Courtroom Is No Place to Address School Discipline

In the 2018 session of the General Assembly, legislators passed bills to address disparities in how disciplinary cases in the commonwealth’s public schools are handled, after numerous studies and subsequent news coverage revealed racial disparities in some of these cases and an over-reliance on law enforcement. This year, some legislators are making a push to take the laws even further.

In June, Gov. Ralph Northam signed into law two bills that bar school divisions from suspending students in pre-K through the third grade for more than three days and another that cuts the maximum length of long-term suspension from 364 calendar days to 45 school days. The changes, especially the cut in the maximum length of long-term suspensions, drew criticism from some school boards across the state as an example of Richmond interfering to much in local school matters. However, the data showing disproportionate application of suspensions was just too much to overcome.

(Incidentally, the cap on pre-K through third grade suspensions came as a result of legislation introduced by Sen. Bill Stanley, a Franklin County Republican.)

 African-American students, data showed, constituted 23 percent of the commonwealth’s student population, but saw a disproportionate number of suspensions: 59 percent of short-term suspensions, 57 percent of long-term suspensions and 43 percent of expulsions. An October 2017 report by Virginia’s Legal Aid Justice Center revealed that 17,300 pre-K through third-graders had been subject to short-term suspensions in the 2015-16 school year.

Now, three legislators want to dive deeper into the issue and address school divisions’ increasing reliance on law enforcement officers to handle some discipline issues.

Introduced introduced by Dels. Mike Mullin and Jeff Bourne and Sen. Jennifer McClellan, the legislation would write into the state’s criminal code an exemption for students from disorderly conduct charges if they misbehave either at school or on a school bus. Under Virginia law, disorderly conduct is a misdemeanor with the potential for up to a year in jail and a fine of up to $2,500. According to the Richmond Times-Dispatch, such behavior is defined as a disruption “with the intent to cause public inconvenience, annoyance or alarm.”

According to the state’s Department of Juvenile Justice, between the 2013-14 and 2017-18 school years, there were more than 7,000 disorderly conduct complaints made against Virginia school children. Sixty percent came from police officers, with the majority of the remainder coming from school officials and school resource officers (in many divisions, an officer with a local law enforcement agency).

And recalling that African-American students comprise 23 percent of the state’s public school student population, almost 67 percent of complaints from school officials or SROs were filed against black students. Other studies raise even more troubling questions regarding the application of discipline in schools: Virginia Tech researchers released a report in 2017 that, among other findings, unearthed data showing black students accounted for fully half of criminal referrals to juvenile courts from schools.

Amy Woolard is the policy coordinator of the Legal Aid Justice Center, which is based in Charlottesville. Speaking to the Times-Dispatch, she said the large number of law enforcement referrals can be explained, in part, to a misunderstanding of the role of SROs. “Charges like disorderly are stemming from a confusion of the role of school resource officers in our school buildings,” she said. “Disorderly conduct is really taking an issue that is for schools to handle and suddenly putting it under the purview of law enforcement and courts.”

Indeed, state data shows that nearly 40 percent of all disorderly conduct charges against children in Virginia’s juvenile justice system originate in schools.

And lest anyone think this push to keep school discipline issues out of the criminal justice system comes from anti-law enforcement legislators, think again. Mike Mullin, one of the sponsors of the legislation in the House of Delegates, is a former prosecutor, but one who’s concerned about what’s been called the “school-to-prison pipeline.”

“Nobody is saying disruption in the classroom is acceptable, but it could be handled with a suspension or a letter to a parent,” he told the Times-Dispatch. “It doesn’t have to lead to incarceration.”

Why divisions have increasingly relied on police and SROs to address cases of school discipline is a matter of debate — some people would contend that it’s simply easier to have an in-house police officer haul the kid to the precinct. Whatever is behind this trend, both in Virginia and in the nation, it’s time to bring schools and parents back into the picture.