Six-year-old Ja’Briel Weston was shackled by his ankle to a chair for disobeying his first-grade teacher. Two days later, he was apprehended by an armed security guard, dragged down a hallway and handcuffed to a chair for getting into a shoving match with another student. This didn’t happen at some medieval-age boarding school. It happened this year, this May, in New Orleans, at Sarah T. Reed Elementary School.
When Ja’Briel’s parents found out about this, his father, Sebastian Weston, met with the school’s principal, Daphyne Burnett, who not only confessed to the child cuffing but also said that she’d have it done again if the child got out of line. According to a legal complaint filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana, “When [Ja’Briel’s] father implored the school principal to stop these unconstitutional practices, she insisted that school policy required the arrests and seizures at the school.”
The juvenile-justice advocacy organizations are helping the father sue not only the school and its security officers but also the Recovery School District, the city’s public school system, for allowing the “required” policy to take shape. Since the incident, young Ja’Briel has suffered pain in his wrists and ankles, as well as longer-lasting harm to his emotional and psychological well-being. This is increasingly cruel, but unfortunately not unusual punishment, since New Orleans isn’t the only city to cuff a 6-year-old. But if there is a city that could do with less emotional pain, it is New Orleans, whose children in the thousands, displaced as a result of hurricanes Katrina and Rita, have bounced city to city, school to school, ever since.
It is also a city where one of the largest education-reform experiments anywhere is being implemented. But the officials at Sarah T. Reed will have to remind the nation why introducing children to Officer Friendly by way of cold, metal wrist restraints is a best practice for optimum learning environments. Data supporting such a claim do not exist. When young black boys like Ja’Briel aren’t being chained like criminals for petty behavior, they are being suspended and expelled from school at rates two to three times those of their white peers — often because of their race (pdf). Excessive punishment is being meted out more often to kids to whom breakfast is not given and for whom lunch is free because of their families’ poverty.
School administrators believe that they need to get tough on bad behavior, but there is little evidence that this is a deterrent. In New Orleans, schools struggle with a lack of resources to deal adequately with student populations that fluctuate with volatility, and include children with a range of stress disorders due to disasters. Just two years ago, Reed principal Burnett was featured in a PBS special in which she complained of overcrowding in her school.
“When you look at younger kids, out of anything they could have lost, it was the opportunity to have a stable learning environment,” said Burnett in the program. “You know, some of them, this is their first time going to school because Katrina hit.”
But instead of stable learning environments being created, it’s pipelines that are being created — pipelines to the penal institution. It begins with kids being handcuffed and suspended at early ages, and continues with them being locked up later in life. Students who are suspended early on (Ja’Briel was suspended shortly after the handcuff incident) are three times more likely to drop out before 10th grade, and drop-out status triples a child’s chances of ending up in jail later.