Racially biased arrests in Louisiana school district prompt appeal to feds
Person in handcuffs (Shutterstock)

After a 15-year-old boy in Jefferson Parish, Louisiana, allegedly threw Skittles at fellow students on the bus ride home from school last January, he was picked up by police the next morning in the middle of a social studies test.

The policeman allegedly handcuffed him and twisted his arm in front of his classmates, and he was then charged with simple battery. He spent nearly six days inside Rivarde juvenile detention center. The school recorded some of those days as unexcused absences.

This case is one of many that has prompted the legal advocacy group Southern Poverty Law Center to file a complaint with the US Department of Justice asking it to intervene. The SPLC’s complaint , which was filed 7 May, highlights numerous instances of ongoing “intentional discrimination” and claims the school district has violated titles VI and IV of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

“The kid was acting like any other kid – all kids have done that,” said Sara Godchaux, a New Orleans-based lawyer with the SPLC. “To be charged there with a criminal offense is inappropriate ... It’s ridiculous.”

The legal advocacy group says Jefferson Parish public schools have the highest number of in-school arrests of all Louisiana school districts. Many of those arrests happened after incidents where students committed minor rules violations, Godchaux said. The in-school arrest program disproportionately impacts African American students.

The SPLC’s latest action follows a complaint sent to the US Department of Education’s office for civil rights (OCR) in January 2012. Two months after the first complaint, OCR officials told the legal nonprofit they had launched an investigation into whether Jefferson Parish’s school board “discriminates against black students based on their race” with its disciplinary policies. Despite the initial acknowledgement, Godchaux says the complaint remains unresolved to this day.

According to the 2012 complaint, black students were involved in 76% of the district’s in-school arrests for the 2009-10 and 2010-11 school years, even though African Americans accounted for only 46% of the district’s population during that time. In the 2013-14 school year, Godchaux says the problem grew worse, with 448 black students accounting for 80% of all Jefferson Parish public schools in-school arrests.

In addition to the Skittles incident, SPLC says the school district’s African American students have faced hundreds of other arrests for seemingly minor infractions. The new complaint points to examples such as a seventh-grade student being charged for interference with an educational facility after yelling outside her school, and an autistic fourth-grade student who was handcuffed and forced to the ground following a classroom outburst.

By responding harshly to these kinds of minor violations, Godchaux says the schools are unfairly depriving students of valuable classroom learning opportunities and unnecessarily subjecting them to harmful experiences.

“Students are being hauled out of school by police for misconduct that could be better addressed as a potential learning opportunity for the student,” the SPLC complaint says.

In a written statement, Jefferson Parish public schools communications specialist Elizabeth Branley says the district is “very concerned by these allegations” and intends to solve the problem of racial disparities occurring with its school arrests. She did not elaborate on specific actions being taken to address the problem.

“We pledge to work closely with those agencies involved to quickly resolve any issues that we identify,” Branley wrote in an email to the Guardian. “We are committed to ensuring that our students have a safe, healthy environment and are treated equably at all schools.”

Spokespersons for both the Department of Justice and the Department of Education did not respond to requests for comment.

Godchaux hopes the two federal departments will force Jefferson Parish public schools to revise their arrest policies to ensure officers apply discipline equitably across races and reduce overall police interventions in classrooms. As far as the SPLC is concerned, officers should be responding only to serious crimes.

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