I’m still shaking from watching the recently released video of a white, uniformed police officer violently body-slamming a 12-year-old Latina girl face-first into a brick walkway. You can hear a “crack” when her face slams into the brick.
The child was reportedly talking with another student when other kids gathered to see if there was an argument brewing. Officer Joshua Kehm apparently didn’t want to wait to see if the middle schoolers would indeed start arguing.
Kehm was fired after the video was released, but it’s the school-to-prison pipeline he represents that most deserves to be indicted. Officers like Kehm send thousands of children into the legal system each year for petty misbehavior at school — or, often, for no misbehavior at all.
Schools with embedded police officers — often euphemistically referred to as “School Resource Officers,” or SROs — see five times the number of arrests for “disorderly conduct” than schools without them. According to the Justice Policy Institute, in schools where SROs are allowed to arrest or refer children to the juvenile justice system, kids are getting criminal records for low-level status offenses — that is, offenses that are only illegal because of their status as a juvenile, including wildly subjective charges like “disruptive behavior.”
SRO policing happens primarily in low-income schools attended by children of color. While kids from financially stable families in predominantly white schools go to the principal’s office, kids from these poorer schools go to lock-up.
Worse still, these kids find themselves subject to the same kinds of violent police behavior that plagues the rest of the criminal justice system.
A similar disturbing video spread through social media last fall when an SRO threw a black girl across her classroom floor because she wouldn’t relinquish her cell phone. More violent video emerged from Baltimore, where a uniformed officer hit a black female student with a baton, inflicting injuries requiring ten stitches. Similar scenarios have played out in Florida and Virginia and, last October, in Oklahoma — where an SRO punched a teen in the head twice when he caught him in the hallway without a bathroom pass. The reality is that these incidents are far too common where police are given authority to discipline children in schools.
While juvenile detention rates have steadily decreased in the last two decades, arrests of children of color — especially black and Latina girls at schools — have not followed that same pattern. Black girls are experiencing the fastest growth in juvenile incarceration and the highest levels of middle school suspensions. And, as the African American Policy Forum reports, black girls also experience harsher sentences once in the juvenile system than any other demographic of girls.
Disabled and low-income black and Latino boys also continue to suffer suspensions, expulsions, and school referrals to the juvenile justice system disproportionately to their white peers.
These criminalizing, dehumanizing, and ineffective responses to childish behavior are the core the school-to-prison pipeline. And once a child has contact with the juvenile legal system, studies show it’s very hard for them to get out. The recidivism rate for juveniles is reported to be as high as 70 percent, with the initial detention being the most significant factor affecting recidivism.
The first thing we need to do is to get police out of schools. School administrators and counselors should be properly trained to treat trauma and address the complex stressors that more acutely affect children living in poverty. Policies should explicitly address the unique stressors and dangers to girls, particularly girls of color.
More broadly, in their efforts to address behavior that breaks or challenges school rules, schools should shift to restorative justice models that focus on relationship building among students, teachers, and administrators. Out-of-school suspensions and expulsions should be off the table. Schools should be nurturing, safe, learning environments — especially for our most at-risk student populations.
Deeper structural changes would include a fairer federal, state, and county tax system that stops the obscene income and wealth inequality that’s increasing the segregation of our schools by race and income. Adequate funding for housing, communities, schools, faculty, mental health, and public health are all necessary to stop the systematic abuse of our schoolchildren.
But first, get police out of schools — and keep their hands, batons, and cuffs off our children. Let’s be sure no more young girls are body-slammed face-first into brick walkways by uniformed officers in middle schools.