Kayleb Moon-Robinson and the School to Prison Pipeline

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Kayleb Moon-Robinson6th Grader Kayleb Moon-Robinson was found guilty of assault against a police officer.

Kayleb Moon-Robinsonis is a 6th grader in the Commonwealth of Virginia. He is also on the autism spectrum. In a moment of frustration, young Kaleb kicked a trashcan at his school in Lynchburg, Virginia.

You might imagine that Kaleb’s mom or dad was called in to a meeting with the principal for input on how to best deal with the situation. You may also imagine that some reasonable corrective measure may have been imposed, such as a short-term in-school suspension from extracurricular activities, or perhaps the youngster being made to spend some lunch time in a classroom writing “I will not kick a garbage can when I get angry” 100 times. You may also imagine Kaleb being put on notice that another such outburst may result in an “insubordination” mark being put on his record.1

According to a report from Public Radio International, a police officer assigned to the school witnessed the tantrum, “and filed a disorderly conduct charge against the sixth grader in juvenile court.”

A few weeks later, Kayleb – who happens to be African-American – disobeyed a command that he wait while other children left the classroom. The principal sent the very same same school officer to get him. What happened next is rather incredible, unless one keeps abreast of such things. According to PRI, “He grabbed me and tried to take me to the office,” said Kayleb. “I started pushing him away. He slammed me down, and then he handcuffed me.” The report continues on to explain,

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.”

In early April, according to PRI, a Lynchburg Juvenile Court Judge “found Kayleb guilty of all those charges in early April, which could prove life-altering.”

Somewhat more specifically, as ABC News affiliate WSET TV reported it, “a Lynchburg judge found Kayleb guilty of one disorderly conduct charge and of felony assault on a police officer.”

Lynchburg Juvenile Court Chief Judge Cary Payne, when asked by PRI to comment on the story, declined to do so.

When asked for comment from school officials in Lynchburg, WSET TV reporters encountered much the same thing; the school declined to comment in time for the story to air.

PUBLIC BACKLASH

Public Radio International reported that,

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.

Evidence of that movement away from harsh school discipline is reflected in the form of a petition on Change.org. As of 6 AM on April 24, 63,480 people had signed a petition asking that Kaleb’s case be overturned by Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe. Only another 11,520 names were needed at that time to attain the goal of 75,000. The petition explains that a felony charge has the potential for life-long repercussions:

Kayleb is a small boy who wears glasses and posed no real threat to the officer. He does not belong in the juvenile justice system just because he has a disability. That’s why Virginia Governor McAuliffe must pardon Kayleb — otherwise this felony will negatively impact his ability to obtain jobs, housing, and other opportunities in his future. For a 6th grader with autism, that’s just unfair.

The Autistic Self Advocacy Network has weighed in on the matter by issuing an ASAN Statement on #JusticeForKayleb. The organizations statement reads in part,

The Autistic Self Advocacy Network strongly condemns the conviction of Kayleb Moon-Robinson, a Black and autistic sixth-grader, for disorderly conduct and felony assault after kicking over a trash can at school and struggling to get away from a School Resource Officer. This was a minor incident which should have been handled by Kayleb’s teachers in accordance with his IEP. Kayleb does not belong in the juvenile justice system. ASAN calls upon Governor McAuliffe to pardon Kayleb and address what appears to be a systemic pipeline issue in Virginia in which students with disabilities, students of color, and most of all students of color with disabilities are moved from school into the juvenile justice and prison systems at alarming rates and increasingly early ages. ASAN also calls on the juvenile court to work with Kayleb’s attorney to prevent his placement in juvenile detention facility and help him transition back to his neighborhood school with appropriate supports.

The ASAN Statement continues on to explain, “Kayleb is not the only prominent story we’ve seen in Virginia in recent years. Both in Virginia and nationally, there is evidence of what many advocates call a school-to-prison pipeline: a systemic misapplication of school disciplinary procedures which disproportionately targets students of color, students with disabilities, and students of color with disabilities, resulting in harsher discipline and students being funnelled into the juvenile justice and prison systems at younger and younger ages.”

“Children with disabilities have a right to a free, appropriate public education in the least restrictive environment. When children like Kayleb are removed from their neighborhood schools – their least restrictive environment – and sent into juvenile detention facilities, they are deprived of these rights” the statement says.

These cases run contrary to the joint Department of Education and Justice Department School Discipline Guidance Package released in January of 2014.

A joint letter to school officials nationwide issued by the Department of Health and Human Services and the US Department Of Education in December of 2014 explains the rationale behind the new guidelines:

The earliest years of a child’s life are critical for building the foundation of learning and wellness needed for future success in school and later in life. During these years, children’s brains are developing rapidly, influenced by their experiences, both positive and negative. As a nation, we share the responsibility of ensuring that all of our young children have access to enriching opportunit ies that will set them up for success and empower them to be our future leaders. By expelling or suspending 3- and 4-year-olds, we do just the opposite-we set their trajectories in a negative direction, before their first day of kindergarten. We not only hinder their social-emotional development during a highly formative period, we also remove them from the early learning programs-and corresponding cognitively enriching experiences-that we know contribute to academic success.

As Susan Ferris of the Center for Public Integrity explained it in an article released as the new guidelines were announced, “The package is intended to help schools chart new practices. Federal officials also emphasize that educators are obliged not to violate students’ civil rights when punishing them. The package also provides resources for school police training and employee training in discipline techniques considered more productive than ejecting kids.”

U.S Attorney General Eric Holder explained at that time that: “A routine school disciplinary infraction should land a student in the principal’s office, not in a police precinct.”

Last December WVTF Public Radio reported on the case of a four-year-old child with attention deficit disorder who caused a ruckus in the pre-K classroom, “and when the principal could not restore calm, the local sheriff handcuffed the child and took him away in a squad car.”

Tracy Wood, the child’s mother, was notified and arrived at the school soon thereafter. When she arrived, the principal told her that her son had been transported to the sheriff’s office.

When Wood arrived at the Sheriff’s office, she found her son’s legs bound in shackles.

“Once he got inside the office, since he tried to run and kick the deputies, they took the handcuffs off him and put the leg shackles on him,” said Smith to WVTF.

Tracy Wood says her son was suspended from school indefinitely, and that he suffers from nightmares as a result of his encounter.

That particular incident occurred at Nathanael Greene Primary School, in Greene County, Virginia.

In southeastern Virginia, a 12-year-old girl was charged with four misdemeanors — including obstruction of justice for “clenching her fist” at a school police officer who intervened in a school fight.

While there are far-too-many bad judges presiding over the juvenile courts, effectively sanctifying the actions of the school districts and the child protection agencies that they work hand-in-glove with, there are some acceptations to thet rule.

Judge Teske Testimony

One such acceptation is Judge Steven C. Teske, Chief Judge of the Clayton County Juvenile Court in Georgia. In 2012 he provided testimony before the Senate Subcommittee on The Constitution, Civil Rights, and Human Rights Subcommittee Hearing on ““Ending the School to Prison Pipeline.”2

In his testimony he sought “to define zero tolerance and how it is used in school systems to push kids out of school and into the juvenile and adult justice systems, creating a ‘School-to-Prison Pipeline’ using his home county of Clayton as a case study.

Among the more significant observations that he shared was that the problem started well before the Columbine High School shooting, which is frequently – but erroneously – credited by child advocates as being the genesis of the problem. As Judge Teske explained it:

When I took the bench in 1999, I was shocked to find that approximately one-third of the cases in my courtroom were school-related, of which most were low risk misdemeanor offenses. Upon reviewing our data, the increase in school arrests did not begin until after police were placed on our middle and high school campuses in 1996—well before the horrific shootings at Columbine High School. The year before campus police, my court received only 49 school referrals. By 2004, the referrals increased over 1,000 percent to 1,400 referrals, of which 92% were misdemeanors mostly involving school fights, disorderly conduct, and disrupting public school.

Read that statement once again, if need be, to erase that myth from your mind once and for all. To be sure, the Columbine High School incident was a tremendous tragedy – one that should never have occurred – however it did not precipitate the current crisis. To the extent that the incident had any impact at all, it was that of accelerating a school policing effort that was already well underway.

FOLLOW THE MONEY

When something doesn’t quite seem to make sense, always follow the money.

That’s what the Vera Institute for Justice did, as it explains in a 2013 Issue Brief. “The changes began in the late 1980s and quickly gained momentum, fueled in large part by rising rates of juvenile arrests for violent crimes and a climate in which young people were increasingly seen as dangerous. Feeling pressure to do something, Congress applied the rhetoric and intention of tough-on-crime laws to the school environment and passed the Gun-Free Schools Act in 1994,” the Institute explains.

To qualify for federal education funds, states had to enact laws requiring school districts to expel any student who brought a gun to school. But the federal incentives did not end there, as the Institute explains:

As early as the 1996–97 school year, 79 percent of schools had adopted zero tolerance policies for violence, going beyond federal mandates. To put some muscle behind these policies, the federal government and states began to increase funding for security guards and other school based law enforcement officers and later to install metal detectors. Between the 1996–97 and 2007–08 school years, the number of public high schools with full-time law enforcement and security guards tripled. This shift in school disciplinary policy and practice mirrored changes in the juvenile justice system to make it more closely resemble the adult system.

The arbitrarily harsh and punitive environment that has resulted from these policies invites truancy because it frightens so very many young children. A truancy finding, in turn, opens the door to a potential filing under the rubric of a “child in need of supervision,” “child in need of services,” or a similar legal maneuver. Naturally, this opens to door to additional federal funding streams under title IV-D and IV-E. Regardless of the precise point of entry into the system, once a child is enveloped by it, it threatens to ensnare the child for a lifetime.

In the final analysis, it hardly matters whether the child is dragged out of school in handcuffs by the police, or dragged out of the school by a child protective services caseworker dutifully seeking a court order for needed “services” for the aberrant child. In either case, the child winds up in the same system.


1. When I was in high school, a student was marked for “insubordination” – a catchall phrase in common usage at the time – for the offence of eating an ice cream sandwich in the hallway. His parents had an attorney on retainer who went into the school demanding that school officials change the official record from “insubordination” to “eating ice cream sandwich in hallway.”

2. Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights, Ending the School-to-Prison Pipeline, December 12, 2012.

Related

Center for Public Integrity. “Virginia tops nation in sending students to cops, courts: Where does your state rank?” April 10, 2015.

Lifting the Veil: Zero Tolerance Programs. Article provides a history of zero tolerance programs, and includes links to several related studies.