How Attys Can Help Dismantle The School-To-Prison Pipeline

By RJ Vogt | February 23, 2020, 8:02 PM EST

On Feb. 6, two armed police officers in Florida walked a 6-year-old girl out of school and into the back seat of a cruiser.

They’d been called to take her to a mental institution after she allegedly threw chairs in her elementary school classroom. Body camera footage later published by a local news station shows the girl calmly walking to the car. Police can be heard discussing how school officials must have overreacted.

“I think it’s them not wanting to deal with [her],” one officer says as they drive away.

The student’s mother, Martina Falk, has since hired an attorney to help her daughter attain re-entry into the school. Such attorney representation is rare in cases of suspensions or expulsions — types of exclusionary discipline that lead to criminal justice involvement and disproportionately affect children of color.

According to Sonya Crider, a longtime coach and teacher who now serves as the executive director at YMCA of Greater Seattle, kids go unrepresented in police-involved school discipline situations "nine times out of 10."  

“Kids aren't bringing anyone to the table,” Crider said. “They might find a parent to come with them, but sometimes the parents don't understand what's taking place. Otherwise, the advocate is a school employee, and they’re not really advocating because how do you advocate when you’re a representative of the school?”

Crider's remarks came at a Feb. 15 panel discussion on ways lawyers can disrupt the process that funnels students, and especially students of color or those with disabilities, from schools to the criminal justice system.

The event during the American Bar Association’s midyear conference in Austin, Texas, came just days after the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition published research that found roughly 2.5 out of every 100 elementary school students received out-of-school suspensions between 2015 and 2016 — a total of 63,874 students in Texas alone.

The report also cites recent data from the U.S. Department of Education showing that black students make up 39% of out-of-school suspensions despite comprising just 15% of the population.

“This is especially problematic given that schools over-rely on police forces to maintain on-campus discipline, leading to student arrests,” the TCJC report says.

Despite the well-documented damage that exclusionary discipline can cause, police forces in schools are on the rise across the country as districts grapple with the danger of school shootings.

Since 1999 — the year two students killed 13 people at Columbine High School — the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services has awarded more than $750 million to help fund school resource officers.

To combat the disparate effect that such well-intended safety efforts can have, the ABA’s Coalition on Racial and Ethnic Justice released five recommendations in 2018. One key resolution was a call for “laws and policies supporting legal representation for students at point of exclusion from school, including suspension and expulsion.”

Some attendees at the Feb. 15 panel questioned the wisdom of introducing legal representation in school discipline situations on the grounds that children generally shouldn’t be facing criminal justice ramifications in the first place, a point with which Andrew Hairston, the school-to-prison pipeline project director of Texas Appleseed, seemed to agree.

“The biggest strides we have made in dismantling the school-to-prison pipeline has been at the state legislative level, or even at school districts themselves,” he said. “It's about demonstrating that a broader cultural shift is necessary — and maybe saving individual legal representation for just the most heinous cases.”

Crider echoed Hairston’s call for a change in culture. She said one of the best methods of reducing criminal justice involvement for students, and especially students of color, is reducing the reliance on school resource officers.

“Once you involve a school resource officer, you should involve an attorney,” she said. “That might tailor back how many times the SROs are actually called, if you know you’re going to be faced with some type of legal action.”

Crider spoke from experience, having previously worked as a dean of students at Orange County Public Schools in Orlando, Florida. She said her teachers underwent mandatory training on de-escalation and problem-solving. Before a teacher could call an SRO, she said, “you had to call your dean first.”

Taking those extra steps toward disarming techniques and away from zero-tolerance attitudes can go a long way toward preventing the sorts of extended school absences that often lead to incarceration, according to Carla Laroche, a Florida State University law professor who runs the school’s Gender and Family Justice Clinic.

She told the panel audience an anecdote about activist Susan Burton, who spent years going in and out of prison before going on to launch a nonprofit that helps people leaving prison re-enter society. According to Burton’s memoir, she was a good student through middle school until a dress code violation derailed her education with a two-week suspension.

That suspension, Laroche said, left her alone at home while her parents worked, and the ensuing lack of supervision was her gateway to the street culture that eventually led to crack cocaine convictions in the 1980s and 1990s.

“When she went back to school, she had missed a complete explanation of fractions,” Laroche said. “No one took the time to help her.”

Time away from school can be especially detrimental for students with disabilities, a group even more likely than students of color to face exclusionary discipline like suspension and expulsion. Steve Aleman, a policy specialist with Disability Rights Texas, said that one of the biggest ways lawyers can help preserve access to justice for students is not by individual advocacy but rather lobbying for legislative and administrative action.

He pointed to recently passed legislation in Texas that prohibits school districts from assigning routine school discipline to police officers.

“You are not going to be allowed just to pick up the phone and say, ‘I've got a troublemaker, I'm going to have a headache in here, let me get the cop on campus to come in here and take this over for me,’” Aleman said. “That is not allowed under Texas state law now.”

He also cited legislation requiring school officials to develop student transition plans for those students who are removed from class for disciplinary purposes.

“Now the school consciously has to plan for how the student will make up for lost academic time and lost content,” he added.

--Editing by Aaron Pelc.

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