01/11/2012

SPLC Challenges Racial Disparities in Arrests of African-American Students in a Louisiana School District

A 15-year-old boy was horsing around with a classmate at a middle school in Metairie, La., when a teacher mistook the roughhousing for a real fight. At the principal’s office, the eighth-grader argued and made the mistake of yelling at school officials. A police officer intervened, roughly pushing his arm behind his back until the boy heard a loud pop and felt immediate pain.

The boy was arrested and taken to a juvenile detention center. Later, doctors discovered his arm was broken. Fearing further retaliation from the officers, he has not returned to school since the incident last November.

This criminalization of ordinary school misbehavior is not uncommon at the Jefferson Parish Public School System, located in the New Orleans suburbs. In fact, it’s the norm – and African-American students are disproportionately targeted for arrest.

Today, the SPLC filed a federal civil rights complaint on behalf of the boy, identified as “K.D.” in the complaint, and three other African-American students who faced similar treatment at the hands of police officers stationed in Jefferson Parish schools.

The complaint, filed with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights, outlines the widespread and disproportionate number of arrests of students of color for violating school rules. Though African-Americans make up just 46 percent of the district’s student population, they comprised 76 percent of the 453 school arrests during the 2010-11 school year and the same percentage of the 708 arrests during the previous year.

“Racial disparities and bias in school arrests are a cause of the school push-out crisis facing African-American students in Jefferson Parish public schools,” said Katie Schwartzmann, managing attorney for the SPLC’s Louisiana office.

Studies have clearly shown that suspensions, expulsions and arrests are intrinsically linked to school dropout and diminished academic performance, the complaint notes.

School officials have given armed police “unfettered authority to stop, frisk, detain, question, search, and arrest schoolchildren on and off school grounds” in violation of the children’s civil rights and school district policy, the complaint says. Many of the arrests are for minor misbehavior – often not involving criminal misconduct – and should be handled by school personnel rather than police officers. In fact, 70 percent of the school arrests over the past two years were “dismissed, refused, or diverted by the courts.”

The SPLC complaint outlines these other incidents involving African-American students: 

  • A 15-year-old girl in Kenner was handcuffed and arrested for “disturbing the peace” and “obstructing justice” after skipping class. She said an officer used profanity and a racial epithet. Her grades have suffered since the humiliating incident last September.

 

  • A 14-year-old boy who attends special education classes in Kenner was handcuffed and humiliated in front of his classmates after becoming upset when his cell phone was confiscated by school officials. He remained in handcuffs for nearly an hour and was subjected to racially charged language. An officer called him a “punk” who “wouldn’t amount to anything more than a white chalk outline.”

 

  • An 18-year-old special education student in Kenner was arrested, handcuffed and taken to an adult jail, where he remained overnight, after he couldn’t produce a hall pass, even though he had a teacher’s permission to leave class and call his mother. He dropped out of school a few months after the incident in September.

 

The SPLC complaint says that police and sheriff’s officers stationed in schools lack adequate training to work a school environment. Their curriculum, it says, “contains no meaningful lessons on child and adolescent development, de-escalation techniques, behavioral precautions for students with special needs or guidance on securing the trust and cooperation of students.” While on campus, uniformed officers carry  firearms, tasers, batons and handcuffs.

“The ultimate purpose of school discipline is to teach and reform – not to send students down a path to the jailhouse,” said Thena Robinson-Mock, an attorney on the case for the SPLC. “The Jefferson Parish Public School System needs to invest in effective discipline strategies and stop criminalizing minor school misconduct.”

The complaint asks the U.S. Department of Education to investigate the students’ claims; compel the district to overhaul its school arrest policies and practices; ensure that African-American students are not unfairly targeted for arrest; monitor and track police incidents; and require the district to implement alternative discipline strategies to reduce arrests and law enforcement interactions with students.

The SPLC is dedicated to reforming broken school and juvenile justice systems that derail young lives. These efforts, which include litigation and grassroots campaigns, are focused in Alabama, Florida, Louisiana and Mississippi – four of the states where children are most at risk of being pushed out of school and ending up in the juvenile justice system.

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