Documenting Disturbing Trends in School Policing

Documenting Disturbing Trends in School Policing

October 10, 2016 | Susan Ferriss


Within months of starting middle school, Kayleb Moon-Robinson was forced into juvenile court for allegedly committing three crimes at his school in Lynchburg, Virginia. Kayleb’s school resource officer first charged the autistic sixth grader with disorderly conduct for kicking a trash can. Not long after, Kayleb left a class without permission, and the officer followed the child and grabbed him.

Kayleb struggled to break free—and the officer reacted by slamming down the African American child, handcuffing him, and arresting him for disorderly conduct and felony assault on a police officer.

Kayleb was 11 years old. The story of how adults could criminalize such a young boy exemplifies how far school policing has spiraled out of control in some parts of the country. We can find context for stories like Kayleb’s by examining educational and police data at all levels, from the local to the federal. To identify hot spots, my investigative journalism organization, the Center for Public Integrity, has been analyzing various sets of data. And to better understand the school-to-prison phenomenon, we’ve also interviewed students and parents, public defenders and education-rights attorneys, judges, educators, police, and federal education officials. 

We drew on this research to produce “From Detention to Detainment,” a radio documentary first broadcast in spring 2015 on Reveal, a public-radio show produced by the Center for Investigative Reporting and the Public Radio Exchange (PRX).

Our story zeroed in on Virginia, a state we found had three times the national average rate of referring students to law enforcement for behavior at school. Our finding was based on an analysis of the US Department of Education’s Civil Rights Data Collection for the 2011–12 academic year, then the most recent available.

The data collection also included counts of arrests of students at schools. But we felt that the broader category of referral data was more appropriate to analyze. Many students receive court citations from school police that are not counted as arrests. And for many students, a referral to police—even if it doesn’t end in an arrest or ticket—is a negative encounter that disengages them from school. 

These data included information about each student’s grade level, ethnicity, and whether or not he or she had a disability. This information allowed us to find, state-by-state, that students of color and pupils with special needs are being disproportionately referred to police.

Virginia’s overall rate of referral was almost 16 per 1,000, compared to a national rate of not quite six per 1,000. But black students in Virginia were referred at a rate of 25 per 1,000, compared to white students’ rate of 13 per 1,000. Students with disabilities were referred at a rate of 33 per 1,000. A full 30% of all the kids referred to police had disabilities, even though only 14% of students in Virginia were identified as having a disability.

To drill down on why students in Virginia were being referred to law enforcement, we were forced to turn to local police records; the state had no solid tracking system. A sampling of local police data obtained through Public Records Act requests showed that thousands of young students were being arrested for minor charges—including bomb threats, in the case of some elementary-school students. We found a public defender willing to flip through cases she could not show us—juvenile records are confidential—and describe for the broadcast some of the charges her clients faced.

One of her clients was “a 12-year-old who made a fist at the officer at school and got obstruction of justice.” The girl was picking up her younger cousin at school, saw her cousin in a fight, tried to pull her out, and then was grabbed by a school cop. The 12-year-old was charged with trespassing, disorderly conduct, resisting arrest, and obstruction of justice—for clenching her fist at the officer who grabbed her. 

A former prosecutor said that prosecutors often feel pressure not to drop charges against accused persons, even if they are kids. Kayleb and his mother spoke to us at their home, just after a juvenile court judge had found the boy guilty of all charges. The judge told Kayleb he would decide what to do with Kayleb later, and warned him that he would go straight to detention if he got into more trouble.

Virginia officials took our findings seriously. The governor launched a campaign to retrain all school police. Lynchburg, as well as other school districts and cities, agreed to limit police involvement in schools. State legislators debated and adopted some—but not all—of a range of proposals designed to stop the criminalization of kids at schools. And the judge decided to drop all charges against Kayleb. 

This is one in a series of blog posts written by 2016 NCCD Media for a Just Society Award winners and finalists. Read more about the series here