The Crime of Branding Students As Criminals

Throughout my time as an educator, I’ve been pulled into my share of “special taskforces” meant to address “at-risk” students – namely Black students. I have no doubt that such groups can be found in schools across America; primarily (I believe) because districts accept “helping” Black children on the backend with interventions that feign problem solving, rather than working on the frontend on behalf of Black children.

Districts that work on the frontend are districts that hire more Black teachers, make curricula culturally relevant and teaching culturally responsive – with rigor – districtwide, and ensure that teaching resources and assignments are both culturally and community affirming. They do not assume that pre-service training is good enough to serve Black students and spend time in deep and meaningful in-service, coaching, and mentoring. But I digress.

“At-risk” students are generally identified by teachers and administrators to identify which students have an increased risk for dropping out of school, usually because of failing grades and an unsightly discipline record. It always starts with an email attached with a list of names; educators love making lists. I’ve received these lists and I always notice the overabundance of Black children on them – lists of children of color that are often rife with racial biases and negative mindsets about Black and Brown communities .

Never did I consider that my colleagues would ever refer these lists to local law enforcement. But a Florida school districts decision to share such a list with local law enforcement makes me wish that I did consider the possibility of my colleagues sharing names with police – and ask if they did.

According to an 82-page Sheriff’s Office intelligence document, reported by the Tampa Bay Times, the Pasco County Sheriff’s Office uses academic performance and discipline data from middle and high schools, as well as records from the state Department of Children and Families, to identify “at-risk youth who are destined to a life of crime.”

According to the Tampa Bay Times report, students can be placed on the list if they get a “D” grade in a class, miss school three times in a quarter, get a single discipline referral during a quarter, or have experienced childhood trauma.

When claimed that prisons use students standardized test scores to predict future inmate populations, it was called an urban myth. So then what do you call what the Pasco Sheriff’s Office is doing, and urban legend?

Students tend to be labeled “at-risk” due to their poor grades and a poor disciplinary record. According to the Pasco Sheriff’s Office report page 71, an “at-risk” student is a student with at least 1 “D.” I had D’s before and in high school but the only thing I was at-risk for was a butt whooping from my parents. An “at-risk” student is one with at least one discipline referral? I suspect a student with a “D” and a discipline referral ought to be arrested immediately.

420 students from the county are on this list.

The Pasco County Sheriff’s Office claims that the list exist only for SROs to provide “support” to students in order to get them on the right track. However, getting kids “on the right track” must be a collaborative effort with educators and parents at the lead. However parents aren’t told if their child is on the list and the superintendent of Pasco County Schools, Kurt Browning, had no clue that the list even existed.

In a response to the Tampa Bay Times, the sheriff’s office said that they do not engage in “predictive policing” and that data sharing between the district and sheriff’s office has gone on for over 20 years; particularly to prevent mass shootings like those at Marjory Stoneman Douglas, Sandy Hook and Columbine.

20 years of data sharing sounds like predictive policing to me.

But there is little evidence that law enforcement in schools prevent school shootings. According to a Pew Research Center report, 86% of teens believe that preventing people with mental illness from purchasing guns and improving mental health screenings would be effective at preventing school shootings. As said earlier, law enforcement in schools only exacerbates the school-to-prison pipeline and Black students fall prey to that pipeline.

I’ve previously discussed the dangers posed to Black children when school districts leaders elect to have police officers in their schools. I’ve even discussed the backlash against a school board member for pointing out that fact.

The research shows that the presences of School Resource Officers (SROs) criminalizes the behavior of children of color; directly feeding the school-to-prison pipeline. Many school districts make it easy for this to happen because they disproportionately discipline Black children more than anyone else, including the Pasco School District.

According to the U.S. Dept. of Education Office of Civil Rights data, Black students are only 7.4% of students in the Pasco School District, yet are overrepresented in student suspensions and expulsions, while underrepresented in 8th grade algebra, physics, calculus, and gifted and talented courses.

I suspect that a fair number of those suspended and expelled Black students appear on the sheriff’s office list.

The superintendent, Kurt Browning, didn’t find the list concerning, saying that the district has “an agreement with the Sheriff’s Office;” [requiring] “them to use (the data) for official law enforcement purposes. I have to assume that’s exactly what they are using it for.” According to his official statement, Mr. Browning stated that “If there is any need to revisit any aspect of our relationship, we will do so in a thoughtful manner with the goal of keeping our students and staff safe.”

But here is the thing… come close… police aren’t in the business of offering help to kids; police are in the business of policing. That’s why $2.3 million taxpayer dollars are spent to send 23 deputies in Pasco County middle and high schools – to police. This is an example of why calls are made to defund the police. It doesn’t make sense to fund police departments to provide support services to people – youth in this case – when their business is to police criminal activity.

When police officers “mentor” or “support” children, they’re also fishing for information. The opportunity to investigate criminal activity as a component of “mentoring” and “supporting” children blurs the lines of police work and community service.  Providing students with support services should be left to support service providers i.e. social workers, mental health providers, substance abuse treatment program, shelters and even schools.

Such indicators are invalid; as an educator, I know that because the reason kids act like troublemakers is because we believe them to be troublemakers and if you treat kids like criminals and not the children they are, you get what you’ve paid for.

Critique of this twenty-plus year initiative of the Pasco County Sheriff’s Office isn’t simply a critique of individual officers; it’s a critique of policing and the criminal “justice” system. It is also an indictment of the educators licensed to protect children – which means protecting their classified and private information.

This procedure is discriminatory, can impact the academic experiences and outcomes of children and, according to a renowned criminologist from the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, flies in the face of science. Also, according to a senior policy advocate Harold Jordan of the ACLU of Pennsylvania, this procedure may be illegal.

It is definitely a partnership between a school district and a police department that criminalize students in an attempt to “save them.” In a world where Black children are perceived as older and guilty, a procedure such as this proves, yet again, that Black lives don’t matter.

What do you think?

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Rann Miller

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