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.
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.