More Overaggressive Policing: A School-to-Prison Pipeline

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October 20, 2014; Wall Street Journal

While some nonprofits are understandably focused on excessive police violence against young black men resulting in shootings and deaths, others are bringing attention to the overuse of police tactics to deal with school problems that may not really warrant tickets, arrests, arrest records, and incarceration. Gary Fields and John R. Emshwiller in the Wall Street Journal report on dealing with school discipline problems though policing—problems that don’t sound like they warrant that kind of response. They write about a seventh-grader in Mississippi charged with disturbing the peace as a result of a minor hallway altercation, a Wisconsin teen charged with theft for sharing a classmate’s chicken nuggets, a Florida kid hit with a felony weapons charge due to a science experiment that didn’t go well (the otherwise tried-and-true volcano), and, perhaps the most surprising, a Texas student given a misdemeanor ticket for wearing too much perfume.

Some of it sounds silly, except that these events end up as police records, haunting kids potentially for the rest of their lives. Emanating from the “zero-tolerance” policies that many schools adopted, what was once directed at excessive school violence has now devolved into getting police and the courts involved in what should be minor infractions dealt with by teachers and administrators themselves. It is no longer a matter of getting held in detention after school as a result of mouthing off to teachers, but now getting called on the carpet by the police.

The Advancement Project, a nonprofit co-led by longtime civil rights activist Judith Browne Dianis (with founder Penda D. Hair), has been one of the nation’s leaders in challenging the criminalization of school discipline problems, sometimes intervening in specific egregious cases. In the Mississippi example, 12-year-old Rashe France was involved in a hallway shoving incident. School administrators called in the police, who charged France with endangering the safety of other students. The Youth Court tossed the case out for lack of evidence. But what was the impact on the kid, a 12-year-old, after a hallway shoving incident with no punches thrown, ending up at a police station? Even though the case against the kid has been dismissed, France’s grandfather worries that his grandson’s purportedly sealed police record might be surfaced when the boy applies to college or later in life for jobs.

The WSJ article covers the landscape of the issue quite well, but the “Ending the Schoolhouse to Jailhouse Track” program of the Advancement Project is worth discussion and analysis of how a nonprofit advocacy organization constructs a campaign on an educational discipline policy issue with specific roles for and understanding of the perspectives of students, parents, educators, the law enforcement community, and other activists. The nonprofit sector needs to understand issues such as the schoolhouse-to-jailhouse pipeline and the campaign strategies used by outstanding nonprofit advocacy organizations such as the Advancement Project to spur policy change in school districts, states, and at the federal level.—Rick Cohen