NBC News analyzed U.S. Department of Education data from the 2013-2014 school year and found that, nationally, black students and students with disabilities are suspended, expelled, arrested, and referred to police at rates disproportionately higher than their white and non-disabled peers.
The analysis showed that black students are 3.49 times more likely to be arrested at school than white students, and are more than twice as likely to be referred to law enforcement. It also found that students with disabilities are nearly three times more likely to be arrested at school and referred to law enforcement than students without disabilities.
Police and court records revealed that law enforcement became involved with students for minor discipline issues. Students have been charged with crimes like assault for getting frustrated and pushing past a teacher, or battery for getting in a schoolyard fight, NBC News reported. In Louisiana, an eighth-grader was handcuffed and dragged out of class for throwing Skittles at another student on the bus. In South Carolina, a teen was arrested, charged, and convicted of disorderly conduct for cursing and causing a scene in the library.
In Prince William County, Virginia, eight-grader Ryan Turk was handcuffed and charged with petit larceny and disorderly conduct after he forgot to grab a carton of milk in the lunch line and went back to get it. Ryan, who is enrolled in the free lunch program, had to go to court for allegedly stealing a 65-cent carton of milk.
More than 20 states have a "disturbing schools" law that broadly criminalizes behaviors that disrupt the school environment. In Savannah, Georgia an elementary school student was arrested for "disrupting public schools," and in New Mexico, a 13-year-old Hispanic student was arrested in 2011 and charged with "Interference with the Educational Process" for fake burping in gym class.
Studies have shown that African American students are more likely to be suspended or expelled when teachers or officials have discretion to determine their punishment, such as when a student is deemed disrespectful or violates a dress code. Children of color too often are presumed guilty and dangerous by teachers, officials, and school resource officers.
Referring students to law enforcement can create delinquency records that stigmatize kids at school and shadow them for years, putting them at increased risk of ongoing involvement with the criminal justice system.
Nationally, schools with officers are 2.51 times more likely to refer students to law enforcement and 3.12 times more likely to arrest students, compared to schools without officers, the data show. Across the country, 43 percent of public schools have some kind of security personnel present at least once a week. School resource officers are sometimes off-duty or retired police officers, and some are not sworn law enforcement officers at all.
During the 2013-2014 school year, schools reported 65,150 school-based arrests of students. Students were referred to law enforcement more than 200,000 times. Currently, the Education Department's Office of Civil Rights has over 450 open investigations for discrimination on the basis of race, sex, disability and national origin in the administration of discipline in schools.
Some school districts have undertaken reforms in recent years to reduce racial disparities. Chicago Public Schools began using restorative justice strategies about four years ago and retrained its police officers, and it has reduced its suspensions and expulsion rates, as well as referrals to law enforcement. But the federal data shows that in 2013-2014, black students in Chicago were five times more likely to be referred to police than their white peers.