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Lawmakers Keep Making Schools More Dangerous for Vulnerable Children

Instead of decriminalizing our schools, too many teachers and school police continue to escalate.
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At the end of January, a seven-year-old Latino boy in Miami, Florida, was arrested and led away from his school in handcuffs. School officials alleged that he had been playing with his food, was scolded, reacted badly, and ended up attacking his teacher. That's not great behavior, but he's a small child and posed no real risk. Rather than asking why the incident escalated and how they could change the environment to avoid such incidents, school police simply took him to prison. Later, police told his father that the boy was a "danger to society" and used the Baker Act to involuntarily commit him.

These incidents are sadly typical. We only know about this story because his mother took a video of him being led away in handcuffs. It got media attention for a day or two, then vanished from public attention.

We're not making much progress on slowing the school-to-prison pipeline. Videos of these incidents go viral and receive coverage, and then go away, even as more and more people are aware of the "pipeline" in general and the ways in which it adversely entraps vulnerable children: those of color, those with disabilities, those living in poverty. Children who are multiply marginalized—disabled children of color in general, and especially those kids whose communication strategies are deemed atypical or threatening—experience the highest risks. We know this. Teachers, administrators, politicians, and advocates know this and have for years. The rates of suspensions, arrests, and the shunting of vulnerable children into the criminal and legal system have not been significantly declining. Even when the cases of individual children receive national attention, those children often remain entangled in the system long after the media spotlight shifts away. Meanwhile, in the wake of school shootings, politicians are pushing policies that would only intensify the carceral nature of American schools.

A number of the cases I've covered in the past year come from Florida. According to a study from the Center for Investigative Reporting, Florida schools rank third in the country in their rate of referring students to law enforcement. Some parents have responded by becoming skilled at deploying videos and photos on social media to document the abuse going on in the schools. That's how I first became aware of Seraph and Ashton, two autistic children of color in Florida schools. They both encountered sudden and violent escalation from staff and school police in response to non-threatening non-compliant behavior. Before that, I wrote for CNN about the arrest of another Florida child, this one a 10-year-old white autistic boy named John Benjamin Haygood. His mother filmed him sobbing as he was taken to a police car.

A year later, Haygood's story is getting worse, not better. A few weeks ago, he was charged with four additional felonies for incidents dating to 2015. It's hard to imagine a more sympathetic and widespread news campaign than the one sparked by this child's mother: a powerful video, international coverage, an incident that started with literally throwing paper, a sympathetic white child who's suffering. The media coverage, alas, has proven meaningless. Prosecutor Ashley Albright seems determined to get the family to take a plea deal. Albright told local news that he's only adding the charges because the case "has dragged on so long," an admission that he's trying to use inflated charges to force the family to plead guilty.

Each of these incidents started with mild behavior: playing with food, clicking a computer keyboard loudly, joking loudly with a friend, throwing paper balls in the classroom. When the students didn't immediately comply with teacher directions to stop, the teacher escalated, encountered further resistance, and eventually called in school law enforcement.

Of course, it's not just Florida where this pattern of escalation and punishment, born of what I call the "cult of compliance," plays out. The Center for American Progress issued an important study of pre-school suspensions for disabled children last January. CAP found that "children with any disability or social-emotional challenge make up only 13 percent of the preschool population, but they constitute 75 percent of all early suspensions and expulsions. A similar pattern of overrepresentation can be found across all disability conditions." Later in the study, the author notes that these patterns intensify when we add variables such as race and poverty. A recent report by the National Center for Special Education in Charter Schools notes that suspension rates in both public and charter schools have fallen slightly as of the most recent data for disabled children as a percentage of total suspensions, but are still disproportionately high.

Suspensions and arrests are just the leading edge of a broader deployment of violence against marginalized children. As Laura Dowart covered for Pacific Standard, children are often excluded from their peers through isolation boxes and restraint systems. In some cases, children are being placed in 4x4 padded boxes for hours without consent. Children in schools are still beaten (a process euphemistically called "corporal punishment," but let's be clear—these are intended to change behavior through pain). Others are restrained in a prone position, pinned on their stomachs with their arms and legs pulled back, a practice that can be lethal.

Don't expect much help from Betsy DeVos' Department of Education. DeVos oversaw the rescinding of disability rights guidelines for schools last fall. She's also a supporter of voucher programs for special education (and for all other education), which enable parents to send their children with disabilities to private schools. These programs make sense as an option in a robust educational system. Unfortunately, as reported by the General Accounting Office in December, private schools often don't inform parents that the vouchers require surrendering a child's rights to a "free and appropriate public education" under the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act. When a private school fails to provide a good education or appropriate services, parents then have little recourse to the law.

Meanwhile, the whole GOP is joining DeVos in making things worse. After the Parkland killings, Republicans started touting the idea of putting more cops into schools and arming teachers. The pushback was swift, as school justice advocates argued that either measure would increase the likelihood that, when staff respond to non-compliance through escalation, more of them would have a tool that enables lethal force. In The Intercept, Patrick Blanchfield wrote: "Inserting guns into classrooms with the stipulation that they be used for only one purpose and against only one (very rare) target—active school shooters—is delusional. Giving educators the tools and prerogative to exercise lethal force against a specific threat will make far more tragic outcomes not only possible, but inevitable." 

In the run-up to passing a "school safety bill," Florida Republicans prioritized security over gun control. The lawmakers did raise the age limit for purchasing firearms to 21 and made it easier to seize guns—both good measures, even as they refused to ban assault rifles. It's possible that the millions in new funding for mental-health supports will be a net positive for Florida's children with psychiatric needs, but I am skeptical. There's no statistical connection between mental illness and gun violence and we've already seen, with the seven-year-old boy, how the Baker Act can be misused against children. Further, although lawmakers stepped back from allowing any teacher to carry guns in school, Florida Republicans are still backing Trump's "school marshal program." Under the state's new law, full-time teachers would not be eligible to go armed, but "school personnel, including support staff who provide some instructional work, would be able to carry firearms." Right-wing lawmakers voted down an amendment permitting parents to remove their child if someone other than a police officer is armed. Guns in Florida schools are now mandatory.

We need to demilitarize and decriminalize our schools and, indeed, our whole society. That work goes beyond any single policy related to guns, suspensions, detentions, or cops in schools. The efforts must include transformative, justice-based campaigns against racism, ableism, classism, and other intersecting forms of oppression. In the meantime, though, there’s a seven-year-old being treated as a danger to society, a 10-year-old facing multiple felony charges, and lawmakers who see no solutions to violence in schools beyond adding more and more guns.