Op-ed: Disorderly Conduct and the School to Prison Pipeline

One of the most important issues to be considered by the General Assembly session is to improve how we break the school-to-prison pipeline.  Over the past 20 years, there has been a disturbing rise in the over-criminalization of childhood behaviors that were once handled almost exclusively through the school disciplinary process. Behaviors that once would have led to in-school detention are now leading to incarceration in alarming numbers.

In April 2015, the Center for Public Integrity (CPI) released a report analyzing data from the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights that examined the number of students referred to law enforcement from schools. Virginia led the nation, with a referral rate of 15.8 students per 1,000, compared to the national average of six students per 1,000.  African-American students and students with disabilities are disproportionately impacted.

Children were often referred to law enforcement as a result of behaviors that are not a crime.  CPI’s review of individual cases and local Virginia police records showed that thousands of students were sent into the criminal justice system by school police on charges of disorderly conduct, assault and resisting arrest.  These referrals resulted from behavior like kicking trash cans, yelling, using foul language, getting into schoolyard fights and attempting to break free from police officers who grabbed them.

One example that received widespread attention a few years ago was Kayleb Moon-Robinson, an autistic sixth grader in Lynchburg who left class without permission. The 11-year-old was handcuffed and arrested for disorderly conduct and felony assault after a struggle with a school resource officer.

When recounting these statistics and stories, I often hear the argument, “but these kids should be removed from the classroom if they are disturbing the ability of other students to learn.”  But that’s not the issue. The real question is whether these kids should be handled through the school discipline process by principals and assistant principals and provided services from school counselors, psychologists, or social workers.  Until the General Assembly fully funds support personnel and mandates comprehensive training regarding issues from mental health, child development, and trauma, children will be referred to law enforcement. Referrals like these often start a student down the path of the school-to-prison pipeline.

To address this problem, I’ve introduced SB 1107 to eliminate the misdemeanor charge of disorderly conduct for behavior at a school or school-sponsored activity.  Delegate Jeff Bourne and Mike Mullin introduced a other measures, which died in committee on Monday. I’ve also introduced, for the second year in a row, a budget amendment lifting the cap on support personnel in the K-12 funding formula adopted during the recession.  As an alternative, I’ve put in additional budget amendments to fund the Standard-of-Quality ratios for school social workers, nurses, psychologist, elementary principals, and assistant principals at levels recommended by the Board of Education in 2016. These measures will go a long way to roll back the school-to-prison pipeline.