Back in January, a 15-year-old African-American student was taking a test in his third-period social studies class when a police officer walked in and told him he was under arrest. As the officer handcuffed him, he reportedly twisted the teen's arm hard enough to make him scream. That only made things worse: The school guard soon threatened to tack on a charge of resisting arrest.
With the principal and classmates looking on, the officer led the student out of the school, while allegedly saying things like "I've got you now," and threatening to "beat the f--k out of" him. By now you have to be wondering what this kid's crime was, right?
Well, he threw Skittles on the school bus the day before.
Yes, flinging a bag of Skittles is an offense that can be charged as “simple battery” if you happen to go to school in Louisiana's Jefferson Parish School System -- the largest district in the state -- and this student's story is just one uncovered in the Southern Poverty Law Center's recent complaint against JPSS.
There's a real problem in Jefferson Parish, and it points to a larger national issue: Students are being arrested for things that aren't actually crimes -- just broken school rules. It’s happening disproportionately more often to students of color and, as MTV News found out, the consequences can be lasting and dire.
From The School Bus To The Detention Center
The student who threw Skittles at a classmate spent the next six days, scared, in a Rivarde Detention Center (a local juvenile facility) before appearing in court. His mother was only informed of the incident when he arrived at the center.
The problem with charges like "simple battery," according to Jessica Feierman, Supervising Attorney at the Juvenile Law Center, is that they're really, really broad. They can easily be applied to any typical rowdy teenage behaviors (like horseplay, yelling, cursing, or even throwing candy).
"The definition of battery is 'an intentional act causing harmful or unwanted touching,'" Feierman explained to MTV News. "Using the broadest arguments, you can make that claim that the Skittles thrown at a kid is 'simple battery."
“Once those broad laws are on the books, they leave so much discretion [to the police], and there are so many police in the schools, who aren’t being given guidance in a meaningful way," Feierman said. And the advocates at the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) agree that's the case in Jefferson Parish, where those conditions have vastly increased the likelihood of unnecessary arrests.
The Color Of Your Skin Most Definitely Plays A Role
As for why students of color are affected more often, Stephen Phillippi, Director at the Institute of Public Health and Justice at Louisiana State University, said bias most definitely plays a role.
"It’s a natural question I don’t think we’ve done well to answer, but there's an inherent bias," Phillippi said. "Regardless [of an individual's race], there is an inclination toward seeing African-Americans as more aggressive for some reason in American systems."
That bias can lead teachers and police officers to treat black and white students misbehaving completely differently; over-policing students of color lands them in handcuffs, while their white classmates end up in after-school detention or a parent-teacher conference.
This happens in Jefferson Parish, and it happens across the country.
But This Isn't The First Complaint For Jefferson Parish
The SPLC sent a complaint, just like the one detailed above, back in 2012. It told the stories of four different students of color arrested at school on charges that weren't really criminal, Sara Godchaux, staff attorney at the SPLC said. The center launched an investigation with the Department of Education, but nothing ever really came of it. The arrests kept happening.
The county even looked into this issue years before that when they partnered with Models for Change, an organization that worked in multiple states to reform the juvenile justice system. In 2007, Jefferson Parish received $350,000 from the MacArthur foundation, which allowed them to bring in Models for Change to take a closer look at the way the courts handled juvenile cases.
One of the strategies the organization tried to implement was to get nearly all referrals that were non-violent or misdemeanor charges to go through community programs or support services instead of the courts.
When kids get arrested for breaking school rules, said Phillippi, who worked on the project in 2007, it's supposed to be after the school has "exhausted" all other disciplinary options. The school first needs to try after-school detention sessions, out-of-school suspensions, meetings with parents and teachers, and meetings with school resource counselors -- an arrest should be the last resort.
According to Phillippi, the courts have been more and more critical of referrals that don't prove schools tried all of these other options first. The SPLC also states that the majority of "non-violent, misdemeanor school-based arrests" are very quickly dismissed, refused and diverted by judges.
Does The Skittles Case Prove Not Much Has Changed In Jefferson Parish?
Referrals to the courts have declined in Jefferson Parish, according to Models For Change, particularly for "less serious behavior," including charges of simple battery, disturbing the peace, or interference with an education facility. They report that the referrals on these charges decreased by 58% from 518 in the 2007–2008 school year to 216 in 2011–2012. They also say that the School Resource Officers at JPSS requested and received training to better respond to youth with behavioral problems and mental illness.
The Models for Change findings only go up to the 2012-2013 school year. And the SPLC, however, doesn't believe the problem has really been addressed, since kids are still being referred to the police in high numbers across the school system. In their complaint, SPLC reported that the Jefferson Parish School System still had the highest number of students with school-based arrests and referrals in the state during the 2011-2012 school year: With 706 students arrested and 923 referred.
That may not seem so bad considering they're the largest district in the state with 45,914 students, but it looks a lot worse when stacked against the next largest district -- East Baton Rouge Parish with 42,985 students -- where only 170 students were referred to law enforcement and 0 students were arrested in school.
The SPLC also reports that JPSS continues to refer more students of color than white students to the police under the broad charges of simple battery and interference with an educational facility.
In response to MTV News' request for an interview, Jefferson Parish School District released this statement: "We are aware of and are very concerned by these allegations. We pledge to work closely with those agencies involved to quickly resolve any issues that we identify. We are committed to ensuring that our students have a safe, healthy environment and are treated equably at all schools."
Forget 'Scared Straight,' Arrests Can Mean The End Of Your Education
When the Skittles case eventually hit the courtroom, the judge reportedly said what we were thinking all along: "Are we really here about Skittles?”
But, the eighth-grader -- like so many other kids who were arrested for minor offenses -- is still struggling in the aftermath, Sara Godchaux, staff attorney at the SPLC, said. While he used to be outgoing and into sports, he quickly started to withdraw from the things he once loved.
“The kids who are arrested, they’re embarrassed,” Godchaux told MTV News. “Being pulled out of class by the police is very humiliating. They just don’t want to be at school anymore: They don’t trust their teachers, the administrators or the police officers on campus or in their communities.”
More often than not, kids who have their first brush with the law earlier in life have a harder time -- socially, emotionally and academically -- regardless of how it pans out in the court, Feierman said. Even if they end up dismissed later on in the courts, the damage is already done. It's really common for kids to fall behind on their work once introduced into the justice system, she said, and it's often impossible to catch up once class time is missed. And too many of them don't make it to graduation.
"It’s a really big issue; about two-thirds of these students drop out of school," Feierman said. "The reality is that for a lot of young people who are arrested, that’s the end of their education and their life goes in a really different direction."
Why 'Restorative Justice' Matters
She said that one goal for people looking to improve the juvenile justice system is pretty obvious: Keep kids in school. Feierman explained that it's important to support programs that prioritize the education and rehabilitation of kids in the system -- they turn "mistakes" into "teaching moments" -- and aim to ensure they never end up in the adult criminal justice system.
Feierman is a big fan of second chances.
"[The juvenile justice system] is supposed to be about helping young people become happy and healthy adults, so they have the chance to get on the right track and overcome any mistakes that they made," she said. "All young people deserve a chance to be at school and have their education."