Kayleb Moon-Robinson was 11 years old last fall when charges — criminal charges — began piling up at school.
Diagnosed as autistic, Kayleb was being scolded for misbehavior one day and kicked a trash can at Linkhorne Middle School in Lynchburg, Virginia, in the Blue Ridge Mountains. A police officer assigned to the school witnessed the tantrum, and filed a disorderly conduct charge against the sixth grader in juvenile court.
Just weeks later, in November, Kayleb, who is African-American, disobeyed a new rule — this one just for him — that he wait while other kids left class. The principal sent the same school officer to get him.
“He grabbed me and tried to take me to the office,” said Kayleb, a small, bespectacled boy who enjoys science. “I started pushing him away. He slammed me down, and then he handcuffed me.”
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.”
“I thought in my mind — Kayleb is 11,” Doss said. “He is autistic. He doesn't fully understand how to differentiate the roles of certain people.”
To Doss’ shock, a Lynchburg juvenile court judge found Kayleb guilty of all those charges in early April, which could prove life-altering.
The young student’s swift trip into the criminal justice system might seem like a singular case of tough discipline. But he’s not alone.
In fact, U.S. Department of Education data analyzed by the Center for Public Integrity show that Virginia schools in a single year referred students to law enforcement agencies at a rate nearly three times the national rate. Virginia’s referral rate: about 16 for every 1,000 students, compared to a national rate of six referrals for every 1,000 students. In Virginia, some of the individual schools with highest rates of referral — in one case 228 per 1,000 — were middle schools, whose students are usually from 11 to 14 years old.
The Education Department didn’t require that schools explain why, during the 2011-12 school year, they referred students to law enforcement. And a referral did not necessarily have to end in an arrest or charges filed, at least not immediately. But by definition, it did mean that students’ behavior was reported to police or courts.
The Center’s analysis found that in Delaware, special schools for troubled kids helped drive up that small state’s rate to second after Virginia. Florida ranked third.
The findings raise questions about what kind of incidents at school really merit police or court intervention, and provide fodder for a growing national debate over whether children, especially those in minority groups, are getting pushed into a so-called “school-to-prison pipeline” unnecessarily and unjustly. What’s happening in some schools seems almost directly at odds with guidance from the U.S. Department of Education.
U.S. Department of Education data shows that in most states black, Latino and special-needs (disabled) students get referred to police and courts disproportionately. The volume of referrals from schools is fueling arguments that zero tolerance policies and school policing are creating a “school-to-prison pipeline” by criminalizing behavior better dealt with outside courts. The Center for Public Integrity ranked states by their rate of referral for every 1,000 students.
To read more about Kayleb, the 'School-to-Prison Pipeline', and to find out how your state ranks follow the link here: Virginia tops nation in sending students to cops, courts: Where does your state rank?