Reston, VA

Del. Ken Plum/File photoThis is an opinion piece by Del. Ken Plum (D), who represents Reston in Virginia’s House of Delegates. It does not reflect the opinion of Reston Now.

A report of the Center for Public Integrity (CPI) released last year included some eye-opening findings for Virginia. The Commonwealth leads the nation in student referrals to law enforcement, and minority students and students with disabilities are more likely to be suspended, expelled, or referred to law enforcement.

The CPI analyzed U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights (OCR) data to find that in 2011-12 (the most recent data available), the average rate of referrals is 6 for every 1,000 students nationwide. Virginia’s rate is 16 referrals per 1,000 students, or 17,863 students referred to law enforcement during that time period.

In the nationwide totals, African American students were 16 percent of U.S. enrollment but represent 27 percent of students referred to law enforcement. Special needs students were 14 percent of enrollment but are 26 percent of students referred to law enforcement.

As more public officers are assigned to schools, more behavior that in the past would have been handled as school discipline issues are turned into law enforcement matters. Resource officers assigned to schools for public safety and education purposes are being utilized as school police.

Appropriate programs to deal with children with minor offenses are limited in the criminal justice system. As the Just Children Program of the Legal Aid Justice Center of Virginia described “Virginia’s school-to-prison pipeline: Resource starvation, unaddressed academic failure, suspension and expulsion, and school policy are pushing students out of school and into the juvenile and criminal justice systems.”

The result, the Center says, is that “students are also being funneled from the school system to the already over-burdened justice system, often for typical adolescent misbehavior, such as disorderly conduct and truancy which should be handled by school officials…Ultimately, criminalizing student behavior makes schools less safe and damages communities.”

While a few of the more dramatic instances of school resource or security officers being heavy handed have gained attention in the media, what isn’t seen is the steady flow of students entering the legal system for what in the past would have been considered discipline problems and handled within the school. Escalation of response, particularly for younger children, can be counterproductive and set them on a path that increases their chances of further misconduct.

In the billion-dollar increase in education funding proposed by Gov. Terry McAuliffe is a million dollars to support Positive Behavior Interventions (PBI) programs that are designed to transform school climate by shifting attention to positive behavior and providing students with a tiered system of supports and resources.

In addition, Virginia has a $3.5 million federal grant for “School Climate Transformation” to reduce referrals to law enforcement. A “Classrooms not Courtrooms” initiative is also underway in Virginia to coordinate among agencies to do a better job of keeping youth out of the juvenile justice system unless absolutely necessary.

I will be working to ensure that the legislature supports these initiatives that are investments in our future. Classrooms are much less expensive than courtrooms and far more helpful.

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