Virginia pursuing school policing reforms following Center probe

State, county officials examining changes that would keep kids out of criminal justice system

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Lynchburg, Virginia resident Stacey Doss with her son Kayleb Moon-Robinson. Doss, the daughter of a police officer, is outraged that a school resource officer arrested her son after he left a classroom without permission. The autistic 11-year-old, who is sensitive to touch, was charged with felony assault on a police officer because he struggled to get away.

Charlie Archambault for the Center for Public Integrity

Potentially sweeping school police reforms are taking hold in Virginia, a state that was the focus of an investigation last April by the Center for Public Integrity and Reveal by The Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX.

 The investigation found, based on an analysis of data, that Virginia ranked first among states in the rate at which schools refer students to law enforcement agencies in connection with a variety of indiscretions. The Virginia rate was about three times the national rate.

Reaction to the story — including a state government initiative to reduce student arrests — is featured in the August episode of the public radio program Reveal, which will air on stations nationwide throughout the month.

“We are all eager to work together to find substantive solutions to reduce the number of students who are referred to the justice system,” Virginia Director of Juvenile Justice Andrew Block told the Center recently. Block is involved in a review that Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe asked his so-called “children’s cabinet” members to conduct after the Center probe was published, along with a prior companion piece by Reveal.

The International Association of Chiefs of Police, an advisory group for law enforcement, used the story and accompanying state-by-state data as part of a training session for brass from around the country this summer.

In Virginia’s Henrico County, near Richmond, Police Chief Douglas Middleton said he’s been concerned for several years that school officials have grown “dependent” on involving school resource officers — who are under his command — in what are essentially discipline violations.

In July, Middleton issued new department guidelines that are designed to limit police involvement in disciplinary issues and reduce unnecessary arrests that are frequently for disorderly conduct or assault. He’s also created a new 40-hour training requirement for school police and is making sure school officials get on board with new policies to limit requests for police intervention.

“We’ve had far too many parents complain about their children getting arrested and handcuffed,” Middleton said. He said school resource officers have gotten calls from staff at schools “about a student who won’t get on the bus,” or a student who is in the hallway standing around.  “Well, that’s not a police matter,” Middleton said.

He said he wanted to get back to the 1970s and 1980s, “when you didn’t lock up every kid for doing something immature.” 

He’s also aiming to reduce juvenile arrests generally and “divert” more kids to counseling without a formal arrest.

Pressed for a response to the Center’s findings, Henrico Commonwealth Attorney Shannon Taylor—the county’s top prosecutor—also called for “smarter” reactions to school discipline problems. 

Middleton said he’s been invited by the Virginia’s Secretary of Public Safety to speak to the state task force convened by McAuliffe to respond to the Center’s findings.  .

In Richmond, Police Chief Alfred Durham spoke to a gathering of residents in June about his own frustrations and review of policies. He said police officers feel they have a duty to arrest students if parents or school officials insist on it. But he’s ready to review practices because he knows there are serious long-term consequences of putting kids into the criminal-justice system.

“If a crime is committed, we have an obligation because somebody could say, ‘My child was assaulted. You failed to do your job.’ “ Durham said. “I have to answer to that. Then when we lock them up, I still have to answer to that.”

The Center’s investigation focused on Virginia after analysis of data that schools nationwide were required to submit to the U.S. Department of Education after the 2011-12 academic year. In Virginia and almost all other states, the Center found, the rate for referring special-needs students and African-American students to police and courts was disproportionately high.

The national data—which was released in 2014—did not identify reasons why schools referred kids to police or directly to courts. In an effort to identify those reasons, the Center obtained a sampling of local Virginia police data for Henrico and Chesterfield counties that broke down allegations against students, many of them in middle school. The most common charges: disorderly conduct and simple assault.

 The Center also interviewed public defenders, parents and children such as Kayleb Moon-Robinson, an autistic sixth-grade student in the city of Lynchburg, who was prosecuted this year for disorderly conduct and felony assault on an officer.

Kayleb was charged because he struggled to break free from the officer, who’d been asked by the school principal to go after Kayleb and stop him from wandering a hall.

On Aug. 31 Kayleb is scheduled to return to Lynchburg Juvenile Court to again face the judge who found him guilty in April based on the evidence—but also kept the case open for further consideration.

Witnesses inside the closed court said that Judge Cary Payne warned Kayleb in April that when he returns to court, he could be ordered straight to juvenile detention—especially if he got into trouble again. 

Kayleb has a new team of lawyers helping him, his mother said. None would agree to speak on the record but some said that the judge still has an option open to drop the charges and absolve Kayleb.

That would spare Kayleb from a juvenile record, as well as consequences the court could impose ranging from mandatory counseling to jail time. Payne and prosecutors have refused to discuss the case.

Kayleb’s mother, Stacey Doss, said Kayleb finished the school year with no problems at an alternative school in Lynchburg that employs special methods to help autistic kids calm down if they are having a difficult time in class and failing to obey. The Lynchburg Police Department opened an investigation into Kayleb’s arrest at school in the wake of the Center story, but has not released findings.

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