Will the Handcuffing of a Kindergartner Bring Greater Scrutiny of the School to Prison Pipeline?

By Anne King

When police handcuffed Salecia Johnson, a Georgia kindergartner, at her school this week, the incident sparked outrage nationwide. Criticism has focused on both school personnel — who called the police when the six-year old had a tantrum at school — and the local police — who defended their actions by claiming that department policy requires handcuffing of anyone taken into custody.

Unsurprisingly, Salecia’s family has said that the experience was very traumatic for the six-year-old girl. But perhaps the incident will bring greater attention — and scrutiny — to the problem of the school to prison pipeline. The “pipeline” refers loosely to the phenomenon of school policies and practices that establish a police or police-like presence in educational settings, rely on law enforcement for school discipline, saddle youth with criminal records for conduct that occurred at school, and, generally speaking, create a strong connection between the school system and the criminal justice system.

Much attention has focused on the pipeline problem for older students, especially disciplinary alternative programs and the police/security presence at high schools. (I covered a few examples of legal scholarship on the school to prison pipeline in a recent post at this blog.)  Indeed, a 2011 study by Pediatrics found that 30 percent of young adults surveyed reported being arrested by the age of 23. (The survey didn’t include minor traffic offenses.) This was a significant increase from the findings of a similar survey in the 1960’s, and observers suggest the increase is connected to the rise of no tolerance policies in schools.

What happened to Salecia Johnson is particularly shocking because of her young age and the severity of the police conduct. But it will be important for advocates to emphasize that her story isn’t anomalous, or even unusual; instead, it’s part of a much broader phenomenon that has reached systemic proportions.

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