Back in August, amid the uproar of the senseless slaying of 18-year-old Michael Brown by now-former Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson, Dropout Nation detailed how the Ferguson-Florissant School District overused out-of-school suspensions and other forms of harsh school discipline. The fact that children attending the district’s schools had a greater chance of being suspended than of being harmed by crime in their communities outraged readers and jump-started a discussion on addressing the intersection between schools and criminal justice systems.
But as it turned out, the traditional district used the Ferguson Police District as a tool to avoid addressing its obligation of providing the kids it serves with high-quality education. This became clear this week thanks to the U.S. Department of Justice’s report on the widespread corruption and racialism within the law enforcement agency. For school reformers, the details are another reminder of why we must join common cause with criminal justice reform advocates to stem the school-to-prison pipeline.
Justice Department officials found that the three police officers assigned to two of Ferguson-Florissant’s high schools had a penchant for using force to address student misbehavior “when communication and de-escalation techniques would likely resolve the conflict”. More often than not, Ferguson police officers would deal with minor incidents of student misbehavior that could be better-handled through other means with arrests for disorderly conduct and failure to comply. In many cases, the police department engaged in overkill, deploying as many as 21 officers to deal with a fight between students in one of the district’s high schools, when simply acting like parents would do.
During one incident detailed in the report, officers arrested and used a stun gun on a Ferguson Middle School student after he refused to leave a classroom after an argument with one of his peers; the kid was later charged with Failure to Comply, which can lead to juvenile probation and incarceration because probation tends to indeterminate and last for years (as well as because many of the city’s poor families can’t pay the hefty fees that come alongside the sentence). In another incident, officers charged a McCluer South-Berkeley High School student with failure to comply and resisting arrest after a fight with another student. [The other student was charged with peaceful disturbance.]
Ferguson’s police officers see nothing wrong with any of this, according to the Justice Department’s report. As far as they are concerned, the more arrests they make of children, the better they are doing in their job. The fact that arresting kids for minor incidents that would be better-handled by teachers and school leaders sends kids onto the path to poverty and prison doesn’t occur to them. To the Justice Department, the attitudes of the officers are evidence that Ferguson’s police department places low priority on conflict resolution and other approaches more-appropriate for minor misbehavior by children.
But as Dropout Nation has chronicled, the problem doesn’t lie with Ferguson’s corrupt police department alone.
After all, two percent of Ferguson-Florissant’s students — 268 children — were arrested or referred to juvenile court in 2011-2012, according to data from the U.S. Department of Education’s Civil Rights Database. This is a slight uptick from the 1.9 percent of students (240 kids) arrested or referred in 2009-2010. The arrest rate for juveniles aged 10-to-17 nationwide for violent and property crimes is just around one percent.
As in every case, kids condemned to the district’s special ed ghetto bore an even greater brunt of the punishment. Four-point-nine percent (89 kids) of students condemned to special ed were arrested or referred in 2011-2012, an increase over the 3.8 percent (or 75 kids) arrested or referred two years earlier. Essentially, Ferguson is arresting and referring to court kids in special ed at a rate four times higher than the average for violent and property arrests.
When considered alongside the high levels of suspensions and other overuse of harsh discipline, it is clear that Ferguson-Florissant is using every tool available — including long arms of the law — to avoid serving children it deems unworthy of high-quality education. Even worse, by allowing officers to engage in overkill, the district and the adults who work within it are teaching Ferguson police officers — a group with a long and now-documented record of racially-driven brutality against adults black and brown — that children from poor and minority backgrounds are little more than criminals and target practice.
Ferguson-Florissant deserves as much scorn as the Ferguson Police Department. But the district isn’t the only one essentially criminalizing the lives of the youth they are supposed to serve.
After all, 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. In Indianapolis, whose troubled juvenile justice system was the subject of an expose I wrote for the Indianapolis Star nine years ago, Indiana Superior Court Judge Marilyn Moores called upon districts there to stop referring 1,500 children to her juvenile courts because all it does is set kids on the path to future criminality. [Eighty percent of kids sent to the court are never convicted of a crime, according to the judge.]
As Dropout Nation noted in November, more districts, especially those in big cities, are launching their own police agencies even as youth crime has been on a three decade-long decline. 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. Because the police departments are caught up in the militarization of law enforcement that was on full display during the protests over police brutality in Ferguson last year, the war-grade weapons now common among cops are now being used in schools. This includes districts such as Compton Unified in California arming their cops with AR-15 rifles and others having grenades in their arsenals.
When districts aren’t starting their own police departments, they are bringing existing police departments (and the blunt approaches to handling matters) into schoolhouses, especially through so-called school resource officers charged with patrolling corridors. The percentage of school resource cops increased by 38 percent between 1997 and 2007, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, at a time when crime in schools have declined significantly. As the Justice Policy Institute notes in a report released in 2011, there is no evidence that increased presence of law enforcement in schools leads to safer schools. The Bureau of Justice Statistics’ own analysis show that the school cops are often poorly trained to address problems in schools
When kids aren’t being arrested for behavior that should be settled by schools, they are subjected to the kind of law enforcement tactics that should be reserved for adults outside of schools. This includes police officers in Birmingham, Ala., using Freeze +P pepper spray against eight children attending the traditional district there (the subject of a lawsuit filed on their behalf by the Southern Poverty Law Center); some 110 incidents of pepper-spraying occurred in the district since 2006, according to the SPLC attorney Ebony Howard in an interview last month with Mother Jones. Because half of school resource officer programs (and other law enforcement) are patrolling elementary school hallways, it means that even kids in kindergarten and first grade are being criminalized at early ages.
What is increasingly clear every day is that traditional districts are using police departments and juvenile justice systems to avoid their responsibilities for providing children, especially those from poor and minority backgrounds, with high-quality education. The damage upon children wrought by the failures of districts to address illiteracy (the underlying reason why children act out in school) and the overlabeling of kids as special ed cases (often also resulting from illiteracy), is compounded by discipline practices that subject kids to harsh punishment when restorative justice practices and intense remediation would work better for kids.
But American public education isn’t the only culprit here. The federal government is also part of the problem, thanks to the Community-Oriented Policing Services program originally created by the Clinton Administration to help cities fight crime. The Obama Administration is fueling the problem thanks to its launch two years ago after the Newtown Massacre of a $150 million program to help police departments and districts hire more cops to patrol schools. The administration made the move despite concerns from the Congressional Research Service and others about both its efficacy and consequences on children. The administration’s move on this front is going to complicate laudable efforts by the U.S. Department of Education and the Justice Department to stem overuse of harsh school discipline.
Thanks to the Justice Department’s report on Ferguson, reformers have another opportunity to keep kids out of the school-to-prison pipeline. This means overhauling how we recruit and train teachers, forcing districts to use Response to Intervention techniques to identify struggling students, and pushing for restorative justice practices in place of harsh school discipline and criminalization of youth. At the same time, reformers must join together with criminal justice reform advocates to reduce and ultimately remove the presence of cops except in clear cases of violent crime. This includes pushing Congress and the Obama Administration to halt the COPS program and its school resource officer initiative, which is both wasteful and harmful to kids.
We should all be shocked about the latest revelations about Ferguson. But let’s not think the criminalization of youth in schools there isn’t happening in the rest of American public education. We must go beyond outrage to action. Right now.