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Virginia’s School to Prison Pipeline II – Inside Scoop

(Sept. 12, 2016) In the second show in a series on Virginia’s School to Prison Pipeline, Catherine Read explores the constitutional rights of children in school. Her guests include Juliet Hiznay, an attorney who has represented families with special needs children for many years; Melinda VanLowe, a trial attorney based in Fairfax who represents children engaged with the criminal justice system; and Leslie Mehta, Legal Director for the Virginia ACLU.

The show delves in to how Virginia became the #1 state in the nation for students referred to the criminal justice system. Data released by the Center for Public Integrity shows that of those children referred, African-American children and children with disabilities are disproportionately represented. Children with disabilities are referred at a rate of 33.4 per 1000 students despite the fact that they make up only 13.4% of the entire student population of Virginia.

Leslie Mehta of the Virginia American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) discusses a recent case filed with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights on behalf of two students in the Richmond Public School System who are African-American and have intellectual disabilities. The treatment of these two students is indicative of a broken system of student discipline that the VA ACLU, the Richmond NAACP and the Richmond Legal Aid Justice Center want to see addressed and reformed.

Attorney Melinda VanLowe addresses how students and parents need to understand the fundamental rights of school children when being questioned by school administrators and school resource officers. They have the same Miranda rights as any person being questioned in a situation that could result in criminal charges. Ms. VanLowe suggests children be advised by their parents not to answer questions or allow a search of their belongings until they have spoken to their parent or guardian. She also suggests parents seek the advice of an attorney even when school personnel are telling them “it’s not necessary.”

Juliet Hiznay discusses the negative impact of the “Zero Tolerance Policy” ushered into the public school system with the best of intentions that has resulted in an escalation of school discipline problems into criminal justice referrals. The numbers in Virginia are staggering, with over 700 disciplinary referrals per school day, and 20% of those school suspensions affecting elementary school children. Ms. Hiznay also highlights a private consulting company that actually trains school personnel in the interrogation of school children.  These widely accepted ideas are creating school environments that mirror far to closely those of a prison.

The vast majority of Virginians would not believe that their state could top this list nationwide of children being referred to the criminal justice system. Most adults have a limited knowledge of their own school system and what goes on there. This is where research, data collection and identification of patterns and practices becomes vital in understanding a pervasive problem that is not immediately evident.

Inside Scoop will continue with this series on Virginia’s School to Prison Pipeline as we follow what local, state and national agencies are doing to address and resolve the root causes of this culture shift that is impacting the futures of school children across the Commonwealth.

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