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VA Tops U.S. in Referring Students to Law Enforcement

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Center for Public Integrity
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A new report from the Center for Public Integrity shows Virginia sending more students to court, per capita, than any other state – often because school resource officers arrest them for minor offenses like kicking a trash can, fighting on the playground or swearing.

Kayleb Moon-Robinson is a 12-year-old in Lynchburg Public Schools.  He’s a small, bespectacled kid who loves science.  He’s also autistic, but that didn’t stop a school resource officer from pushing him to the ground, handcuffing him and charging the child with disorderly conduct when he kicked a trash can.  Nor did it prevent a charge of felony assault when Kayleb swore and tried to get away.  His mother, Stacey Doss, is the daughter of a police officer, but she can’t understand how her son ended up in court.

“I’m just stunned more than anything.  They found him guilty of two disorderly conducts and felony assault of an officer.  He is 12 years old, and from my understanding the felony assault will follow him even into adulthood.”

The judge, she said, was not sympathetic to the fact that Kayleb is autistic and reacts badly to being touched by strangers.

“He said that Kayleb had been handled with kid gloves, and that he understood that Kayleb had special needs but that he needed to start controlling himself or else they would eventually control him.”

And, she says, Kayleb is confused about what happened.

“I guess that’s the hardest part.  He doesn’t understand. I don’t even know where to start to explain it to him.”

Nationally, six of every one thousand children will be sent to court for an offense committed at school, but in Virginia, that number is 16 – almost three times the national average.  At the Legal Aid Justice Center, attorney Angela Ciolfi is not surprised.

“Often what we see is disorderly conduct and simple assault even when there’s no injury – a school yard fight where an adult intervenes and gets a hit in the arm becomes an assault on a school official.”

But she is worried.  Noting that a four-year-old from Greene County was handcuffed and taken to the local sheriff’s lock-up, she wonders if we should be talking about a pre-school to prison pipeline.

“Arrest, particularly for minor misbehavior, can really be devastating for a child’s educational career.  Kids are about twice as likely to drop out when they’ve been arrested.”

Part of the problem, Ciolfi says, is that the law defining disorderly conduct applies to all kinds of behavior that’s common in schools.

“It covers intent to cause annoyance or inconvenience in a school.  How many teenagers or pre-teenagers do you know who cause an annoyance or inconvenience in a school. It’s pretty clear when we see an assault that’s premeditated that that’s a law enforcement problem, but when we see a schoolyard fight, when we see an ordinary classroom disruption turned into a disorderly conduct, then we really have a blurring of those lines, and in Virginia, school resource officers are not required to receive any kind of specialized training before they go into a school or even while they’re there.”

On the other hand, she argues, teachers and school administrators are trained in child development and classroom management, so they should know how to deal with disciplinary problems in a way that’s age appropriate.

She hopes the Center for Public Integrity’s report will prompt communities to explore this problem and put limits on when police should be involved in student discipline.

“Local school and law enforcement leaders really need to look at what they’re doing in their jurisdictions and ask themselves what is it that we’re trying to accomplish? Do we want to funnel lots more kids into the juvenile justice system or do we want them to stay in classrooms and learning, because there are approaches  to keep them in schools that actually work and don’t do more harm to their educational careers.”

The report says some of the highest rates of police involvement were in junior highs and African-American kids are far more likely than whites to be subject to arrest for causing trouble at school.

Sandy Hausman is Radio IQ's Charlottesville Bureau Chief
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