which feeds into our hyper-vigilance.

But the heightened security is often misdirected. Across the country, suspension are on the rise, particularly as a punishment for dress-code violations, and cellphone use/possession. What once called for a trip to the principal's office, is now cause for arrest. Administrators meet teenage defiance with drawn weapons and handcuffs. Singer reports that "97 percent of the suspensions were for minor infractions that could have been treated as educational rather than disciplinary problems," according to the Council of State Governments Justice Center.

Check out the videos below for more compelling stories of child-arrests, and stay tuned next week for a look at the polices that perpetuate the school-to-prison and the lasting consequences it has on our children.

From the ACLU: Should disorderly conduct or disruptive behavior be enough to warrant arrest? How would you feel if you or your child were arrested at school? Have you ever seen any instances of the school-to-prison pipeline operating?

Continue to part 2...



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