the school to prison express, continued

Note: I don’t typically post trigger warnings here, but yeah. Big time. 


{Image is a photo of a very young child in handcuffs. Read the story it came from here.}

Yesterday, I typed the following, intending to post it on Facebook:

Dear American School Children,

Simply do whatever the hell we tell you to do in SCHOOL and we won’t call a COP into the classroom to slam you and your desk to the ground and then drag you up and throw you across the room.

Whether or not that’s a remotely appropriate reaction to your defiance of our authority is irrelevant. You started it

Is that the message that we really want to send our KIDS?


Please, I’m begging, let the answer be no.

I didn’t post it. There was just too much more to say, to learn, to think about, before I hit publish.

The truth is that my first reaction upon seeing the video of a Sheriff’s Deputy in South Carolina slamming a 16 year-old girl into the ground before violently flinging her across the floor was that he never should have been there in the first place. For the life of me, I could not figure out why a police officer would be called in to a classroom to deal with a non threatening, non violent disciplinary issue involving a kid who we now know had just lost her mom and entered foster care and was clearly crying out for help.

{image is a series of photos from the video described above in which a police officer is shown slamming a child to the ground in her desk, then tossing her across the floor of the classroom}

I immediately thought of Kayleb Moon-Robinson, that beautiful 11 year-old autistic boy from Virginia and the horrifying article that introduced him to all of us last year: Judge Finds Lynchburg Middle Schooler with Autism Guilty on Criminal Charges:

Doss told PRI that Kayleb was instructed that day to wait – while other kids left the classroom, but he disobeyed. She says the principal then sent the School Resource Officer to get Kayleb.

In the PRI article, Kayleb says the officer grabbed him and tried to take him to the office – and when Kayleb tried to push away, the officer “slammed me down and then handcuffed me.” That led to another disorderly conduct charge – and a charge for Felony assault on a police officer.

In April, a Lynchburg judge found Kayleb guilty of one disorderly conduct charge and of felony assault on a police officer.

And Kayleb is not alone.

According to the Center for Public Integrity… in a year, Virginia schools refer students to law enforcement agencies at a rate nearly three times the national rate. That’s higher than any other state in the country.

The data shows many of those students are special needs, Latino, and Black. LPD was recognized last month at Commonwealth Autism’s annual state conference in Richmond.

Days after Kayleb’s story broke, another followed, this one entitled, 5-year-old handcuffed, placed in police car at schoolThe story, I wrote at the time, was even worse than the headline:

When five year-old Connor Ruiz became agitated and lost control in his special needs classroom at Philadelphia Primary School, state police were summoned.

Captain Darrin Pitkin of the New York State Police explains in the video that because the teachers reported that he was trying to stab himself with a pencil, “the best way to prevent this child from injuring himself or causing any type of injury or threat to other students or staff was physically restraining him in handcuffs and leg shackles” and, apparently putting him into the back of the cruiser to transport him, still in the restraints, to a nearby hospital.

A five year-old kid with emotional challenges was handcuffed, placed in leg shackles, and put into the back of a police car.

None of this made sense to me. Why, I found myself asking both then and now, are police officers involved in the day-to-day, routine discipline of kids in school, particularly of kids who are so obviously in need of support rather than discipline in the first place?

Assuming there must be some upside to their presence, I went searching for an explanation of the rationale for having police in our kids’ hallways. I found a relatively compelling argument for them on CNN:

Some 43% of all U.S. public schools — including 63% of middle and 64% of high schools — had [police] officers on their grounds during the 2013-2014 school year, the National Center for Education Statistics noted in May. This includes more than 46,000 full-time and 36,000 part-time officers.

School resource officers, or SROs, supervise lunchrooms, coach sports, promote drug and alcohol awareness and become confidants to teens who might have never thought they’d befriend a police officer. SROs may build relationships at a key time in many young people’s lives.

“It breaks down these barriers where the law enforcement officers are seen as an enemy,” said Michael Allison, a Virginia high school principal and president of the National Association of Secondary School Principals. “In the majority of cases around the country, that’s what school resource officers are doing every day.”

Okay, I thought, so the presence of SROs could be a good thing. Even a really good thing, especially in bridging the gap between police and some of the more marginalized communities they serve. Perhaps it’s not simply the fact that they’re in the schools, but how they’re being deployed (and what they do once deployed) that’s problematic.

Joining the chorus of advocacy groups condemning the handling of Kayleb’s case back in May, ASAN wrote:

Both in Virginia and nationally, there is evidence of what many advocates call a school-to-prison pipeline: a systemic misapplication of school disciplinary procedures which disproportionately targets students of color, students with disabilities, and students of color with disabilities, resulting in harsher discipline and students being funneled into the juvenile justice and prison systems at younger and younger ages.

Echoing the disproportionate effect on under-served and otherwise already-marginalized students, the ACLU’s fact sheet on the school to prison pipeline says the following:

Many under-resourced schools become pipeline gateways by placing increased reliance on police rather than teachers and administrators to maintain discipline. Growing numbers of districts employ school resource officers to patrol school hallways, often with little or no training in working with youth. As a result, children are far more likely to be subject to school-based arrests—the majority of which are for non-violent offenses, such as disruptive behavior—than they were a generation ago. The rise in school-based arrests, the quickest route from the classroom to the jailhouse, most directly exemplifies the criminalization of school children.

An eleven year-old autistic boy was charged with felony assault. A FIVE year-old was put in leg shackles in the back of a cop car. Two girls in South Carolina face criminal charges for ‘disturbing school’. And these are just the stories that make the news.

So what, I wonder, might the consequences have been for my girls had they acted similarly to these kids?

My twelve year-old autistic daughter, Brooke, has been ‘guilty’ of noncompliance, among other things that, in the interest of protecting her privacy, I will not detail here, in school. Among them were ‘offenses’ that would undoubtedly have been on par with those in the stories discussed here. That said, the consequences, at their most ‘severe’ involved the following:

An emergency team meeting to determine the best way to help her understand why her behavior was not appropriate, brainstorming with specialists to create strategies for her to get what she needed without physicality or unjustified refusal.

The participants in that process, depending on her age, consisted of but were not limited to the following:

A general education teacher, a special education teacher, an inclusion specialist, a board certified behavior analyst, a trained aide, an occupational therapist, a speech therapist, a social pragmatics teacher, a social worker, a school psychologist, and us, her parents. 

Because we live where we do – in a district with resources that run laps around so many in this country, the concept of anything that my daughter could do in school involving a police officer is completely and utterly unfathomable to me. The idea that she could leave high school in a few years with a rap sheet to go with her diploma (or a rap sheet rather than a diploma) is abjectly absurd.

That’s not the way this is supposed to work. That’s not the way any of this is supposed to work.

But for kids like Kayleb and Connor and a girl who recently lost her mom in South Carolina, this is exactly how this works. So I ask again:

Dear American School Children,

Simply do whatever the hell we tell you to do in SCHOOL and we won’t call a COP into the classroom to slam you and your desk to the ground and then drag you up and throw you across the room.

Whether or not that’s a remotely appropriate reaction to your defiance of our authority is irrelevant. You started it.

Is that the message that we really want to send our KIDS?


Please, I’m begging, let the answer be no.

 Note: I recently learned about the Trauma and Learning Policy Initiative led by Harvard Law and Massachusetts Advocates for Children. Their efforts to create trauma sensitive schools could not be more timely. Read more about their work and, if you can, support them here

4 thoughts on “the school to prison express, continued

  1. Another reason I am so glad I live in the UK and not America. I don’t dislike America or its people, but the more I hear about the over the top responses to what should be minor civil events, the more I’m glad I live here.

    If a police officer went into school and did that in the UK there would be outrage and the officer would very likely lose his job. But then we don’t have police officers in school.

    The only time you see a cop is if something major has happened like maybe a kid stabbing someone (a very rare occurrence in itself). Or if they are there to give road / personal safety talks.

    Any kid acting up in school is not a criminal matter, it is an event that needs to be approached with a calm and understanding attempt to understand why. Move the other children out if possible harms way, then talk to them, no violence, no physical force, just talk.

  2. Hiya. I live in the UK too and I am glad that grahamhanks (hello! I’m waving, can you see me!) has had a good experience of the school system here.
    East London and Essex schools have their own Police Officers on site.

    My daughter is half Jamaican half English but fully British.
    She is taller and sturdier than the other kids.
    So, she’s black, tall, imposing, challenging, beautiful, funny, determined and has an IQ of 152.
    She’s been excluded, she’s had just about every kind of punishment I can think of barring the physical. I have advocated my backside off, taken her out of unsuitable schools, shared, demanded and promised to prosecute if things like that happened again.
    She has had an horrific time in school until we were blessed to secure a space in a mainstream but well funded and well staffed, disciplined but loving, safe school.
    Until she found a mentor (deputy head) that just by his own imposing and calm physical presence makes her feel safe and heard, and until she had enough of a repository of experiences to draw upon to make herself understood, it was a distressing and painful experience for everyone involved, particularly little Missy.
    I have an instruction with the school that they are to keep her safe and I will intercede for them with her.
    I walk out of meetings when I get the emergency call to be on site when necessary.
    I love that kid.
    My hope is that she will always know that people have her back, that not everything different is a fight, and that she will fulfil her potential and be happy.

  3. And how are these children going to feel about “school” after something traumatic like this? As always Jess you are spot on.

  4. The Philadelphia incident happened not far from me. I couldn’t believe that any adult could rationalize or support what happened to that little boy. And now he has the additional trauma of that experience.

    We need for our teachers, administrators and other staff to be inquisitive and compassionate. To ask “why is this student behaving in this manner and what can I do to help” instead of getting their nose bent because a child is not complying.

    Many times what appears to be bad behavior or defiance is a shout for help – a child saying “I am so overwhelmed I don’t know what to do”. Many children don’t feel as if they can approach an adult and open up to them, the quickest and easiest way to get an adult’s attention is to defy them. We can’t blame these children. How many times are children told they should be seen and not heard? How often are their feelings not validated and they are told to “suck it up” or “quit crying”?

    I truly hope that this very disturbing trend in our schools changes. I hope teachers, parents and students can come together and demand better.

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