Today the Center for Public Integrity digs in deeper on an issue of growing public interest: the school-to-prison pipeline. That is, the way that schools work hand in hand with the police and juvenile justice systems to mete out school discipline for students, a disproportionate number of whom are black, Latino, or diagnosed with a disability. 

This time the focus is the state of Virginia, where students, many of them pre-adolescent youngsters and children of color, have had criminal charges filed against them for such infractions as kicking a trash can, or struggling against a school police officer who’s trying to detain them, or even being caught clenching their fists in front of a school police officer.

By referring an average of 15.8 out of every 1,000 students to the police, the Center for Public Integrity found, Virginia tops the nation in state rankings measuring how many students get sent to the police or courts. Among the top 15 states, nearly every state refers a disproportionately higher number of its black and Latino students and students with disabilities to cops than their peers. In Vermont, for instance, schools sends roughly 7 students to police officers for every 1,000 students, but more than three times that many black students to the juvenile justice system for every 1,000 students.

The Center for Public Integrity shares examples of the kind of behavior for Virginia youth that’s considered criminal:

One of McCausland’s clients is a 15-year-old charged with assault and sexual battery after she pushed a girl in the bathroom and kissed her. “Sexual abuse, that’s a pretty serious charge,” McCausland said. Another is an 11-year-old with mental-health problems who stole her teacher’s cell phone and was automatically charged with felony theft because the phone is worth at least $200.

“She can’t do long division, but she can get felony theft,” McCausland said.

McCausland believes the problem is compounded by police who she says “pile” charges on kids.

A 12-year-old client went to pick up her cousin at an elementary school, saw a fight and pulled her cousin out of it, McCausland said, and when a school cop grabbed her she swore. The cop charged her with obstruction of justice for clenching her first, along with trespassing, disorderly conduct and resisting arrest.

If you’re in a school-to-prison pipeline longreads kind of mood, I suggest Dana Goldstein’s Marshall Project report on West Virginia’s approach to juvenile incarceration from last October, or my 2014 Colorlines report from an Oakland charter school that’s trying to shift the tide on the criminalization of young children of color from the inside.