Criminalizing Kids

Published — February 9, 2016

Virginia bills would put limits on role of police in schools

The Virginia Capitol in Richmond, Va., Thursday, March 4, 2010. Steve Helber/AP

Legislation follows Center investigation of harsh punishments directed at even middle-schoolers


Virginia legislators are debating bills this week that would limit the role of school cops and prohibit charging K-12 students with “disorderly conduct” — a reaction to Center stories on unusually aggressive school policing there.

Among the reform proposals: a measure that would release school administrators from state code requirements that they report a range of incidents to police, including potential misdemeanors. Another bill under debate would strengthen the rights of students with disabilities if they’re charged with disorderly behavior and face prosecution in court.

Last April, the Center for Public Integrity published an investigation identifying Virginia as having the top rate of public school referrals of students to law enforcement agencies. Based on an analysis of 2011-2012 data collected by the U.S. Department of Education, Virginia’s rate of referring students to cops or courts was about three times the national rate of six referrals for every 1,000 students. Black students and those with disabilities were referred at even higher rates.

Criminal charges against Virginia students arrested at schools often fell heavily on middle-school kids and black students, the Center also found after examining local arrest records in some jurisdictions.

Among these students was Kayleb Moon-Robinson, an autistic sixth-grade student who was charged in the fall of 2014 with disorderly conduct for kicking a trash can after he became upset at his school in Lynchburg. The 11-year-old was also handcuffed, arrested and charged with felony assault on a police officer when he tried to break free from an officer’s grasp.

Kayleb’s story and other examples of the criminalization of young students were also featured in a report the Center produced in collaboration with Reveal, an investigative public radio program.

The Center investigation helped “generate a lot of talk—and now action,” said Jason Landberg, education attorney for the JustChildren Program of the Legal Aid Justice Center in Virginia.

JustChildren’s attorneys represent special-needs students in disputes over appropriate educational services at their schools. The lawyers have grown increasingly concerned that students are getting arrested and prosecuted for behavior at school that’s not uncommon for children their age, or conduct that stems from a disability. A number of conservative organizations in Virginia have also urged reforms to school policing, including doing away with disorderly conduct charges against students.

On Monday, three bills backed by JustChildren were referred to the full House Education Committee from the House Elementary and Secondary Subcommittee. The measures are scheduled to be heard in the full committee later this week.

One proposal, HB1061, sponsored by Henrico County Democrat Lamont Bagby, would require schools to consider “feasible alternatives” before referring students to law enforcement or expelling them. The proposed requirement would not apply to students accused of having firearms or certain other kinds of weapons at school.

Two other bills that also moved forward, HB 1132 and HB 1134, are sponsored by Republican Dave LaRock from Loudoun County.

LaRock’s HB 1132 would strike language from state code that some administrators interpret as a mandate that they report any possible misdemeanor to law enforcement. The other LaRock bill, HB 1134, would eliminate the option to charge elementary and secondary students with committing disorderly conduct at school or school events.

Another House bill that would also scale back the role of school police has already passed out of the House of Delegates with overwhelming bipartisan support. HB 487, which was approved on a 95-to-2 votes in the House, is sponsored by Jennifer McClellan, a Richmond Democrat.

McClellan’s bill amends language in state legislation that authorizes state grants to pay for school resource officers; the legislation currently requires such grant-funded officers—who are a minority of the state’s school cops—to enforce “school board rules and codes of school conduct.”

Striking this language, McClellan said, will provide more discretion to school administrators and officers so they don’t have to feel compelled to involve police in relatively minor violations of school rules.

“That’s not really the officers’ job,” McClellan said.

McClellan said she thinks another bill she is co-sponsoring—LaRock’s proposal to end disorderly conduct charges against students—could likely face amendments if it is to move on.

Legislators, she said, have discussed the idea of applying a prohibition on disorderly conduct charges to younger students only, or limiting the prohibition to cover only students enrolled at schools where an incident takes place. That way, she said, school officials could have some flexibility to react to a disruption created by minors who aren’t enrolled at a school but cause a disruption.

McClellan is co-sponsoring another bill related to school policing —HB 1213—along with David Albo, a Republican delegate from Fairfax Station.

Focused on special-needs students, that measure would require that students charged with “willfully disrupting” school be afforded the opportunity to submit special educational plans or behavior assessments as part of their defense in court. The minor, at least 10 days before trial, would have to inform prosecutors of the intent to use the documents as evidence and provide prosecutors with copies.

McClellan acknowledged that a number of her colleagues in Virginia legislature support a hard “law-and-order” line and are reluctant to embrace some of the proposals. “But this is an area I know has bipartisan support,” she said, referring to calls to reform school-policing policies.

After the Center report was published and aired last April, Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat, appointed a cabinet-level task force to come up with ideas for how to reform school policing. Last October, members of the task force said they were launching a “Classrooms, not Courtrooms” initiative to retrain all school police in the state and help schools embrace the use of alternative discipline methods.

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