Data Shows School-to-Prison Pipeline Still Flowing

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In schools across the country, police continue to arrest students for minor disciplinary infractions, especially children of color and those with special needs.

The Center for Public Integrity analyzed the most recent data from the U.S. Department of Education and found that 26 percent of all students referred to law enforcement nationally were kids with physical or learning disabilities, even though they make up only 14 percent of enrollment. In most states, black and Latino kids were referred in percentages that were disproportionate to their enrollment numbers.

Referring students to law enforcement can create delinquency records that stigmatize kids at school and shadow them for years, according to the report. Judges can order students to do community service as penance, to check in frequently with probation officers, and to wear electronic monitors. They can also put kids in detention before and after a hearing. Even a small slip-up at school, such as using profanity, can send kids back to court and into detention.

The study identified several outlier states with police referral rates more than double the national average rate of six students for every 1000. Virginia topped the list with about 16 referrals per 1000 students; Delaware was second with almost 15; and Florida came in third with more than 12. Analysts also identified individual schools with extremely high referral rates in states with unremarkable overall numbers. For example, Cascade High School in Bedford County, Tennessee, referred to police 157 per 1000 students.

In Chesterfield County, a suburb of Richmond with a district of about 60,000 students, school police officers have filed a staggering 3538 criminal complaints since fall 2011. More than half were for "simple assault" or disorderly conduct. Black students make up 26 percent of the district's enrollment, but more than half of the students sent to court were black.

Chesterfield County exemplifies the often-overlooked fact that schools are filing criminal complaints against children under ten years old. Almost half of the criminal complaints filed in Chesterfield County were against children 14 or younger. Twenty-seven of the referred students were kids under ten years old accused of assault, and five were kids under ten accused of making bomb threats. The referral rate for Falling Creek Middle School was 228 per 1000, which is 39 times the national rate.

Not every referral or criminal complaint includes an arrest or leads to a court hearing. School resource officers and juvenile court intake officials have wide discretion to recommend diversion for some kids and juvenile delinquency proceedings for others. School officials, on the other hand, claim to have no control over school resource officers' decisions because the officers work for the police department.

Catherine Lhamon, assistant secretary of education for civil rights, said the Education Department's guidance is clear that "schools are responsible for the actions that their school police engage in when they're at the school site" and that police should be handling criminal activity, not discipline issues. She expressed concern about the broad discretion granted to school police: "A red flag for us, consistently, is catchall terms, like 'disorderly conduct,' that leave too much discretion that is unfettered." Such discretion, she explained, invites discrimination against certain students.

In Virginia, about 30 percent of students referred to law enforcement were special-needs kids, who make up just 14 percent of the student body. Only a quarter of the state's students are black, but 38 percent of students referred to police were African American.