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School-based Arrests Criminalize Students and Feed The School to Prison Pipeline

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Dignity in Schools Campaign Statement on Salecia Johnson Handcuffing and Arrest

UPDATE: Salecia's mother, Constance Ruff,  has created petition via Change.org calling on  Milledgeville's Mayor, City Council, School Board, and the GA Dept. of Education  to remove any record of Salecia's arrest and end the use of police in school discipline. You can sign-on and send the petition here.

Georgia - The shocking handcuffing and arrest of six-year-old Salecia Johnson in Milledgeville, GA for allegedly throwing a tantrum is, unfortunately, an all-too-common practice in thousands of schools around the country where harsh and punitive disciplinary practices are the first response to student misbehavior, including for minor incidents such as insubordination, disrespect, class disruption and fighting.

"It is over-reactions like this that start the slide into the school-to-prison pipeline," said Marlyn Tillman of The Gwinnett Parent Coalition to Dismantle the School to Prison Pipeline (Gwinnett STOPP) a parent-led community organization in Gwinnett County, GA that is a member of the Dignity in Schools Campaign (DSC). "Our schools need more counselors, better trained teachers, and positive alternatives to the zero tolerance policies that are now in place and only lead to cruel and unnecessary punishment like handcuffing a Kindergartener and placing her in a holding cell," she added.

As a result of her arrest, Salecia was initially charged with battery and was suspended for the rest of the school year.

In March, the Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights released the latest Civil Rights Data Collection (CRDC) report, which showed that 70% of students arrested or referred to law enforcement were Black or Latino. The data also showed that as an African-American, Salecia is more than three times as likely to be suspended than her white peers.

"Salecia is being pushed out of school, because her school was unequipped and unprepared to peacefully resolve what is common misbehavior among very small children," said Sharon Capers, a parent-organizer with Gwinnett STOPP. "Our children deserve better. We need to offer them positive alternatives like counseling, restorative justice practices and positive behavior supports in place of suspensions, expulsions and arrests. No child should ever have to be handcuffed and arrested for simply acting out," she added.

The situation is dire for public school students in Georgia. According to Department of Education data 1 in 10 Atlanta Public Schools students were suspended out-of-school at least once during the 2009-2010 school year and African-American students receive in- or out-of-school suspensions at 5.6 times the rate of white students. Education Week estimates that 61,517 Georgia students who entered ninth grade in 2006 did not graduate after four years.

Prior studies on the harms of punitive discipline, such as the 2011 report on school discipline in Texas public schools by the Council of State Governments, have also shown that school suspension and expulsion significantly increase the likelihood that students will be held back a grade, not graduate and become involved in the juvenile justice system.

Positive alternatives to punitive discipline practices have proven to work and some States are taking action to address the issue of high suspension and expulsion rates.

On Tuesday, February 28, the Maryland Board of Education unveiled a plan to drastically reduce school suspensions in the state, where 63 percent of out-of-school suspensions are for nonviolent offenses such as insubordination or classroom disturbance. The plan envisions that disciplinary offenses would be coded to distinguish violent infractions from those that are nonviolent. The plan would also require that the state's 24 districts create plans to address racial disparities in discipline.

In Colorado, as a result of community-led efforts by Padres y Jovenes Unidos, a member of DSC, Denver Public Schools adopted positive alternatives like restorative justice in place of more punitive measures, resulting in a 40 percent reduction in out-of-school suspensions. On March 1, 2012, Colorado's Senate Education Committee approved the bipartisan "Fair Discipline in Schools Act" (SB 46).  This legislation reforms the state's discipline policy to give school district administrators more discretion to use restorative justice, peer mediation, counseling, and other preventive disciplinary approaches in place of zero tolerance policies which lead to immediate suspension, expulsion and/or referral to law enforcement.

In South Los Angeles, parent-led organization and DSC member CADRE has been working to reduce suspension rates and address racial disparity in school discipline. In 2007, they won a district-wide mandate of School-wide Positive Behavior Support to be implemented in every Los Angeles school to reduce suspensions and improve school climate, paving the way for addressing other forms of pushout. In February of this year, Labor Community Strategy Center and the DSC Los Angeles chapter scored another victory to end the Los Angeles Police Department's practice of ticketing students up to $250 for truancy. The Los Angeles City Council voted unanimously to drastically reduce the frequency and cost of fines for students who are late to school.

The Dignity in Schools Campaign is a coalition of youth, parents, educators, civil rights organizations, and social justice advocates working to ensure the human right of every child to a quality education and to be treated with dignity. The DSC challenges the systemic problem of push out and promotes local and national alternatives to a culture of zero-tolerance, punishment and removal in schools.

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