Shutting Down the School-to-Prison Pipeline

Will an agreement in Broward County, Fla.—the nation’s seventh-largest school system—help stem the tide?

The 2005 arrest of a 5-year-old Florida girl sparked controversy.
The 2005 arrest of a 5-year-old Florida girl sparked controversy. Screenshot from the Early Show/CBS

Who could forget the alarming image of St. Petersburg, Fla., police officers clasping handcuffs around the wrists of Ja’eisha Scott, a 5-year-old African-American girl, as they placed her under arrest for throwing a tantrum at school?  

A video camera captured the incident on March 14, 2005, which took place at Fairmount Park Elementary School during a teacher’s self-improvement exercise, CBS News reports. Before police were called, the child could be seen ripping papers from a bulletin board, climbing on a table and hitting an assistant principal.

“Then it shows the child appearing to calm down before three officers approach,” CBS reports, “pin her arms behind her back and put on handcuffs as she screamed, ‘No!’ ”

Just cause? The parents, civil rights leaders and other advocates say no. The girl’s parents sued in a case that is emblematic of the intractable problem of overdisciplining African-American students in public school systems across the nation. In recent years, civil rights leaders, educators, concerned citizens and other activists have come together to develop voluntary programs to combat racial disparities in school discipline.

On Tuesday, Broward County Public Schools in Florida—one of the nation’s largest school districts—announced an agreement with law enforcement and the NAACP to establish alternatives to arrest for minor offenses on school grounds and end what has come to be known as the school-to-prison pipeline.

Under the agreement, students would not face arrest for a first nonviolent misdemeanor, but other infractions would result in different levels of school-based interventions, the NAACP reports. Law enforcement would become involved after a fifth incident. They would also handle felonies and serious threats, according to the NAACP.

Broward County, which is adjacent to Miami-Dade County, became the third school system in almost as many years to reach a voluntary agreement, according to Thena Robinson Mock, project director of Ending the Schoolhouse to Jailhouse Track Program for the Advancement Project, the Washington, D.C.-based civil rights organization that helped broker the agreement. Other school systems that have reached similar agreements include Denver and Clayton County, Ga., she said. School districts in Wichita, Kan.; Columbus, Ohio; and Birmingham, Ala., are just a few of many already following suit, NPR reports.

“We are seeing a trend of school systems and law enforcement voluntarily trying to tackle racial disparities in discipline,” Mock told The Root. “We hope to see this kind of broad coalition come together in communities around the country.”

Florida has been dealing with a vast school-to-prison pipeline for nearly a decade now. In 2005, when 5-year-old Ja’eisha was arrested, there were more than 29,000 school-related arrests, according to the Advancement Project. Now, nearly eight years later, students of color, students with disabilities and LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer) youths continue to be affected by harsh disciplinary measures. During the 2011-2012 school years, 71 percent of the 1,062 arrests were for misdemeanors, according to state data.