Suspensions, handcuffs, jail — middle school discipline falls heavily on vulnerable kids
Pep rallies are supposed to be joyful, loud and unabashed. Having just turned 12 in the fall of 2017, Alan bubbled over with excitement ahead of his first rally at Deming Intermediate School in Deming, New Mexico, a small city near the Mexican border.
Alan is a soulful boy going through life with a collection of medical conditions including Tourette syndrome. His tics and shouts, all beyond his control, make him an easy target for bullies and, to some school staff, a problem student to be corrected. (We are using Alan’s middle name to protect his privacy.)
At the rally that October day, Alan began stomping and shouting, cheering for his new school. The girls sitting one bleacher seat down from his told school staff he was kicking them – a claim Alan and his mother, Juliet Moreno, deny.
“Everyone was doing it,” Alan said recently, recalling that day three years ago. “I was just doing it, too.”
Nevertheless, the meeting in the principal’s office that followed ended with Alan suspended.
It wasn’t meant to be a day for tears, but there Alan was, a tall, sturdy boy with thick black hair and wet cheeks, sobbing in the passenger seat of his mom’s Buick.
Alan was suspended for three days that time. A scuffle a few months later, Moreno said, netted him a week out of school and a visit from police at their home. School officials did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Moreno, who said her son loved to learn, worries that schoolhouse sanctions could put Alan on a path toward the criminal justice system. She’s right to be concerned.
Middle school is when most American children age into the criminal justice system – every state allows for the prosecution of children as young as 12, though most set the threshold earlier, or not at all – and suspension from school is predictive of incarceration later in life. And for Black, Native and Latino boys, like Alan, research by the U.S. Commission of Civil Rights shows the impact to be especially severe.
It is too soon to have firm data on suspensions, expulsions and school-based arrests during the pandemic, but they haven’t stopped.
Amanda Gallegos, a staffer with SouthWestOrganizing Project in Albuquerque, New Mexico, which aims to empower disenfranchised communities, said the middle schoolers she works with are struggling.
“Middle school, that’s when you’re figuring out how to be a human,” Gallegos said. “We always call it the equalizer, because everybody has a (bad) middle school experience.”
Middle school in a pandemic has been especially rough, said Gallegos, a field organizer whose work includes running youth programs and political actions. In her community, she said, electives and extracurricular activities were curtailed and school discipline has been handed to police, who make “welfare checks” on students who miss online classes.
Suspensions increased steadily from the late 1980s through the 2011-12 school year and then fell precipitously, dropping 20% by the 2013-14 school year, according to a 2019 report to Congress by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.
Yet Latino, Native and multiracial middle schoolers are still disciplined at higher-than-average rates, and the risk that classroom misbehavior ends in a suspension or a court date is acute for Black students. A study that tracked nearly 1 million Texas seventh-graders found Black students disciplined for some infractions at rates 31% above the norm. Researchers at UCLA found suspension rates among Black middle school students were double the average; in a single year at two Atlanta middle schools, more than 60% of Black boys were suspended.
Some lament the shift away from exclusionary school discipline. In a recent survey drawing responses from 1,219 teachers and conducted by the charter schools advocacy organization the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, an overwhelming majority of teachers viewed suspension and expulsion as useful to keep classrooms safe.
And yet, a middle schooler who has been suspended is, by some estimates, nearly four times more likely to end up with a criminal record compared with demographically identical peers. Students suspended or expelled early in adolescence are often shunted into remedial classes and never returned to the mainstream.
“You don’t punish a child by denying them an education,” said Raymond Pierce, president of the Southern Education Foundation. Disruptive behavior must be dealt with, he said, but it helps no one to keep kids from “reading Mark Twain and Shakespeare and Maya Angelou,” taking algebra or learning world history.
Particularly galling both to experts and parents, discipline doled out in middle school often punishes behaviors that are entirely appropriate for 11- to 14-year-olds.
“If you just hang around middle school kids, you’ll see them pushing and shoving each other,” said Melissa Sickmund, director of the National Center for Juvenile Justice. “If adults do that, it is assault. But if it’s happening in a school and there’s no blood … that kid does not need to be arrested.”
Many of the systems aimed at America’s youths are out of sync with the science, according to a report released in 2013 by the National Research Council. The study’s authors pointed to a fluke of anatomical development – parts of the brain influencing pleasure-seeking and emotional responses grow faster than parts supporting self-control.
“It’s not just a refusal to do right, it's that inability that’s part of their development,” Sickmund said.
Generations of advocates for Black students have made claims of broad racial prejudice among educators, an assertion that has been borne out by research. Studies have shown that teachers are as biased against Black people, as American society is broadly, and that school staff are likely to misread the expressions of Black children, seeing anger where there is none. Black students are also disproportionately punished for breaking dress codes and disobeying hairstyle restrictions and other minor misbehavior.
For Black boys and other children of color, the increased risk of being punished at school begins as early as preschool, according to government data. And by middle school, the school-to-prison pipeline for Black, Latino and Native children can be unsparingly direct.
Sixty miles east of Los Angeles, “C” has been handcuffed four times by police at his middle school. (We are using C’s first initial to protect his privacy.) During one October 2019 arrest caught on the officer’s body camera, a Moreno Valley Unified School District officer knelt on C’s neck after dragging the 70-pound sixth-grader away from his desk in a special education classroom.
The 11-year-old’s alleged infraction? Throwing a rock near an officer the day before.
"I refused to let him go back to that school,” said C’s father, William, who asked to be referred to only by his first name to protect his son’s privacy. “I feared for his life.”
Like Alan, the New Mexico boy, C qualifies for special education. Officers placed at schools aren’t trained to interact with children who have disabilities, C's parents and their attorneys contend, and showed no compassion or skill in interactions with C.
C was kept handcuffed in a squad car for more than an hour before he was taken to a police station, according to a formal complaint made against the school district by attorneys representing the family.
C has since enrolled in a new school and has done well with distance learning, but William said the damage is lasting. He said his son, who dreamed as a kindergartner of becoming a police officer, no longer sleeps well and often comments that “everybody thinks he’s bad.”
Moreno’s son Alan has avoided arrest, but only just. Police have popped in on their meetings with school staff. One day, Alan made comments at school that alarmed a teacher. Hours later, police officers were outside the Moreno home.
Toward the end of seventh grade, Alan was moved into a classroom by himself and taught by an aide. He wept when his mother told him he was being sequestered.
“Because I’m a single mom, we’re a team,” said Moreno, a bilingual speech pathologist of 18 years. “This was the first time I had to lie to him. … I said, ‘We’ll make it cool.’”
The only other sweetener Moreno could offer was that the bullying would stop. Inside, she said she felt like screaming. Alan ended up spending much of eighth grade alone, too.
“As an educator, I’m just appalled,” Moreno said. She and her attorney, Gail Stewart, have since taken administrative legal action against the school district.
Some schools and districts have changed the status quo. Until 2018, suspensions and arrests were commonplace at Woodland Hills Junior Senior High School, then the educational home to most seventh- and eighth-graders in the 3,800-student district in suburban Pittsburgh. Woodland Hills gained notoriety after a 2015 incident that saw a school-based police officer throw a 15-year-old boy to a hallway floor and, with the principal’s help, shock him with a Taser for talking back to a teacher.
Suspensions, expulsions and arrests were pervasive in the Pennsylvania district, where students of color currently make up 72% of the student body. Its elementary-level suspension rates were among the nation's highest. Change came when a newly elected school board brought in a new superintendent, James Harris, in 2018.
Harris, a former military police officer, corporate marketer and restauranteur, closed a rundown alternative school and a divisive magnet school, reset elementary school enrollment rules and built a middle school. On-campus police were phased out.
“We’re fighting history,” Harris said. “But we figure that every day is a new day that we’re adding to our history.”
The “real change” for middle schoolers, Harris said, was a shift in school discipline policy. When students are pulled from class now, the staffer who deals with them must return with them to that class so the student may ask for permission to come back. This gives the teacher some control, and shows the rest of the class the student has remorse.
The 2019-20 school year passed without a single expulsion, and disciplinary referrals in the district have fallen 70%, Harris said, freeing teachers to work with students on academics.
“They say, ‘You treat us like real people,’” Harris said of the students he’s met. “Well, you are real people.”
More holistic approaches to school discipline have been gaining traction in schools nationally for the past two decades. If the changes aren’t accelerated, experts said, the risk of abandoning too many of this generation’s Black, Latino and Native children to the justice system remains high.
Back in Deming, remote high school is going poorly for Alan. Heading into the winter break, Alan, now 15, had straight F’s.
Alan said he enjoys mariachi class – he plays guitar in the band – and golf team, which he enjoys for the quiet and companionship. He said he wants to work with computers as an adult. Or maybe in real estate. Or maybe, joking with his mom, he’ll become a traveling hairstylist to the stars, like a man he saw on TikTok.
His mother shares those hopes, but also frets that the way Alan was treated in middle school, as someone to be protected against and shuffled aside, may presage the years ahead.
“I worry a lot about his future,” she said