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.
Nationwide, more than 70 percent of students involved in school-related arrests or law-enforcement referrals are black or Hispanic, according to U.S. Department of Education data, the Associated Press reports.
Hilary O. Shelton, NAACP Washington bureau director and senior vice president of policy and advocacy, called the Broward County agreement “an effective prototype” for school systems across the nation.
“The harshness of the penalties that are lodged against them amounts to almost the criminalization of puberty,” he told The Root. “These are kids who are being arrested for infractions that were usually handled administratively or even by the classroom teachers in days gone by. Many would argue that the increase in resource officers and police officers placed inside of schools to address the awful incidents like Columbine [High School shooting in Littleton, Colo., in 1999] and Sandy Hook [Elementary School shooting last year in Newtown, Conn.], has resulted in a much more heavy-handed approach to dealing with school discipline issues. There is a major problem that has to be addressed, but we are gratified to see that Broward County is responding.”
Lynette Holloway is a contributing editor at The Root.