Handcuffing 6-Year-Olds in New Orleans? Seriously?
School officials shackled Ja'Briel Weston to a chair for being disobedient. Two days later, they did it again. Now his father is suing. Why we should all be concerned.
In the report "Pushed Out, Harsh Discipline in Louisiana Schools Denies the Right to Education" (pdf), published by Families and Friends of Louisiana's Incarcerated Children, a disturbing picture is painted of disparate discipline practices in New Orleans schools: Suspensions in the Recovery School District are among the highest in the state, with some 186 out-of-school suspensions from just 33 schools handed out each week. The district's suspension rate, 28.8 percent, is four times the national rate. Of the students the organization surveyed, 37 percent said that they fell behind in school after suspension, and 25 percent said that they felt less motivated to learn.
Meanwhile, the report shows how out-of-school suspension and expulsion rates increased after Katrina, as did budgets for security officers -- $20 million in 2006-2007, as opposed to $3 million for 2004-2005 -- despite significantly fewer students.
If there are any doubts about whether prison bars are in the forecast for some of these students, consider that just last week, the city council approved a sheriff's plan to expand a major prison complex in the city. The juvenile courts are also in question, after one of the system's judges resigned this week after multiple female employees within his courthouse accused him of sexual harassment. Some of the city's leaders are even confused about what the Youth Study Center is -- a detention center where youth offenders are currently baking because of malfunctioning air conditioners.
Other cities are dealing with poor disciplinary practices, as reported in Florida, Georgia and Illinois. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled last year that a middle school that searched a 13-year-old girl's backpack, bra and panties for alleged prescription-pill peddling (never found) violated her Fourth Amendment rights. What this all adds up to are zero-tolerance policies that have already slid too far down the slope of acceptable disciplinary practice.
One plausible reason that schools have been able to get away with so much is that students themselves are rarely included at the table when disciplinary sentencing rules are established. In New Orleans, a group called Kids Rethink New Orleans Schools has set out to change that. In this group, children from the Recovery School District brainstorm conflict resolutions and make recommendations on how schools can preserve dignity for students even when delivering punishment. Among recommendations they made last year (pdf) are deterring mandatory use of metal detectors in elementary schools, and increasing social worker and counseling staffs in schools.
If Ja'Briel Weston's father, and the juvenile-justice advocates supporting him, win their case, schools will hopefully get an opportunity to produce alternatives to their current methods of dealing with problem children. And perhaps a win will compel the school district and state government to supply more resources so that schools can implement those alternatives. If they lose, this would send a bad signal to other schools throughout New Orleans and beyond, that shackling 6-year-olds is acceptable. Just as common sense tells us that waterboarding is torture, we should be able to discern that handcuffing is cruel and unusual for children in their earliest ages of development.
Brentin Mock, a regular contributor to The Root, is based in New Orleans.