Diagnosed as autistic, the sixth-grader was being scolded for misbehavior one day and kicked a trash can at Linkhorne Middle School in Lynchburg, Virginia, in the Blue Ridge Mountains. A police officer assigned to the school witnessed the tantrum, and filed a disorderly conduct charge against the sixth grader in juvenile court.
Just weeks later, in November, Kayleb, who is African-American, disobeyed a new rule — this one just for him — that he wait while other kids left class. The principal sent the same school officer to get him.
“He grabbed me and tried to take me to the office,” said Kayleb, a small, bespectacled boy who enjoys science. “I started pushing him away. He slammed me down, and then he handcuffed me.”
In an incident report, a teacher confirmed that the officer spoke to Kayleb, then grabbed him around the chest, and that Kayleb cursed and struggled. School officials won’t comment on this case, but say that police in schools are crucial to providing a safe atmosphere and protecting against outside threats.
Stacey Doss, Kayleb’s mother and the daughter of a police officer herself, was outraged. Educators stood by, she said, while the cop took her son in handcuffs to juvenile court. The officer filed a second misdemeanor disorderly conduct complaint. And he also submitted another charge, a very grown-up charge for a very small boy: felony assault on a police officer. That charge was filed, Doss said the officer told her, because Kayleb “fought back.”
“I thought in my mind — Kayleb is 11,” Doss said. “He is autistic. He doesn't fully understand how to differentiate the roles of certain people.”
To Doss’ shock, a Lynchburg juvenile court judge found Kayleb guilty of all those charges in early April, which could prove life-altering.
The young student’s swift trip into the criminal justice system might seem like a singular case of tough discipline. But he’s not alone.
In fact, US Department of Education data analyzed by the Center for Public Integrity show that Virginia schools in a single year referred students to law enforcement agencies at a rate nearly three times the national rate. Virginia’s referral rate: about 16 for every 1,000 students, compared to a national rate of six referrals for every 1,000 students. In Virginia, some of the individual schools with highest rates of referral — in one case 228 per 1,000 — were middle schools, whose students are usually from 11 to 14 years old.
The Education Department didn’t require that schools explain why, during the 2011-12 school year, they referred students to law enforcement. And a referral did not necessarily have to end in an arrest or charges filed, at least not immediately. But by definition, it did mean that students’ behavior was reported to police or courts.
The Center’s analysis found that in Delaware, special schools for troubled kids helped drive up that small state’s rate to second after Virginia. Florida ranked third.
The findings raise questions about what kind of incidents at school really merit police or court intervention, and provide fodder for a growing national debate over whether children, especially those in minority groups, are getting pushed into a so-called “school-to-prison pipeline” unnecessarily and unjustly. What’s happening in some schools seems almost directly at odds with guidance from the US Department of Education.
Preteens and police
In Virginia, interviews and police records obtained by the Center confirm that referrals of students to law enforcement have eventually turned into thousands of complaints filed in courts, many of them against preteens. The most frequent complaints are for disorderly behavior — allegations similar to those against Kayleb.
Virginia isn’t reliably tracing how many charges in juvenile courts statewide originate with school police. But some public defenders report they’re handling multiple cases with surprisingly harsh allegations against young students.
In southeastern Virginia, for instance, a 12-year-old girl was charged earlier this year with four misdemeanors — including obstruction of justice for “clenching her fist” at a school cop who intervened in a school fight.
Across the country, a movement away from harsh, discipline is gaining influence, especially in convincing authorities that out-of-school suspensions are counterproductive. But certain schools continue to allow police who patrol their hallways to serve as de facto disciplinarians, with arrest powers, for all manner of indiscretions that a generation ago would almost certainly have been handled by teachers or principals.
Every so often, headlines flare about school police injuring students with Tasers, or wrestling with them to take away cell phones. In Green County, Virginia, last October, a school cop handcuffed a 4-year-old who was throwing blocks and kicking at teachers and drove him to a sheriff’s department.
What draws less scrutiny, though, is the quiet stream of young students into courts.
For some kids, the process creates delinquency records that stigmatize them at school, and stick with them for years. Judges can order students to perform, as penance, community service, and to check in frequently with probation officers. They can order students to wear electronic monitors, or put kids into detention before and after a hearing. A later slip-up at school, such as using profanity, public defenders say, has sent kids back to court and into detention.
Judge Steven Teske, who presides over juvenile court in Clayton County, Georgia, saw a steady rise in cases from schools when he took the bench in 1999 — with 90 percent involving misdemeanor charges, such as disorderly conduct, disrespect and fighting. He wanted to stop it.
“It should come to no one’s surprise that the more students we arrested, suspended, and expelled from our school system, the juvenile crime rate in the community significantly increased,” Teske said at a US Senatesubcommittee hearing on school discipline in 2012. “These kids lost one of the greatest protective buffers against delinquency — school connectedness.”
Teske forged a “protocol” limiting arrests at schools, and he’s been urging other jurisdictions to do the same. Last October, he went to Richmond, Virginia, to spread the word with a group of local and state juvenile-justice officials.
That wasn’t long before Kayleb Moon-Robinson was arrested in Lynchburg.