EJS Thwarts the School-to-Prison Pipeline

One unfortunate reality about U.S. education and the criminal justice system is that disproportionate suspensions and expulsions of children of color often lead these children into prisons and jails (the school-to-prison pipeline).

Nationally, zero-tolerance discipline has resulted in students of color (especially Black students), students with disabilities, LGBTQ youth, and trauma-affected children being disproportionately impacted by highly subjective discipline policies. These increasingly harsh discipline policies starting with suspensions and/or expulsions lead to a downward spiral into the criminal justice system.[i]

Students are nearly three times more likely to be in contact with the juvenile justice system the following year when exposed to a discretionary violation such as a suspension or expulsion. [ii]  Moreover, Black students represent 31 percent of school related arrests. [iii]  If you think rowdy older students receive the brunt of these disciplinary actions—you would be wrong.  Children in Pre-K are expelled at three times the rate of K-12 students.[iv]

We at Equal Justice Society work hard to create system-wide changes that help block the School-to-Prison Pipeline (STPP).  EJS was contacted by the Dolores Huerta Foundation about the disproportionality in the Kern High School District in Bakersfield, California. Located in California’s Central Valley, the 38,000-student Kern High School District is 62 percent Latino and 6.3 percent African American.

In 2009-10, KHSD reported the highest actual number of expulsions in California, even when compared to far larger school districts, such as the Los Angeles Unified School District. In 2014, KHSD expelled Latino students at a rate 350 percent higher than white students, and expelled Black students at a rate almost 600 percent higher than their white counter-parts.[v] To say the school-to-prison pipeline was pumping strongly then would be an understatement.

After meetings with parents, students, and community members (and consultation with the California Rural Legal Assistance (CRLA), the Mexican American Legal Defense Fund (MALDEF), the Greater Bakersfield Legal Assistance (GBLA), and Wilson, Sonsini, Goodrich & Rosati (WSGR) we met with the school administrators who refused to remedy the situation.  This led our coalition to file a lawsuit against the Kern High School District (KHSD) in October of 2014.

Our initial aim was to bring about district-wide changes to the disciplinary policies at the time that were contributing to those grave disparities and impacting large numbers of Black and Latino students.

After three years of litigation, we were able to reach a settlement with the KHSD in 2017 aimed at making those district-wide policy improvements a reality. In the course of the litigation, one student’s ordeal during this time demonstrated the urgent need for achieving a meaningful settlement.

This student’s experience demonstrated why EJS got involved in Bakersfield.  In doing so, we were able to help a young African American male student whose personal and academic future hung in the balance as a result of inappropriate actions of school teachers, administrators, and police officers ultimately working in concert to punish a vulnerable student. We were able to keep him out of juvenile hall, which often leads to jail and/or prison—the school-to-prison pipeline.

Sadly, this student’s experience is typical of the experiences of many students across the country who are effectively pushed out of their schools through ineffective and highly punitive disciplinary practices from adults.  Sharing this student’s story will highlight just how quickly a student’s life can be derailed by “zero tolerance” and other similarly punitive mentalities in school discipline. Additionally, it’s important to note that if lawyers at EJS had not stepped in, there would have been a very different outcome.

The affected student was a high school junior who was an African American male and a football player. On a Friday afternoon, the day of the incident, he arrived late to his final period class with a note from the principal’s office excusing his tardiness. Despite having a note, the teacher took issue with him being late to class and informed the student he would be marked absent for that class and that he should go back to the principal’s office.

Notably, the teacher was also aware that this student suffered from an anxiety issue and as a practice, the student’s mother had instructed her child to take a moment when necessary to get some water, catch his breath, and re-enter the classroom. Weeks prior, the mother informed the school that her son had been diagnosed with a severe anxiety issue and they needed an “IEP” (individual education plan) to support this student with his anxiety issues when he is in school.

The school never followed up with her request and now the student was being asked by his teacher to leave the classroom for being tardy. Seeing this as an unfair response, the student calmly requested he be marked present before leaving since he had a note. The teacher refused. By this point, the class period was almost over as the student tried to plead his case for being marked present.  This was of the utmost importance to him because he was a football player and an absent mark would interfere with his eligibility to play.  Instead of empathizing with the student, the teacher called a school resource officer and police officer with only five minutes remaining in the period.

The officers arrived quickly and demanded the student come with them. The student again tried to calmly plead his case for being marked present. What happened next would traumatize the student for the rest of his time at this school. The school police officer walked over to the student, knocked his desk away, instructed all other students to exit the classroom, and tazed the student in his arm while he was seated. The officer slammed him to the ground, put handcuffs on him, and then proceeded to taze the student a second time! The police officer then took him to the hospital and from there, straight to juvenile hall charging the student with assault and resisting arrest.

The arrest happened on a Friday afternoon. The student’s mother happened to be speaking with one of the community representative who then called us at EJS. By Monday, the school suspended him with recommendation for expulsion.

The school changed its mind about suspending the student—once I stepped in as his representative—and decided they should investigate the matter further.

The fruits of that investigation and witnesses revealed the school officer had used excessive force and thus the student’s recommendation for suspension and expulsion was overturned. Initially, the district attorney’s office decided not to pursue charges against the student either. Had I not stepped in, the charges would have likely stuck and he would be expelled right now with a criminal record.

Most kids don’t have lawyers on speed dial or even know who to contact when adults eager to exert power and authority over them act with impunity as to their welfare. How many students have naturally reacted with frustration in a moment of victimization and resultantly been charged with erroneous claims such as assaulting an officer or resisting arrest? Hint: There are way more incidents that the ones being captured in our current climate of video and audio recordings by bystanders.

Unfortunately, this would not be the extent of this student’s trauma. My representation of this student resulted in stopping his pushout from the school, and helped obtain accommodations for him to help counter the effects of a disability he was grappling with while trying to succeed in the classroom. But the ordeal of the police contact would continue on for another year.

That assistant district attorney I mentioned earlier was pushed by the officer to re-file charges against the student for a battery of the officer during the student’s arrest since the officer claimed he was kicked during the incident. Amazingly, this student would spend the next year interrupting his academic coursework to leave school and attend criminal court hearings to fight these charges.

A positive outcome did finally come however. Thanks to the help of an excellent public defender, the student was able to get the charges dropped against him, and the officer was admonished by the court for having wasted its time. Additionally, a civil lawyer was able to bring civil complaint against the officer and received an undisclosed financial award based on the evidence of the criminal proceeding.

While an amazing and welcomed result, this is rare. Still, for those of you considering whether or not you can do good as a lawyer or advocate, and/or questioning if what you do matters, hopefully the story above is just the evidence you need to stay in the fight.

We need more people with character and a commitment to serve and protect those communities that are regularly abused by so called “authority figures” and pushed into the criminal legal system with limited or no representation.

Victories like the one obtained by this student are too few and far between but do help keep me going. School discipline issues are not the only area demanding change. We must continue to fight in every nook and cranny where disparity and inequality persist.

As such, I’m proud to be a lawyer and proud to work alongside so many others committed to making this world a more equitable place for all! So to some of these kick-ass comrades and leaders like Dolores Huerta, Camilla Chavez, David Williams, Joey Williams, Erika M. Brooks, Lori De Leon, ShaQuia Jones, the Dolores Huerta Foundation, Faith in The Valley Kern, and the National Brotherhood Association–you inspire us all. #KeepFightingComrades

[i] See the Equal Justice Society’s “Breaking the Chains” Report available at https://equaljusticesociety.org/breakingthechains/

[ii] See the ACLU’s School-To-Prison Pipeline at https://www.aclu.org/issues/juvenile-justice/school-prison-pipeline/school-prison-pipeline-infographic

[iii] See the ACLU’s School-To-Prison Pipeline at https://www.aclu.org/issues/juvenile-justice/school-prison-pipeline/school-prison-pipeline-infographic

[iv] See the Equal Justice Society’s “Breaking the Chains 2” Report available at https://equaljusticesociety.org/2018/10/10/new-ejs-report-breaking-the-chains-2-the-preschool-to-prison-pipeline-epidemic/

[v] In 2014, the expulsion rate for African-Americans in KHSD was 110.21 per 1,000 students and Latinos were 65.85 per 1,000, compared to white students who were expelled at an average of only 18.70 per 1,000. See the original complaint which can be downloaded here: https://equaljusticesociety.org/2014/10/10/ejs-joins-crla-maldef-gbla-in-lawsuit-against-kern-high-school-district/