In December, 2012, a teenager went to his public school, much like any other day. The boy was an autistic special education student, who is significantly learning disabled and on a regimen of prescription medications for a number of psychiatric disorders. That day, the boy’s parents began to worry when he did not come home after school.
What the parents did not know was that early on that morning, armed police officers had entered the boy’s classroom, handcuffed him, and had taken him away to be interrogated without a call to his parents or any attorney, then locked up for several days.
The boy is our son.
The police action at the school was part of a “sting operation”, which was secretly brought into local school district classrooms, with the assistance of key school administrators. Their goal was “identifying and purchasing illegal drugs from persons dealing”.
The problem is, our son is not and never was a drug dealer.
There were plenty of news articles about how the sheriff’s department heroically took down the 22-student “drug ring, with a picture of a kid being led away in handcuffs. The kid in the picture is our son.
And of course, the district was happy to tout their zero tolerance policy to the press, though zero tolerance has its fair share of critics, especially as relates to minorities and students with disabilities.
Many have linked the growth of the pipeline to zero-tolerance policies that removed educators’ discretion over how to properly respond to student misbehavior. The unintended effects of severe school discipline, often for minor infractions, include further alienation from the school setting, decreased graduation rates, and increased interaction with the criminal justice system.
Data shows the burden of this trend falls disproportionately on students of color and students with disabilities, who are punished more harshly and more frequently for the same infractions other kids engage in. According to national data from the Department of Education, African American students are 3 1/2 times more likely than their white peers to be suspended—and while they represented just 18 percent of the students in the sample, they accounted for 39 percent of expulsions. Of the total students arrested or referred to law enforcement nationally, 70 percent were Latino or African American. A groundbreaking study in Texas also found racial disparities in disciplinary decision.
Students with disabilities are also subjected to overly punitive discipline at far higher rates than their peers. In fact, they are more than twice as likely to receive one or more out-of-school suspensions. And while they were only 12 percent of the students sampled by the Department of Education in their most recent data collection, they made up 70 percent of those subject to physical restraints. Both African American students and students with disabilities are also disproportionately subjected to the violent practice of corporal punishment.
On that very bad day, our son was arrested and handcuffed, in his classroom, in front of the other students, at approximately 8:30 a.m. We knew nothing about the arrest until around 3:45 p.m., after he didn’t arrive home from school. After a series of frantic phone calls to the school, I spoke to the school’s principal who then informed me of the arrest, with very few details, and a recommendation to contact the sheriff’s department for more details.
During the time that had elapsed between his arrest, and our learning of the arrest, our son had been interrogated, without having been allowed to contact us. And of course, he had no attorney present.
Persuading personnel at the detention center to allow us to speak on the phone with our son was a challenge. And not until my wife notified the detention center’s nurse that our son was going to require his round of medications each night and morning, and that it is documented that he engages in self-injurious behavior when his stress levels are elevated, were we allowed to speak with him.
We were not allowed to see him until day three, when he appeared in court, the same day as the other kids who had just been made participants in the school to prison pipeline.
The School to Prison Pipeline (STPP) is a nationwide system of local, state, and federal education and public safety policies that pushes students out of school and into the criminal justice system. The system disproportionately targets youth of color and youth with disabilities. Inequities in areas such as school discipline, policing practices, high-stakes testing, wealth and healthcare distribution, school “grading” systems, and the prison-industrial complex all contribute to the Pipeline.
The STPP operates directly and indirectly. Directly, schools send their students into the Pipeline through zero tolerance policies, and involving the police in minor discipline incidents. All too often school rules are enforced through metal detectors, pat-downs and frisks, arrests, and referrals to the juvenile justice system. And schools pressured to raise graduation and testing numbers can sometimes artificially achieve this by pushing out low-performing students into GED programs and the juvenile justice system.
Indirectly, schools push students towards the criminal justice system by excluding them from the learning environment and isolating them from their peer groups through suspension, expulsion, ineffective retention policies, transfers, and high-stakes testing requirements.
Special education students represent 8.6% of public school students, but 32% of youth in juvenile detention nationwide.
Our son has great difficulties making friends, which is one of the hallmarks of those with autism spectrum disorders (ASD), so my wife and I were thrilled when we learned, this past August, that our son had a new friend named Daniel. We had recently moved, and our son had just begun a new school year in a new school, within his same district, so to us, this new friendship seemed like a gift from the gods. Daniel was texting our son at a furious rate, yet each time we had our son invite Daniel over, there always seemed to be an excuse.
Daniel and our son had struck up a relationship in a class that they shared, and cell phone records show that during the course of a short period of time, our son received 59 texts from Daniel’s number. Daniel was an undercover cop.
While there are some limitations to the information I can share, here is what I can provide at this time:
There are two components at play; the criminal and the educational.
On the criminal side, a judge ruled last week that my son’s case will be dismissed after 6 months with no finding of guilt.
On the educational side, the district is attempting to permanently expel my son from all of their district schools. We have an expedited due process hearing scheduled against the district, and a favorable ruling would likely place our son back in his school, which is what he strongly desires. The first three days of the due process will occur next week. Without revealing more than I am able at this time, we believe we have a very strong case, and excellent legal representation. We also have made a rare move, in that we have opened the hearing to the press and the general public. We do have confirmation that the press will be present.
The district has shared that only three people within the district knew about the undercover operation while it was occurring, the Board President, the Superintendent, and the Director of Child Welfare and Attendance. Each time the petition at this link is signed, those three people, as well as all other board members receive the petition in their email. This puts them on notice that their actions in this matter will not remain a secret.
One final thought. Our son has been hurt, and much has been taken from him, including his ability to feel safe, and his ability to trust. We will never forget, we will never give up on our son, and we will never stop seeking justice.