UPDATE: Shutting down the school to prison pipeline

Well, that effort failed as the bill wasn’t passed. What now?

Update #1 — February 19, 2016; 12:05 PM

House Bill 1134 failed to get the votes it needed in Monday’s session at the Virginia House of Delegates. The legislation, introduced by Delegate Dave LaRock of the 33rd district, would have prevented students ages 14 and younger from being charged with disorderly conduct if the offense occurs on school property, a school bus, or at a school-sponsored activity. The bill brought in 36 yes votes, 60 no votes, and 1 abstention.

For more information on how the votes broke down on this bill–and for details other school-to-prison-pipeline-related legislation that has now been referred to the House Courts of Justice Committee–head over to Graham Moomaw’s latest piece with the RTD.

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Original — February 12, 2016

Photo by: Freaktography

In April 2015, the Center for Public Integrity (we’ll call it CPI) released a report stating that Virginia leads the country in referrals of students to law enforcement.

Yep. Kids who live in Virginia have a higher chance of getting reported to the police or the courts while in school out of all of the kids in these United States–almost three times higher, in fact.

Using data from the United States Department of Education, CPI found that in a single year Virginia referred about 16 out of every 1,000 students to law enforcement. The national rate is six referrals for every 1,000 students.

CPI’s report also showed that black, Latino, and special needs students get referred to police and courts disproportionately nationwide. In Virginia, 38.3% of the referrals were for black students, who make up 23.9% of the student population. Nine percent of the referrals were for Latino students, who make up 11% of the student population. And most jarringly, disabled students, who only make up 14.3% of the student population, accounted for 30.1% of referrals1.

And the reason so often behind these referrals? Disorderly conduct.

As Virginia House Delegate Jennifer McClellan (71st District) explained in an opinion piece published in the Richmond Times-Dispatch on January 23rd, “Children were often referred to law enforcement as a result of behaviors that did not constitute a crime, or would not be a crime for an adult […] The charges stemmed 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.”

Granted, no one wants that sort of behavior happening in their child’s school, but this zero tolerance approach–and the manner in which it is being enforced–criminalizes kids and offers them little-to-no chance for redemption. It shoves them right down the school-to-prison pipeline.

A quote from Brian J. Moran, Virginia Secretary for Public Safety, in a follow-up piece published by CPI last October puts the issue into context and shows us what’s really at stake here:

“Once a kid gets into that (criminal justice) system,” Moran said, “you can get a judge on a bad day, you can get a prosecutor on a bad day, you can get an incompetent attorney. Once you’re in the system, the likelihood you’re going to stay in that system is great.”

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Work is underway to shut this school-to-prison pipeline down and keep kids from entering the system too early and unnecessarily.

At the state level, Delegate McClellan is currently co-patron on a bill introduced by Dave LaRock, House Delegate from Virginia’s 33rd District2, that removes disorderly conduct from the equation. Specifically the bill (HB 1134) “Provides that a student at any primary or secondary school cannot be guilty of disorderly conduct if the disorderly conduct occurred on school property or a school bus or at a school-sponsored activity.”

Officials at the city level are paying attention, too. The CPI report did not single out the City Richmond as a locality with a high rate of in-school juvenile arrests3, but it did get the attention of Police Chief Alfred Durham and Dr. Dana Bedden, Superintendent of Richmond Public Schools.

As Susan Rowland, public affairs specialist for the Richmond Police Department, explained via email, “Chief Durham and Dr. Bedden wanted a proactive intervention program that would focus on the city’s at-risk youth and keep our most valuable resource in the schools and out of the juvenile justice system.”

With that end in mind, RPD and RPS teamed up to create LIFE, a program that Richmond School Board Chairman Jeff Bourne calls, “…an important program and partnership that will help decrease the unconscionable number of students who are introduced and subject to the criminal justice system.”

LIFE (Law Enforcement Intervention Focusing on Education), is a nine-week program targeting students ages 13 to 19 who’ve been involved in a potentially criminal incident that could lead to their arrest.

Students are referred to LIFE by school administrators, school police officers or security, and their parents or guardians. According to a RPD press release, instead of automatically entering the criminal justice system, these students are offered “an alternate learning opportunity focused on constructive life lessons and enhancing that student’s ability for success.”

But it’s not just about students avoiding arrest. A key goal of LIFE is to break down barriers between law enforcement and students–as modeled by TAPS Academy4, the program on which LIFE is based.

TAPS Academy is a national program where at-risk kids partner with mentor officers to discuss a variety of issues like bullying, anger management, conflict resolution, drug use, and team building–just to name a few. Similiarly, students in the LIFE program will each have the opportunity to engage with law enforcement as they explore the ins-and-outs of the criminal justice system, learn about healthy lifestyle choices, and receive access to educational and social resources.

“The launch of the LIFE program is a clear representation of the strong partnership between the Richmond Police Department and Richmond Public Schools,” stated Dr. Bedden via the RPD press release. “We commend our local law enforcement for recognizing the need to provide our at-risk students with a positive alternative to help get their life back on the path to success and directly contribute to uplifting their communities.”

Libby Germer, history teacher at George Wythe High School5, offers similar commendations for the RPD in their efforts to foster positive connections with students–albeit with a very boots-on-the-ground perspective.

“I support this collaborative effort to treat teenagers like teenagers. My high school is full of promising young people who get themselves into trouble when they’re bored because they lack positive pastimes. Many also lack strong role models,” she tells me over email. “At the end of the day, students considered ‘at-risk’ may not choose the ‘healthy lifestyle choices’ LIFE presents, but maybe the best thing this program offers kids is a reminder that they have options.”

Opening up options to shut down the pipeline. Sounds like a good start to me.

  1. Go ahead and let that last one sink in…is your chest hurting, too? 
  2. Fun fact: He’s a Republican. She’s a Democrat. We can do this, y’all! 
  3. They saved that for Chesterfield County. Eeeeeeeeeeeee. 
  4. TAPS stands for “Teen and Police Service.” 
  5. And a damn good one at that. She’s also a Fulbright Scholar, NBD. 
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Valerie Catrow

Valerie Catrow is editor of RVAFamily, mother to a mop-topped first grader, and always really excited to go to bed.

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