An eighth grader was allegedly arrested and detained for six days for throwing Skittles on a school bus. During his arrest, the officer involved said he’d “beat the fuck out of [the student]” if they were the same age, according to a letter from the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) to the Department of Justice (DOJ). The letter also claims that this incident was just one of many egregious arrests of black students in a Louisiana school district.
Between 2013–2014, black students were subjected to 448–80 percent — of arrests and law enforcement referrals in Jefferson Parish Public Schools System (JPPSS), the letter explains, but they only accounted for 41.5 percent of students in the district. Most of the disciplinary actions involved non-violent, low-level offenses. For instance, a seventh grade student was arrested, detained, and suspended for cursing and yelling. In a separate incident, police were called when a 9-year-old girl with numerous mental disorders, including anxiety and ADHD, had a tantrum. Similarly, police were called to engage an autistic fourth grade student in the middle of an episode. When officers arrived and found her in a tree, they grabbed her by the ankles and dragged her down, before handcuffing and kneeling on top of her. At the time, the unnamed student had trouble breathing because grass and dirt were in her face, and she was screaming in pain.
Last week, the SPLC called on the DOJ to step in — three years after the organization filed two separate complaints against JPPSS for discrimination against black and Latino students. The first was issued in response to the high arrest rate of black students for minor crimes — such as walking in a hallway without a hall pass. Between 2010–2011, African Americans were involved in 76 percent of arrests but made up 46 percent of the student body. Another 416 black students were arrested the next year. The second complaint, filed months later, involved 16 Latino students who were routinely harassed about their immigration status, even though the ability to attend and graduate from public schools isn’t contingent on citizenship status.
The Department of Education launched its own investigation of JPPSS, but the SPLC contends the problem has worsened since 2012.
“The Jefferson Parish Public School System has continued its destructive practice of arresting and jailing children for minor, and often trivial, violations of school rules and decorum,” managing attorney for the SPLC’s Louisiana branch, Eden Heilman, said in a press release. “If law enforcement officers are on school grounds at all, they should be there in a very limited capacity — to protect children in the unlikely event of some kind of violent attack.”
JPPSS is currently signed on to a $600,000 contract with the Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office, and ten Police Officers on Campus (POCs) — paid full-time salaries — are stationed at nine of the district’s schools. However, the contract states “POC shall not act as a school disciplinarian” and there is no detailed framework for what constitutes a criminal offense.
The public school system is one of many that relies heavily on law enforcement for disciplinary action and disproportionately targets black students for minor offenses, including dress code violations. Students who encounter the criminal justice system are more likely to offend in the future, in what’s known as the school-to-prison pipeline. Zero-tolerance policies that increase the likelihood of arrest, as well as suspension and expulsion, also have adverse effects on student learning and school safety.
In 2014, the Department of Justice issued guidance to reduce the overcriminalization of school children. “During critical years that are proven to impact a student’s later chances for success, alarming numbers of young people are suspended, expelled, or even arrested for relatively minor transgressions like school uniform violations, schoolyard fights, or showing “disrespect” by laughing in class,” said former Attorney General Eric Holder.