March 15, 2016: This story has been updated.
A Virginia juvenile court has dropped charges against Kayleb Moon-Robinson, an autistic sixth grader whose rough arrest on felony charges was the focus of a Center for Public Integrity investigation into questionable school policing.
“I think there are more talks to be had on this problem,” said Kayleb’s mother Stacey Doss, a Lynchburg, VA., resident, on Monday. “So many things can be resolved without it being in court.”
Doss added that authorities “have to understand is that these are children. They are going to make mistakes. To treat them as adults at this stage is unfair.”
Doss said she’s glad she spoke out against an officer charging her 11-year-old son with three crimes — including a felony — in the course of just a couple of months in the fall of 2014. Since that time, Kayleb has had to return repeatedly to court and live with the possibility that he could end up in juvenile detention. Kayleb and his mother also spoke out in a radio documentary produced by the Center and the public radio show Reveal.
Kayleb had barely started middle school when an officer posted at his school charged the boy with misdemeanor disorderly conduct after watching him kick a trash can during an emotional meltdown.
Just days later, the same officer pursued and grabbed Kayleb after he walked out of class, without permission, to join other kids who had already left the room. Kayleb yelled and struggled to break free and the officer pushed the boy to the floor, handcuffing him and placing him under arrest.
As school staff sat in silence, Doss said, the officer decided to drive Kayleb in cuffs to the courthouse and charged the child with felony assault on a police officer as well as disorderly conduct.
The Center’s investigation included an analysis of national data showing that Virginia schools collectively referred students to law enforcement officials more often than schools in other states.
The data showed that African-American and special-needs students—Kayleb is black and autistic—were disproportionately referred to law enforcement both in Virginia and across the nation.
A sampling of local Virginia police data collected by the Center revealed that the vast majority of thousands of student arrests of pre-teens and young teens in two jurisdictions were for minor allegations such as disorderly conduct and simple assault. Even elementary-school kids as young as 10 were charged with crimes such as “bomb threats.”
In one jurisdiction, a 12-year-old girl was charged with “resisting arrest” and “obstruction of justice” for clenching her fist when a school officer grabbed her in response to a fight.
These episodes and the unflattering data sparked widespread outcry for reforms.
Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s cabinet initiated a statewide project to both retrain school police and educators and urge school districts to craft local agreements with police making it clear that educators should handle disciplinary matters. Some local jurisdictions, including Kayleb’s, did reform school-police agreements to more narrowly define the role of police at schools.
Autism rights activists also began a national petition drive that gathered more than 150,000 signatures from people demanding that charges against Kayleb be dropped. Doss and Kayleb helped carry the petitions to prosecutors’ offices last year.
And this year, Virginia legislators sponsored bills aimed at reforming school policing and school discipline statewide. Most proposals stalled, but two bills were approved and have been sent to McAuliffe for his signature. He has until April 11 to sign the measures.
One proposal that legislators approved in late February, HB 487, relieves those school police that are funded by state grants from requirements that they enforce school rules—freeing them to focus on criminal justice matters, rather than school discipline. Another proposal that legislators passed, HB 1213, ensures that special-needs students accused of disorderly conduct can immediately submit behavioral assessments to court as evidence supporting an argument that the student’s actions were not willful.
(Update, March 15, 2016, 12:10 p.m.: "The conversation has shifted. We’re no longer debating about whether we have a problem with over-criminalization. Now we’re finally talking about what to do about it," said Angela Ciolfi, legal director of the JustChildren program of the Virginia Legal Aid Justice Center. Ciolfi, who has worked to craft local and state reforms, added: "The bills on the Governor’s desk are long overdue, and there is much more to be done, but they are a good start.")
Doss said she’s happy that state leaders are debating reforms, even if other proposals fell short this recent legislative session.
For example, a bill that would have prohibited charging students 14 and younger with disorderly conduct at school failed. Republican legislator Dave LaRock told the Center that he sponsored the bill because he was troubled by the volume of arrests in Virginia and questioned how such a minor incident could lead to criminal charges against Kayleb.
Doss said she’s also heartened that local jurisdictions have crafted new policies for school police, but believes the boundaries for involving police should be even stronger.
She said she was troubled that when she arrived at school and found Kayleb in handcuffs, school staff told her it was up to police to decide if Kayleb should be arrested and taken to juvenile court. She said she was also dismayed at what initially happened in court in response to Kayleb’s charges.
Prosecutors offered a “plea deal,” Doss said, that would have reduced Kayleb’s felony assault charge to a misdemeanor if Kayleb spent time in a detention home. Shocked, she rejected the offer.