How Prison Stints Replaced Study Hall
America’s problem with criminalizing kids.
by Jody Owens, Politico Magazine
March 15, 2015
Police officers in Meridian MS were spending so much time hauling handcuffed students from school to the local juvenile jail that they began describing themselves as “just a taxi service.”
It wasn’t because schools in this east Mississippi town were overrun by budding criminals or juvenile superpredators—not by a long shot. Most of the children were arrested and jailed simply for violating school rules, often for trivial offenses.
One 15-year-old girl, for example, was suspended and sent to the Lauderdale County Juvenile Detention Center for a dress code violation. Her jacket was the wrong shade of blue. A boy served a suspension in the juvenile lock-up for passing gas in the classroom. Another landed behind bars because he walked to the alternative school instead of taking the bus.
For many kids, a stint in “juvie” was just the beginning of a never-ending nightmare. Arrests could lead to probation. Subsequent suspensions were then considered probation violations, leading back to jail. And suspensions were a distinct possibility in a district where the NAACP found a suspension rate that was more than 10 times the national average.
In 2012, the US Department of Justice filed suit to stop the “taxi service” in Meridian’s public schools, where 86% of the students are black. The DOJ suit, still unresolved, said children were being incarcerated so “arbitrarily and severely as to shock the conscience.”
We should all be shocked.
The reality, though, is that Meridian’s taxi service is just one example of what amounts to a civil rights crisis in America: a “school-to-prison pipeline” that sucks vulnerable children out of the classroom at an alarming rate and funnels them into the harsh world of police, courts and prison cells.
For many children, adolescent misbehavior that once warranted a trip to the principal’s office—and perhaps a stint in study hall—now results in jail time and a greater possibility of lifelong involvement with the criminal justice system. It should surprise no one that the students pushed into this pipeline are disproportionately children of color, mostly impoverished, and those with learning disabilities.
The story of Meridian is more than an example of school discipline run amok. It’s a key to understanding how the United States has attained the dubious distinction of imprisoning more people—and a larger share of its population—than any other country.
It’s one reason why the United States today has a quarter of the world’s prisoners—roughly 2.2 million people—while representing just 5% of its total population. And it helps explain an unprecedented incarceration rate that is far and away the highest on the planet, some five to 10 times higher than other Western democracies.
As the managing attorney for the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Mississippi office, I’ve seen firsthand the devastation wrought by the school-to-prison pipeline, and the senselessness of it all.
When SPLC advocates began interviewing children at the juvenile detention center in Meridian in 2009 we were investigating children being pepper-sprayed by guards when they were in their cells and posing no threat. But we kept hearing stories from students who were pushed out of school and into cells for noncriminal, minor school infractions. These stories would eventually spark the DOJ lawsuit and a thorough examination of how the “pipeline” operated in this town.
The origins of the school-to-prison pipeline can be traced to the 1990s when reports of juvenile crime began to stoke fears of “superpredators”—described in the 1996 book Body Count as “radically impulsive, brutally remorseless youngsters” with little regard for human life. The superpredator concept, based on what some critics have derided as junk science, is now known to be a complete myth. Former Princeton professor and Bush administration official John DiIulio, the Body Count co-author who coined the term, admitted to The New York Times in 2001 that his theory of sharply rising juvenile violence had been wrong.
But the damage had been done. As these fears took root and mass school shootings like the one at Columbine made headlines, not only did states enact law laws to increase punishment for juvenile offenders, schools began to adopt “zero-tolerance” discipline policies that imposed automatic, pre-determined punishments for rule breakers.
At the same time, states across America were adopting harsh criminal laws, including long mandatory prison sentences for certain crimes and “three strikes” laws that led to life sentences for repeat offenders. The term “zero tolerance” was, in fact, adopted from policing practices and criminal laws that focused on locking up minor offenders as a way to stem more serious crime.
Somewhere along the way, as local police departments began supplying on-duty “school resource officers” to patrol hallways, educators began to confuse typical adolescent misbehavior with criminality. Schools became, more or less, a part of the criminal justice system. With police officers stalking the halls and playgrounds, teachers and principals found it easy to outsource discipline. Almost overnight, a schoolyard scuffle could now land a kid in a jail cell.
The results have been disastrous.
In some school districts, as in many African-American communities, police seem to view students as the enemy, or at least as potential criminals.
In places like Birmingham AL, their tactics grew ever more extreme. Officers in this former steel city—where black schoolchildren braved police dogs and fire hoses during the civil rights movement—routinely doused students in predominantly African-American schools with Freeze + P, an aerosol weapon that combines pepper spray and tear gas.
LaTonya Stearnes vividly remembers when the chemical weapon was used on two of her daughters, one of whom is named as a plaintiff in an ongoing class action suit filed by the SPLC. The incident began after a boy pushed one of her daughters. When the girl defended herself, a police officer grabbed her from behind and sprayed her in the face. Her sister also was caught in the stinging mist. “I will never forget my daughter’s red and swollen face,” Stearnes said. “I sent my girls to school thinking they would be safe and protected. I never thought they would be pepper-sprayed. These are teenage girls, not criminals.”
But they were treated like criminals, as were many others. The SPLC found that from 2006 to 2011, chemical weapons were used on about 300 students in the Birmingham Public Schools district, which is 95% African American. When you take into account the bystanders inadvertently caught in a cloud of pepper spray, the number swelled to more than 1,000.
In Lauderdale County MS, children caught in the pipeline faced long odds in court.
They had little time to spend with their public defender before appearing for a detention hearing—just minutes, according to the DOJ lawsuit. The public defender did not even provide a way for a child or parent to contact him or her. Instead, meetings regularly took place in the courthouse hallway before a hearing.
It’s little wonder that the DOJ’s lawsuit charges that the public defender did not “meaningfully advise children of the possible consequences of admitting to charges or of proceeding to trial.” But Lauderdale County is just one example of the confusing legal maze children and their families are sometimes forced to navigate with little help.
Jody Owens is the managing attorney for the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Mississippi office.
Groove of the Day
60° Windy and Clear