KSLA News 12 Investigates the school-to-prison pipeline in NWLA

CADDO PARISH, LA (KSLA) - School-based arrests are on a slight decline in Northwest Louisiana.

But at least one regional group believes more can be done to disrupt the so-called "school-to-prison pipeline."

According to the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), the school-to-prison pipeline refers to a national phenomenon in public schools where children are criminalized at school for engaging in bad behaviors.

The SPLC has been a strong advocate against school administration pushing students out of school and into the criminal justice system. According to the SPLC, their data shows the students getting removed from public schools are students of color and those with disabilities.

However, SPLC Louisiana Office Attorney Jennifer Coco explained they are taking note of the downward trend of school-based arrests within the past five years.

"I think because of a lot of really hard work by very invested advocates, parents, teachers, and school administrators, we are starting to see schools be a lot more mindful about this and starting to explore opportunities that they at the school site can disrupt the school to prison pipeline and adopt better practices at their school sites."

Still, she believes there is more to be done to slow the flow of the school to prison pipeline.

"We still have a long way to go to make these practices and decisions uniform across the state," Coco said. "But we have been really pleased to see different districts step up and take leadership of this issue and start that process of how they can figure out how to have better practices at their school."

According to the Louisiana Legislative Auditor, nearly one thousand kids and teens are held in Louisiana's juvenile prisons each year at a cost of up to $424 per day. Some of them got there after being arrested at school.

In Caddo Parish, a student can find themselves criminally charged if they commit any of 13 specific offenses listed in the district handbook, but only if evidence is present.

  • Possessing weapons
  • Battery of a teacher or other school personnel
  • Possessing or using any controlled substance or alcohol
  • Initiating any false alarms and/or bomb threats
  • Threatening a teacher or other school personnel
  • Defacing, stealing, or destroying school property
  • Participating in a fight
  • Bullying, threatening, or hazing students
  • Sexual harassment
  • Cyberbullying
  • Loitering on any school campus, bus or school sponsored events while suspended
  • Possessing or using fireworks
  • Using profanity toward school personnel

If a student commits any of the 13 infractions, they may end up at the Juvenile Justice Complex or the Misdemeanor Referral Center. However, if a student is 17-years or older, they could find themselves in the Caddo Correctional Center facing charges as an adult.

Isaiah Heath was a star basketball player at Byrd High School in 2014 when he learned this lesson the hard way after a heated argument with his teacher. Several students witnessed the argument.

"She said shut up, he said shut up back to her," Austin Gomez told KSLA News 12 in April of 2014. The argument was enough to land Heath in jail at the Caddo Correctional Center, charged with assault on a school teacher and disturbing the peace. 

"I feel like it was really unnecessary to put him in jail for something so little," student Antoinette Van said in the 2014 interview.

Five months later, Heath got both charges dropped and he was able to receive his diploma. A school spokesman told us at the time school leaders followed steps outlined in the district handbook.

"It comes down to those daily decisions. Is a school administrator going to handle student misbehavior at school or are they going to invite the criminal justice system to deal with it for them," Coco says of the concept of turning to police to solve a school situation.

"I'd say the school-to-prison pipeline is absolutely a problem in Louisiana."

According to the numbers requested from the 9 school districts in the region, school-based arrests ranged from zero to a handful to 50 for the 2015-2016 school year in the less populated parishes.

Data on student arrests in Caddo Parish and Bossier Parish, larger school districts with higher student populations, revealed numbers in the triple digits.

A Caddo Parish School spokesman told KSLA News 12, they don't keep track of arrests. However, the Caddo Parish Juvenile Detention Center and the Rutherford House do keep track of Caddo Parish school-based arrests for students under 17. They reported 253 school-based arrests for the 2015-2016 school year. That's compared to 282 arrests from the year before.

In Bossier Parish, there were 162 school-based arrests during the 2015-2016 school year and 192 the year before.

Ultimately, all districts shared the same pattern: the number of school-based arrests are on the decline.

Caddo Parish Juvenile Services Director Clay Walker showed KSLA News 12 one of the 29 beds at the juvenile detention center.

"Every kid in here has got serious charges and is dealing with serious issues."

However, Walker does not think all bad behavior in school necessarily calls for jail.

"School misconduct, acting out. I'm not excusing the behavior, but it is not appropriate for that kid to be in detention," he said. "If you bring me every school fight, I'll have an overpopulation problem in detention."

Walker says students brought to detention for minor infractions are half a step down the wrong path - and being introduced to kids 10 steps down the wrong path in detention.

"They will follow them those 9 and a half steps. You don't want to have that kind of influence."

Walker believes the decline in school-based arrests is because of school leaders' shift in attitude from no tolerance to alternatives like sending a student to a conflict resolution intervention program or to the Misdemeanor Referral Center where Gerald Kimble is the director.

"Our primary purpose is to process the child rather than go to the detention center," said Kimble.

Most students charged with misdemeanors at school wind up at Kimble's center to wait for a parent to pick them up rather than risk exposure to negative influence in jail.

"It keeps a kid from going into a situation that some of them have never been involved with before."

However, he does acknowledge some students need a more eye-opening consequence.

"I'm saying this with no reservation: you've got some kids that are really tough," Kimble said. "To be confined is the only thing that will do them some good."

He has noticed through the years that less students pass through his doors.

"One reason why the numbers have decreased, hopefully, the schools are doing a better job. That's what I would like to think."

School leaders in Caddo Parish also like to think so, including Fair Park High School Principal Bruce Daigle.

"We are looking for other methods instead of let's just get rid of the kid, let's arrest him, let's suspend him."

Unless the discipline problem is a mandatory arrest, Daigle says they try to do everything they can to keep students in school.

"We can't keep the score where we need it to get. We can't get kids into college if they are not in school."

Teacher's union education specialist and former school teacher Jordan Thomas sees it as a safety issue.

"I think there is a place for school-based arrests," Thomas said. "I think if you are a threat to yourself or to others as far as physical type things, we have a right to feel safe at the school as a teacher, but also for our other students."

Typically, Thomas says that by the time a teacher involves administration with a student's discipline issue it likely has been a reoccurring issue that can't be handled in the classroom.

"You would want to involve the administration because you have a liability as a classroom teacher to make sure you are following the protocol."

She explained it is important to send the message to students that school is a safe place and if a student is going to act in a way that is harmful to others, it won't be tolerated.

"You love those kids like they are your own kids, so you do what you can to make sure they stay in that classroom with you," she said. "But again, you have a service of 30 other children in that classroom. You owe them that as well."

To try and prevent future discipline issues, Midway Elementary School Principal Marvin Rainey described to KSLA News 12 how they focus on teaching their students social skills they may not learn at home.

"How to be respectful, how not to brag if you win, how to congratulate your classmates for doing things...We embed that in our kids and teach it over and over," said Rainey.

The hope is by getting kids to master good behavior, it will set them on the right path. Already in three years, he has seen discipline issues shrink from double to single digits.

"If we do a really good job at Pre-K to 3rd grade, then it sets them up for the rest of their lives."

The school also spends a lot of time trying to get parents involved in the school and their children's lives. A concept that nearly everyone we spoke with agrees on: The school-to-prison pipeline doesn't start at school.

"School to prison pipeline implies that it is the school's fault. I would say the majority of the problems come from the home," said Walker.

For 75% of students, getting in trouble with the law works and teaches them a lesson, he explains. For the other 25%, it doesn't work.

"For the kids that come back again and again, they really don't have an adult in their life looking after them. That is the problem that we have."

Red River United Teacher's Union President Jackie Lansdale believes what is needed to disturb the home-to-school-to-prison pipeline will take a community effort.

"Quit stepping back and pointing fingers at the schoolhouse and recognizing the public, the parents, the community, the churches, are equally responsible," she said.

She suggests starting a community school to better integrate the community with public education. According to the Coalition of Community Schools, a community school is both a place and a set of partnerships between the school and other community resources.

"Its integrated focus on academics, health and social services, youth and community development and community engagement leads to improved student learning, stronger families, and healthier communities."

Lansdale said there are currently Community Schools in Austin and West Virginia.

"It's whenever a community becomes part of the school. You have a liaison from the community that works directly with the parents, inviting the parents into their children's schools."

If fewer students are misbehaving and getting arrested, not only are they more likely to be productive citizens but it also means it's saving taxpayers money that would otherwise be spent housing them in jail.

Currently, students who are 17-years-old and get arrested in school are sent to The Caddo Correctional Center, not the juvenile detention center. That's because Louisiana is one of nine states that sees 17-year-old offenders as adults, regardless of their charges.

But the Louisiana legislature voted to change that last year. Starting in 2020, 17-year-olds charged with nonviolent offenses will be included in the juvenile justice system. In 2020, a 17-year-old charged with any offense will be included in the juvenile justice system.

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