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July 16, 2015 standard

There are numerous problems with the traditional approach school discipline meted out by America’s traditional districts and many charter schools. One of the biggest lies with the longstanding trend by districts to launch police departments as well as bring in law enforcement agencies in the form of so-called school resource officers to police the corridors of school buildings. As the U.S. Department of Justice highlighted earlier this year in its investigation into the Ferguson Police Department, police officers who should only be handling incidents of violence end up using force to address student misbehavior, leading to kids being arrested or detained for minor incidents such as disruptive behavior that should be addressed by teachers and school leaders through better means.

Now as an analysis by Mother Jones reveals this week, the consequences of using police officers to handle school discipline can even lead to children being injured, maimed, and killed inside school buildings. This report, along with the three decades of data on how traditional harsh school discipline damages children educationally, should lead school reformers to join cause with criminal justice reform advocates to end practices that are inhumane as well as ineffective in improving student achievement.

Over the past five years, 28 children have been choked, punched, beaten, tasered, left brain damaged, and even shot to death by rogue cops and school resource officers, according to Mother Jones‘ research. Among the victims: Noe Nino de Rivera, a 17-year-old junior Cedar Creek High School in Bastrop County, Texas, who ended up in a coma for a full year after one officer, Randy McMillan, tasered Rivera after he tried to break up a fight between fellow students. While de Rivera still suffers from the trauma, McMillan avoided criminal indictment and even got a promotion.

Another victim, an unnamed 13-year-old who attended Olmsted Academy North in Louisville, Ky., suffered a brain injury after a police officer, Jonathan Hardin, choked him into unconsciousness; the incident was caught on video. The good news is that Hardin did get fired for this as well as for another injuring of a child at the same school; Hardin also ended up being indicted for his alleged crimes.

Because federal and state governments doesn’t collect much in the way of data on police conduct in traditional districts and other school operations, it is quite likely that far more than 28 children are injured by cops in schools over the past five years.

Huffington Post Editor Rebecca Klein reported this past April that 25 incidents of injuries to children by cops occurred within the past year alone. In the traditional district serving Birmingham, Ala., 110 incidents of pepper-spraying of children by cops have happened since 2006, according to Southern Poverty Law Center attorney Ebony Howard, who is representing eight children injured during one such incident in lawsuit against the district and city’s police department.

Meanwhile the bad behavior of rogue cops in schools extends beyond injury and death. As Philip Matthew Stimson and Adam M. Watkins of Bowling Green State University determined in a study released last year, 61.5 percent of school cops arrested were charged sexual abuse. Seventy-five percent of those cases involved abuse of children in secondary schools. Given that school cops are the primary handlers of school discipline within many districts, the risks of rogue school cops harming children are even higher than ever officially reported (when it is reported at all).

Certainly these and other incidents are stark reminders of the need to overhaul the nation’s criminal justice and law enforcement systems. So does the fact that so many officers who injure children never face criminal charges for their misbehavior. As Dropout Nation reported back in December, rogue cops are as insulated from suffering the consequences of rogue behavior as laggard and criminally-incompetent teachers. Considering that only one-in-three police officers charged with crimes ever serve prison time — and that cops such as Daniel Pantaleo (who murdered Eric Garner last year) are almost never indicted for their misbehavior — it is no surprise that school resource officers and other cops can get away with harming the lives of children under their watch.

But the problem doesn’t lie with police departments alone. The excessive force used by cops and school resource officers in schools results also from districts leveraging criminal and juvenile justice systems to address student behavioral issues instead of addressing the low-quality teaching and curricula from which those issues arise. Districts accounted for three out of every 10 status cases referred to juvenile courts in 2011, according to the U.S. Department of Justice, the second-highest source of referrals after law enforcement agencies. As I reported nine years ago in an editorial series for the Indianapolis Star, districts end up using the courts to address nonviolent (and normal) misbehavior by children that can should be addressed by teachers and school leaders through other means. This includes the case of Donna, a 13-year-old who was sentenced to probation for the schoolkid prank of tossing snow into a teacher’s car.

Exacerbating the problem is the fact that over the past three decades districts, with subsidies from the federal government, have launched their own police departments even though youth crime declined substantially.

Former Louisville Police Officer Jonathan Hardin, shown choking a 13-year-old student, now faces criminal charges for damaging our children physically.

Between 1996 and 2008, the number of districts operating police departments more than doubled (from 117 to 250), according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics. Thanks largely to the U.S. Department of Defense’s 1033 Program, school district police departments have also become willing participants in the militarization of law enforcement that was on full display in Ferguson and Baltimore after the murders of Michael Brown and Freddie Gray at the hands of rogue cops. While the Obama Administration has stopped providing military weapons to school cops, districts such as Compton Unified in California still arm police with AR-15 rifles and grenades.

Meanwhile the federal Community Oriented Police program, along with fears over the Columbine Massacre and other rare incidents of mass shootings, have increased the presence of police in schools. The number of cops patrolling schoolhouses increased by 38 percent between 1997 and 2007, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Forty percent of districts in America have some form of police officer patrolling schoolhouse grounds, 40 times the levels 40 years ago.

The presence of cops haven’t improved school cultures one bit. As University of Maryland researchers Chongmin Na and Denise Gottfredson determined in a 2011 study, there is little evidence that the presence of school cops lead to decreases in violent incidents or other forms of misbehavior; evidence does show that the presence of school cops did increase the percentage of kids referrals to law enforcement, which, as Na and Gottfredson “suggests that there is indeed a shift toward more formal processing of youthful offending in these schools.” Matthew Theriot of the University of Tennessee determined in a 2009 study that over a three-year period, schools patrolled by cops had five times the level of arrests for disorderly conduct — the legal equivalent of the rather-subjective and arbitrary discipline category of disruptive behavior — than schools without them; the levels remained constant even after adjusting for socioeconomic background.

Regardless of what schools they patrol, school cops do little to improve school cultures. None of this should be shocking. The presence of police transforms school discipline from a matter of addressing underlying causes of child misbehavior to a criminal justice concern. This is because police officers become the primary handlers of school discipline; as Na and Gottsfredson notes, school cops spend 25 percent of their time “counseling students” — even though few receive the kind of training needed to handle child behavioral issues without resorting to arrest and injury. Children, especially those in communities in which police brutality has become all too common, don’t view cops as Officer Friendlys there to help. If anything, because of the nature of law enforcement, the presence of school cops makes already harsh and ineffective school discipline even more damaging and unproductive.

The presence of cops in schools is also ineffective because it allows teachers and school leaders to further abdicate their responsibility to help all children succeed. As it is, out-of-school suspensions and expulsions excuse them from addressing the underlying learning issues — especially struggles with literacy and lack of intense reading remediation — that lead to kids behaving poorly. Thanks to school cops, teachers and school leaders can simply refer children to cops for arrest instead of addressing issues on their own. Especially in schools and districts serving poor and minority children, school cop patrols allow for laggard instructors and principals to believe that the kids in their classrooms are merely the potential lawless, not young people whose potential can and should be nurtured. The teachers and school leaders end up working with police officers to transform schools into virtual jails where childhood is criminalized.

Certainly there are rare situations in which police presence is necessary. But there are almost no reasons why school cops are a constant presence in so many schools. Police officers who are charged with serving schools and districts should be provided high-quality training, especially in child psychology, to ensure that they use force as the last means of resort. Federal and state governments should collect more-comprehensive data on the role of cops in schools; this includes detailed reports on incidents in which cops use force on children.

But the best solution is to shut down school police departments and reduce the number of cops patrolling school grounds so that police only show up for actual incidents of violence endangering children and adults. This should start with Congress and the Obama Administration cutting off funding for the federal COPS program and its school resource officer initiative, an underlying culprit in the growing presence of cops in schools. On this front, school reformers and criminal justice reform advocates (especially those in the Black Lives Matter movement) can come together to help our children.

But reducing the footprint of law enforcement in schools isn’t enough. Three decades of data have long ago shown this: That traditional school discipline used by America’s traditional districts and many charter schools is ineffective in improving student achievement and school cultures. That out-of-school suspensions and expulsions are almost always used to address behavioral issues that have nothing to do with violence or drug use. That traditional discipline practices almost always targets children from poor and minority households. That the use of such practices never address the literacy issues that lead to child misbehavior. That suspensions and expulsions teach law enforcement to regard poor and minority kids as felons and worse. And that traditional school discipline almost always leads to kids dropping out of school into poverty and prison. As hard as folks like Mike Petrilli of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and Eva Moskowitz of Success Academies may try, no school reformer can morally or intellectually defend these failed and barbaric practices.

On this front, the Obama Administration deserves credit for holding districts accountable for how they mete out such punishment. But it isn’t enough. Embracing alternatives to traditional discipline such as restorative justice is key. Overhauling how districts provide reading instruction and curricula would help more kids struggling with literacy avoid behavioral issues. Both are matters on which reformers and criminal justice reform advocates should work together closely and often.

We can no longer ignore the damaging and unchecked presence of law enforcement in the schools charged with helping all children succeed in school and life. A child should not be choked, brain-damaged, or murdered by a police officer mishandling situations that call for tender loving discipline.


Featured Photo: Noe Nino de Rivera, a high school junior in Texas, is one of many children injured and damaged by school police officers.

July 13, 2015 standard

On this week’s Dropout Nation Podcast, RiShawn Biddle offers five key tenets reformers must keep in mind in order to keep focus on the mission to help all children succeed in school and in life.

You can listen to the Podcast at RiShawn Biddle Radio or download directly to your mobile or desktop device. Also, subscribe to the podcast series, and embed this podcast on your site. It is also available on iTunesBlubrry, Stitcher, and PodBean.

July 9, 2015 standard

In 1956 the House Un-American Activities Committee held hearings in Los Angeles to publicize efforts by “subversives” to repeal laws mandating imprisonment and deportation of people who disagreed with those laws. On December 6, 1956, HUAC attempted to interrogate Frank J. Whitley, a Black real estate broker.

To say that Mr. Whitley was not impressed by the committee would be an understatement of grand proportions:

Mr. Whitley. “Both of my parents were slaves here in America, and I have been persecuted ever since the day of my birth. And this committee or no other committee has taken up my cause . . . They are killing me and my people all over this country, and you know it. And you know it . . . What about Emmett Till? What about Mr. Moore in Florida a few years ago? And I don’t have to go that far. I can start right in Los Angeles. The same thing is happening.”

Mr. [Congressman] Doyle. “You don’t charge the United States Government with killing?”

Mr. Whitley. “For doing nothing about it. That is why I charge them . . . It’s been 90 years since Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. They are begging to go to school in Texas even, right here by us. What are you doing? You are searching for some subversion you talk about.”

The committee could not get Mr. Whitley off the witness stand fast enough.

This story brings together three basic ways in which harm is inflicted on the Black community: governmental action (or inaction), education, and housing. Mr. Whitley knew that his clients had great difficulty finding housing or obtaining mortgages to purchase homes outside of Watts or other traditionally Black areas of Los Angeles. He knew that although their children could go to school (unlike their cousins in Texas), those schools were inferior to the schools attended by White children. And, as he told the committee, he knew that the police and courts were not to be relied on by the Black community.

Much has changed in the nearly 60 years since Mr. Whitley’s testimony. At the same time, evidence shows that much when it comes to the mistreatment of Black people (especially children) remains the same. And again, the country does nothing.

The Guardian, a newspaper that is based far outside this country in Great Britain, is tracking the numbers of people here killed by police, records that are not kept by neither federal agency nor newspapers based on these shores. Nearing the mid-point of the year, they have identified 490 in 2015 alone, 28 percent of whom were Black. This is twice the share of the descendants of enslaved Africans in the total population.

For doing nothing… I charge them.

A new study funded by the Women Donors Network has revealed that the racial and gender disparities among elected prosecutors, such as district attorneys, are on a scale similar to that in apartheid South Africa. In the state of Ohio, for example, there is only one prosecuting attorney identified as non-White: the Hispanic prosecuting attorney of Stark County. All prosecuting attorneys in the state are male. All but one of the district attorneys in Wisconsin are White. All the district attorneys in Tennessee are White. Of the fifty district attorneys in New York State, just three are Black and two are Hispanic. Just two of the prosecutors in Illinois are Hispanic, none are Black. And so it goes.

For doing nothing… I charge them.

In Cleveland the Black community has so little confidence in the police and district attorney that they decided to bypass local prosecutors and take the case of the shooting of 12 year-old Tamir Rice directly to a judge. But if African Americans cannot trust the police or district attorneys, can they really trust the courts? Based on data showing the low likelihood of police officers being indicted for use of excessive force in killing unarmed Black men such as Eric Garner, the answer is already apparent.

For doing nothing… I charge them.

This brings us to Atlanta, where Black teachers are now going to prison as a consequence of an unprecedented application of the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act. Now former Atlanta Supt. Beverly Hall, who led steady improvements of the district, and teachers who worked there, were charged with a conspiracy to improve test scores by cheating.

Cheating is clearly unacceptable and absolutely wrong – a point Dropout Nation Editor RiShawn Biddle has made several times in discussing what happened in Atlanta. But it is hard to believe that the district attorney there really thought that Hall’s efforts to improve achievement (as measured by test score growth) amounted to a conspiracy like fixing a horse race or issuing sub-prime loans to unqualified home buyers.

While Hall retired and shortly died, a highly emotional White judge handed out sentences of astonishing severity to the teachers and educators who were still alive. Actions that in other districts have been punished with reprimands or, at most, termination of employment, were criminalized in Atlanta.

For doing nothing… I charge them.

This sort of thing is not unusual or new in Georgia. Many African Americans were held in debt peonage there, and in neighboring states, well into the twentieth century. Compulsory schooling for Black children came late to the state and voting by the descendants of enslaved Africans even later.

But if the police anywhere in the country cannot be trusted not to kill unarmed Black children, prosecutors cannot be trusted to bring those police to trial, and judges cannot be trusted to be reasonable in their sentencing, what is to be done?

It is possible that the failure of the public schools to educate most Black children can be remedied by using charter school legislation to create a well-funded national system of schools for Black children who are unlikely to be well-served by their local schools. It is possible that the segregated, inferior housing of all too many Black families can be replaced with wide-spread home ownership by means of a targeted mortgage guarantee program for the descendants of enslaved Africans.

But what is to be done about the police, the prosecutors and the courts? The U.S. Department of Justice is overseeing some police departments. This could be done more widely, more intensely. Similar actions could be taken in regard to district attorney offices and local courts. There is a precedent for this. It was called Reconstruction. It was effective in the South until destroyed by those who regretted the Emancipation Proclamation. Perhaps it should be given another try, this time on a nation-wide basis.

Because when it comes to our criminal justice and education systems, America can’t continue to do nothing.

July 7, 2015 standard

Hope remains eternal — at least among those who want Congress to pass a reauthorized version of the No Child Left Behind Act being considered by the Senate this week. Even as the likelihood of passage remains as unlikely as it was back in March, when House Education and the Workforce Committee Chairman John Kline’s plan was kiboshed amid opposition from movement conservatives within the Republican majority, there are still some who think that the version under consideration now could pass if Kline’s colleague, Lamar Alexander, can get his plan into conferencing. The fact that conservative Republicans are no more interested in supporting Alexander’s plan than that of Kline (and that there will be pressure on House Speaker John Boehner to reject the entire measure without a single thought) doesn’t seem to factor into their thinking.

But the low likelihood of No Child reauthorization hasn’t exactly stopped Beltway players from the usual gamesmanship that has been a feature of past efforts. This includes the American Federation of Teachers, with the help of another group of so-called social justice players to lobby against the accountability and standardized testing measures that have helped more children gain high-quality education.

Earlier today, a group calling itself Journey for Justice Alliance released a letter to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Democrat leader Harry Reid demanding that they pass a version of No Child that eliminates “regime of oppressive, high stakes, standardized testing”. Echoing arguments made last month in the pages of the Hill by Schott Foundation President John Jackson, Judith Browne Dianis of the Advancement Project and wishy-washy education professor Pedro Noguera, Journey for Justice declares with no evidence that testing and accountability has somehow harmed poor and minority kids as well as supposedly “narrowed curriculum” (an argument that has been proven false by research from the likes of the U.S. Department of Education and Quadrant Arts Education Research’s Robert Morrison). As far as the group is concerned, the Senate should pass a version of No Child that eliminates any kind of accountability and spend even more money on a grab-bag of programs that includes “restorative justice coordinators” to reduce overuse of suspensions and expulsions.

Certainly Journey for Justice hasn’t paid much real attention to the Alexander plan for No Child. If they did, they would know that Alexander’s plan would all but solidify the Obama Administration’s move over the past few years to eviscerate No Child’s Adequate Yearly Progress provisions, which have exposed the failure of traditional districts to provide high-quality teaching, curricula, and school cultures to poor and minority children (as well as those condemned to the nation’s special ed ghettos). One can easily argue that the Alexander plan, like the one offered up by Kline, is a roll-back of strong federal education policy back to the bad old days when states and districts were allowed to educationally abuse children black and brown with impunity. For families, especially from poor and minority households, the Alexander plan’s evisceration of accountability makes it harder for them to gain high-quality data on how schools (and the adults who work in them) are serving the children they love.

But none of these points matter much to Journey for Justice’s signatories. Why? Because they are acting on behalf of AFT. This is because nearly all of them are dependent on the union’s financial largesse. And as you expect, this inconvenient fact goes all but unsaid by Journey for Justice in its letter.

As Dropout Nation noted last month, AFT, along with National Education Association, is struggling to gain support for its efforts against accountability (and, more-importantly, standardized testing) from civil rights groups such as Education Trust and NAACP. In order to buttress support for its goals, the union and other traditionalists have had to cobble together a motley crew of progressive groups and social justice outfits almost-totally dependent on its dollars.

The list of AFT vassals signing onto Journey for Justice’s letter such main members of the group as Alliance for Quality Education, which picked up $200,000 from the union and its New York State affiliate, NYSUT, in 2013-2014 alone. Other members include the Philadelphia Student Union (which collected $20,000 from AFT last fiscal year and whose board includes Anissa Weinraub, a flunky with the union’s City of Brotherly Love local), Youth United for Change (another Philadelphia-based outfit which picked up $60,000 from the union last year), and ACTION United, the beneficiary of $49,120 in AFT largesse for helping the union stall systemic reform of the traditional district there. The Annenberg Institute for School Reform, a recent beneficiary of AFT largesse (in exchange for opposing the expansion of charters) to the tune of $49,963), is one of Journey for Justice’s “allied organizations, as is AFT.

Look further down the list of signatories and you see AFT dependents all over the place. One of them is Center for Popular Democracy, which not only received $60,000 in 2013-2014 from the union, it even has union president Randi Weingarten serving on its board. As Dropout Nation readers already know, Popular Democracy has helped AFT in its effort to weaken efforts to expand public charter schools (as well as conceal the fact that the union’s opposition to them is spurred in part by the failures of its Big Apple affiliate to run one properly). Other AFT dependents include the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists (which picked up $5,000 from the teachers’ union last fiscal year), Pride at Work ($5,000 in 2013-2014), New York Communities for Change ($10,000 in AFT funding within the last year alone), and Pride at Work.

Remember: Many of these groups do little when it comes to education policy, advocacy, and institution building — other than feast upon the dues AFT often-forcibly collects from teachers regardless of their desire for membership.

As you would suspect, Schott Foundation, which has become the favored ally of AFT (as well as NEA) in its efforts to condemn poor and minority kids to low expectations, is also a signatory on the letter. Befitting its eagerness to earn every one of the $480,000 it has collected from the Big Two in 2013-2014, Schott’s Opportunity to Learn campaign is also heavily promoting the letter through social media, calling the signatories civil rights groups even though just three such outfits — all affiliates of NAACP (which is supporting accountability and testing) — have signed onto the document. But hey, why let some inconvenient facts get in the way of spin?

Also signing the letter: Ten of AFT’s affiliates and locals — including the United Federation of Teachers and United Teachers Los Angeles. As you probably guessed, they also corralled their vassals to sign onto the claptrap. Chicago Teachers Union, for example, managed to convince its cadre of dependents — including the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization and Pilsen Alliance — to back the anti-accountability letter. UFT brought along the A. Phillip Randolph Institute (to which the union gave $6,550 in 2013-2014), Citizen Action of New York ($5,500), and Make the Road ($5,000 from UFT to the outfit’s political action wing).

The closer you look at the list of signatories, the more you realize that Journey for Justice is just another AFT front group for the union’s other villeins, giving the union (and other traditionalists) cover. All of this for the union on the cheap. Sadly, this isn’t surprising. Given that many of these nonprofits lack the financial wherewithal (even such resources as printers, copying machines, and conference space) to hold meetings and conduct business — and that reformers often fail to extend their considerable resources to help them — it is easy for them to go to AFT and its affiliates for help and even easier to support the union’s agenda in return. That some of these groups are led by middle-class black political and social leaders, who are often more-concerned about defending their pockets and their allies within teachers’ unions (while often refusing to send their kids to the failure mills they are protecting) also factors into their willingness to do work for AFT and other traditionalists.

Yet by supporting AFT’s efforts to eviscerate accountability and standardized testing, these groups are essentially declaring that they care not one bit about the futures of the very black, brown, and poor children for whom they proclaim concern. By siding with AFT, these groups are perpetuating the educational genocide that has wrecked havoc on our children and communities, and have hobbled efforts to end the racialist policies such as overuse of suspensions and expulsions (which many AFT locals, along with those of NEA, vigorously defend).

Your editor would say that Journey for Justice and AFT should be ashamed of themselves. But that would be a waste of breathe. After all, shame requires having a conscience and being willing to turn down money for advocating against poor and minority children.


The old adage of a “picture is worth a thousand words” is oft utilized precisely because it is so often true – especially when it comes to complex data sets. This becomes especially clear when discussing the need to overhaul traditional school funding throughout the nation.

Today, school reform organization EdBuild released an interactive mapping tool that shows some pretty stark examples of some of the patently crazy ways that school districts across the United States have drawn their borders. Surfacing some excellent examples, the EdBuild team clearly delineates the differences between the “haves” and the “have nots”, as measured by the poverty levels of more than 13,000 school districts.

As EdBuild points out, school districts across the United States get a significant portion of their funding from local property taxes. This creates scenarios wherein neighbors send their kids to schools with vastly different financial resources. The result: “these invisible walls often concentrate education dollars within affluent school districts, and ensure that low-income students are kept on the outside.”

As EdBuild points out, Camden, New Jersey has the highest poverty rate of any city in the United States (42.6 percent in 2013). Ninety percent of the kids in the Camden City School District are on free or reduced lunch, while it is almost surrounded by school districts with lower poverty rates. As EdBuild points out, traditional district school boundaries, zoned schooling and other Zip Code Education policies result in keeping poor kids in Camden from being able to access better educational opportunities more easily available (at least in theory) to wealthier peers.

Another example shown by EdBuild is that of the Spencer-Sharples School District in northern Ohio. Considering the racial overtones, it is one that is particularly unsettling.

The Spencer and Harding Townships wanted to split their school system and respectively merge with the Springfield Local School District and the Swanton Local School District. Everything worked out fine with Harding Township’s kids attending school in Swanton. Unfortunately for the kids in Spencer, Springfield rejected the “much larger proportion of low-income, African-American” families from Spencer.

Spencer schools were under-funded and losing enrollment. None of the surrounding school districts would take them. At the request of the state, Toledo Public Schools eventually annexed the Spencer schools, but eventually closed them. To this day, the Spencer kids are bused across two district boundary lines to get to their nearest school.

As one utilizes EdBuild’s mapping tool, it quickly becomes apparent that the disparity in funding creates rather dramatic divides between neighbors. Areas of concentrated poverty, coupled with reduced funding resources, makes it much more difficult for some school districts to provide kids with the high quality education that they have been promised.

I shall not presume to give the solution to these funding inequities, but it is plainly apparent that an over-reliance on property taxes makes it decidedly more difficult to provide an equitable quality of education across all populations. This issue must be addressed. Across the country, lawmakers from both parties need to work together to find creative and fair ways to fund our education system. In states like Pennsylvania, bipartisan efforts to install a student-focused funding formula are well underway. Efforts like this, along with the expansion of school choice and Parent Power (both of which will be helped with the school funding reform), must continue.

It may have been more than 60 years since the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Brown v. Board of Education. But today, it sometimes appears that “separate, but equal” may still be the de facto standard – as long as one ignores the fact that there is little equality.