In recent months, there has been a flood of video evidence of police violence in our communities. Earlier this week, a gut-wrenching video surfaced that shows a school police officer violently attacking three young girls inside one of our middle schools. The incident starts when one of the young women walks past the police officer, who had summoned her. She commits no crime, but the officer pursues her, grabs her by the hair and slams her into a wall. Her sister soon rushes to her aid; her cousin arrives shortly thereafter.
What happens next is hard to watch. The officer attacks the girls — ages 11, 13 and 14 — first with her fists, then with a baton, swinging the stick over her head to strike with full momentum as her victim tries to back into the safety of the school office. The girl's forehead still sports a raised scar where the officer bashed open her head. Then, while a staff member restrains the two other girls, the cop, a woman, pepper sprays them not once — not twice, but three times.
As hard as it is to watch, it's even more difficult to fathom what happens off camera. After this horrendous trauma, all three young girls were handcuffed and arrested. They were charged with assault, brought before a judge and accused of being juvenile delinquents. They were expelled from school. To date, no adult has been held accountable for the attack or the expulsion. Luckily, once the video emerged, the criminal charges were dropped.
I am a juvenile public defender in Baltimore City, and I focus on school-based arrests. I represented one of the young women in this week's video in her delinquency proceedings. Police violence and wrongful arrests in our schools are a disturbing reality for many of our kids. This incident is a troubling example of the way that police violence affects young people even in the classroom; it is also the kind of violence that we can expect precisely because police are inside schools. Baltimore City is peculiar in that it has a designated police force, separate from the city police, that operates inside city schools. According to the Maryland Department of Juvenile Services, statewide there were 27,510 juvenile arrests in 2013 and 688 (2.5 percent) of these were school-based arrests. Baltimore City reported 3,977 juvenile arrests in 2013; 620 (15.6 percent) were school-based arrests. That number represents 90 percent of all school-based arrests statewide, even though Baltimore City only represents about 10 percent of the public school students in the state.
Responses to these numbers are often racially coded: "Urban" schools are dangerous, and these arrests are reserved for the worst kinds of violent offenses. The data do not bear this out. I gathered a random sample of 151 arrests from the 2013-2014 school year. Of 151 cases, 72 percent were either dismissed or diverted. Of the 30 cases where a student was found "facts sustained" — the juvenile court equivalent of guilty — only two were for a felony offense.
The vast majority of kids were charged with low-level misdemeanors, and even these seem warped when viewed not in the schoolyard context from which they arose but rather through the lens of pathology and "broken windows" criminal enforcement. Childish behavior and standard disobedience is charged as "willfully disturbing school activities." Snatching headphones off a classmate's head at the bus stop becomes robbery. In the past year, I've had two clients arrested at school for allegedly stealing Pokemon cards.
We can all agree that safety in our schools is and should be a top priority. But the societal cost of importing flawed methods of street policing into our schools and arresting children on the flimsiest of grounds is staggering. Studies have shown that having armed officers in schools actually increases the risk of physical danger for kids and fosters distrust between students and school authorities. It also increases the chances of kids getting pushed out of schools and into the criminal justice system. Research shows that school-based arrests double the probability of dropout, even when controlled for all other factors. A single court appearance nearly quadruples the odds of dropout. As a community, we cannot afford the continued use of handcuffs to solve educational issues.
There are immediate steps that Baltimore City schools must take to end the school-to-prison pipeline. It starts with replacing school police with community intervention workers, counselors and social workers trained to implement school discipline policies pursuant to educational best practices and restorative justice. The city should immediately end the practice of permanently assigning police to schools and limit their presence to emergencies. School officials, teachers and those who are trained to work with kids should be singularly responsible for handling student discipline. To that end, the city should implement new policies that restrict and limit school-based arrests and begin tracking all school-based arrests in a comprehensive fashion.
Jenny Egan is a juvenile public defender in Baltimore City focusing on school-based arrests and the school-to-prison pipeline. Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org.