Kayleb returned to court as schools alter discipline policies

12-year-old's fate still unclear, but attention to his case has sparked reform

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Twelve-year-old Kayleb Moon-Robinson of Lynchburg, Virginia—whose felony arrest at school last year sparked national criticism—returned to juvenile court this week but left with his case still officially pending. 

Kayleb, who is autistic, was featured in a Center for Public Integrity investigation last May that scrutinized national data—and local police records—and found that Virginia schools referred students to law enforcement at three times the national rate of referral. In a pattern reflected nationally, black and special-needs students in Virginia were disproportionately referred to police and courts for seemingly minor indiscretions like middle-school fights.

Last Friday, just days before Kayleb’s Monday afternoon hearing, Kayleb’s mother and Morenike Owaiwu, a Texas autism-rights advocate, went to the Lynchburg prosecutor’s office to deliver boxes filled with more than 150,000 signatures that Owaiwu gathered online demanding that charges against Kayleb be dropped. Prosecutors declined to comment on the petitions. 

In the meantime, on Aug. 18, Lynchburg city schools trustees announced an agreement with local police aimed at both preventing the arrest of students younger than 13, and keeping school cops out of disciplinary and behavior disputes at schools.

The law group handling Kayleb’s defense, the Virginia Legal Aid Society, issued a statement Wednesday saying that Kayleb’s family and the law group are “pleased” with the new agreement’s revisions, but believe it “should have gone further” by raising the age limit for arresting school children  to 15 and requiring more specific training for police on disabilities and appropriate “de-escalation” techniques to deal with disruptions.     

On Facebook, Kayleb’s mother, Stacey Doss, told her acquaintances that she isn’t “free to go into detail about the judge’s decision as of yet.” But she also said: “I am deeply touched by the amount of continued support and I want to thank you all for showing us that we aren't alone. Kayleb is doing well and has been thriving through this adversity. I’m very proud of my son and strength he has shown during this time.”

“Most of last night and this morning,” Doss said on Facebook after the hearing, “I've been reading emails sent to Kayleb and myself from people all over the world.”

Juvenile proceedings are closed to the public, and Doss and her lawyer declined to elaborate on exactly what had happened in court.

Last October, a school resource officer charged Kayleb with disorderly conduct after he observed the then-11-year-old kicking a trash can in the school office, as recounted in the Center report and an accompanying public radio report broadcast by Reveal.  

Then, in November, the officer charged Kayleb again with disorderly conduct as well as with felony assault on a police officer. Kayleb had walked out of class without permission and when the principal sent the officer to get the child, the cop grabbed the boy, who struggled to break free, and then wrestled Kayleb to the floor. Kayleb was arrested and handcuffed for three hours, at school and during transit to juvenile hall.  

Kayleb’s mother,  whose father is a police officer, was upset that school officials did not intervene in the arrest, and argued that Kayleb should not have been charged with crimes. But prosecutors pursued the charges and at an April hearing, witnesses inside the closed courtroom said, Judge Cary Payne found that Kayleb was guilty based on evidence,  but said he  would leave the case open for future review.     

Kayleb’s lawyer, Melissa Waugh of the Virginia Legal Aid Society, said confidentiality requirements prohibit her from commenting specifically on Kayleb’s court case. She said that in general, juvenile cases  often remain before the court for months, even years, while judges take stock of changing circumstances:  how a child is doing with the passage time, and how adults in his life, including school officials, are handling their responsibilities to help.

Sometimes charges against a minor that are pending for months can be ultimately dismissed, she said.

In Lynchburg, police began a second internal review of Kayleb’s arrest last spring. That review found that the officer’s “actions were appropriate to the situation the officer encountered, were within Lynchburg Police Department policy, and were legally authorized under state and local code.”

The department, an August letter to Doss also read, “has been supportive of these charges being taken under advisement and no sanction imposed, so long as the student demonstrates more appropriate conduct during a time period set by the court.” 

The Virginia Legal Aid Society statement noted that Kayleb—who has  shown he can perform well academically—is now attending a new school, which is private, and “receiving the services and support he needs in the appropriate educational setting for him.” Doss told the Center that the school has expertise in helping autistic students cope with frustrating moments and does not have police officers inside.

The national data the Center analyzed indicated that during the 2011-12 school year Virginia’s schools reported referring kids to cops and courts at a rate of 16 per 1,000—compared to six per 1,000 nationally. Special-needs kids were 14 percent of enrollment in Virginia, but represented 30 percent of referrals. Black kids, who were 24 percent of enrollment, represented 38 percent of referrals.

Linda McCausland, a public defender in southeastern Virginia, told the Center that young kids were coming to court with prosecutors pursuing multiple charges against them.  A 12-year-old female client faced a judge with a disorderly conduct charge, McCausland said, for resisting arrest and obstruction of justice as a result of “clenching her fist” as an officer grabbed her during a school fight.

A number of school officials told the Center that they don’t control police on campuses, and that officers are empowered to decide what behavior constitutes a crime.

In the wake of the Center story, state officials have formed a task force, at Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s instruction, to look into reforms aimed at cutting Virginia’s relatively high rates of student referrals to law enforcement. The officials are members of the governor’s cabinet, and have not yet disclosed their conclusions.

Some organizations are urging statewide requirements that would  mandate specific training for school resource officers.

The legislative director of the state PTA and the director of the Virginia Legal Aid Justice Center’s JustChildren Program, for example, wrote a Richmond Times-Dispatch  opinion piece decrying “casual policing” on campuses that they said is pushing children unnecessarily into the criminal-justice system. 

“If the state is committed to a law enforcement presence in schools,” the piece said, “we need to pass legislation that requires SROs [school resource officers] to be trained for their jobs.”  The piece also urged the adoption of school-police agreements that clearly spell out the role of law enforcement officers in schools.

Prior to Lynchburg schools’ revisions to its agreement with police, several other major Virginia police departments this summer either enacted or are in the midst of discussing reforms to keep police out of what are essentially disciplinary problems.

Henrico County Police Chief Douglas Middleton enacted new policies to require fresh training for officers on dealing with adolescents and special-needs kids. He told the Center that staff at schools in the Richmond suburb had become too accustomed to asking officers to intervene when a student refuses to leave a hallway or get on a bus.

Lynchburg’s new schools-police agreement states that school staff and police officers “will differentiate between disciplinary issues and crime problems and respond appropriately. The parties agree that, whenever possible,  a ‘prevention-before- intervention-before- enforcement’ approach will be taken when addressing student behavioral concerns.”

“At no time,” the lengthy agreement states, “should the SRO recommend or make decisions about student discipline or otherwise involve himself/herself directly or indirectly in disciplining a student.”

Scott Brabrand, Superintendent of Lynchburg schools, declined to speak to the Center about the revised agreement with police. In August he told Lynchburg media that language in the document reflects efforts to do “everything we can” to limit the arrest of students who are not yet 13.

Lynchburg Police Chief Parks H. Snead told the Center in an email that the revisions “more clearly define the roles of school staff members and the role of SROs.”

Jeree Thomas, an attorney with the JustChildren Program of Virginia’s Legal Aid Justice Center, said written agreements provide “crucial” transparency for parents and the public. But she said Lynchburg’s agreement could be improved with more specific language outlining how both schools and police will be held accountable for following it.

“I hope they make an effort to get feedback from parents and students on their performance,” Thomas said, “and that they are willing to re-evaluate their policies and practices in light of that feedback.”

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