Jennifer McClellan: Let's shut down the school-to-prison pipeline

Jennifer L. McClellan

Among the many issues to be considered during this year’s General Assembly session, few are as important as those designed to improve how we respond to young people who are in danger of becoming part of the criminal justice system.

Over the past 20 years, we have seen a disturbing rise in the over-criminalization of childhood behaviors that were once handled almost exclusively through the school disciplinary process. Behaviors that once would have led to in-school detention are now leading to incarceration in alarming numbers.

In April 2015, the Center for Public Integrity (CPI) released a report analyzing data from the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights that examined the number of students referred to law enforcement from schools. Virginia led the nation, with a referral rate of 15.8 students per 1,000, compared to the national average of six students per 1,000.

More than 38 percent of referrals to law enforcement were for African-American students, who make up only 24 percent of the student population. Additionally, 30 percent of the referred students had a disability, a group that makes up 12 percent of the overall student population.


Children were often referred to law enforcement as a result of behaviors that did not constitute a crime, or would not be a crime for an adult. CPI’s review of individual cases and local Virginia police records showed that thousands of students were sent into the criminal justice system by school police on charges of disorderly conduct, assault and resisting arrest. These referrals resulted from behavior like kicking trash cans, yelling, using foul language, getting into schoolyard fights and attempting to break free from police officers who grabbed them.

One example that received widespread attention last year was Kayleb Moon-Robinson, an autistic sixth grader in Lynchburg who left class without permission. The 11-year-old was handcuffed and arrested for disorderly conduct and felony assault after a struggle with a school resource officer.

Referrals like these often start a student down the path of the school-to-prison pipeline and a lifetime of involvement in the criminal justice system.

To address this issue, Gov. Terry McAuliffe last fall announced his Classrooms not Courtrooms initiative, a multi-agency, administration-wide push to reduce student referrals to law enforcement, reduce suspensions and expulsions, address the disparate impact these practices have on African Americans and students with disabilities, and reduce the emphasis on subjective offenses like disorderly conduct.

Through this initiative, multiple state agencies will implement a variety of strategies, including but not limited to:

  • promoting constructive partnerships between schools and law enforcement through the development and implementation of a new standardized joint training program for school resource officers and school administrators;
  • updating the framework for developing local agreements about the role and function of school resource officers;
  • updating the School Resource Officer Program Guide to incorporate effective strategies; and
  • tracking specific data related to subjective misdemeanor offenses such as disorderly conduct, and focusing on finding effective alternatives to criminal justice interventions.


Several bills have also been introduced to address this issue.

The use of court and detention for truancy and runaway cases in particular is considered a contributing factor for the school-to-prison pipeline.

When faced with a truant or runaway — children often deemed a “child in need of services” — a judge typically enters a court order forcing that child to go to school or return home. If the child subsequently runs away or fails to go to school, the judge can order the child to be detained in a local juvenile detention center. As a result, kids who often are abused, neglected, or face other challenges requiring services, are housed with children who have committed crimes, including violent offenses.

This creates a particularly dangerous situation for the child or opens the door for that child to be recruited into or taught serious criminal behavior. I have introduced HB 488 to end the practice of detaining a child deemed by a court as a “child in need of services” for merely violating a court order.

I have also introduced HB 486 to make it permissible, rather than mandatory, for commonwealth attorneys to participate in prosecuting cases against a child under the compulsory school attendance laws. Currently, despite a mandate that commonwealth attorneys participate in these cases, there is no uniformity in the commonwealth related to this practice.

In some localities, truancy cases are handled by intake officers, recognizing that the student of interest is not a criminal, but a child in need of services to address underlying issues, such as family stability, abuse, neglect, mental health, or school achievement. Inserting the commonwealth attorney into all cases without regard to the underlying facts adds a level of prosecution that in many cases is not only unhelpful, but starts that child down a path towards detention.

These are just a few of the efforts underway this session to break the school-to-prison pipeline. Over the next few weeks, I look forward to providing additional insight on these and other issues to come before the General Assembly.


Follow Jenn on:

Get Involved: