When school slides into prison easier than graduation

Sheriffs showed up to a 12-year-old Black boy’s home after a toy gun appeared on his webcam for school. What happened next? (an election aftermath break until next week)

By LJ Dawson

Founder of The Des and freelance journalist based in Washington, D.C.

The school to prison pipeline has long been established across the country, Colorado is no different. But this year, online classes have brought school discipline into children’s homes. This story explores how that could impact Black children. First written by me for the Colorado Springs Indy (Oct. 14, 2020)

The family in 2018. Courtesy of Dani Elliott

On the third day of online school in August, Dani Elliott called her 12-year-old son. She was terrified. She told him to lock every door, turn off the lights and go to the basement until his father returned from a quick errand down the street. 

Widefield School District 3’s two school resource officers (SROs), who are El Paso County Sheriff’s Office (EPSO) deputies, were on their way to her home for a welfare check. A teacher had reported Elliott’s son and his friend, another student taking classes at her home, for displaying what the teacher thought, but was not sure, was a toy gun during an online class.

Elliott’s first thought, she says, was of Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old Black boy like her son who was killed by police in 2014 when an officer shot him because he thought his toy gun was real. 

“It seems like almost every week there’s a new story, and I did not want my son to be the next headline of something that happened tragically at the hands of law enforcement because of a misunderstanding,” she says.

The SROs gave Isaiah a stern lecture with his father present and told him he could have been criminally charged with “interference with an educational institution.” He was not charged, but he was suspended by the school for five days for behavior which was “detrimental to the welfare, safety or morals of other pupils or school personnel” and violating district policies.

Experts say implicit bias and racism result in higher rates of punishment of minority students, which contributes to the “school-to-prison” pipeline where students of color are more likely to end up incarcerated and less likely to graduate than white students. Elliott believes her son was a victim of that same bias, only in a new online setting. And there are other cases like Isaiah’s. In September a 9-year-old Black student was suspended in Louisiana when a teacher saw a BB gun in his room during an online class. 

The toy gun that Isaiah showed on his class video. Courtesy of Dani Elliot

Locally, Elliott says the school handled the situation poorly. “Not only did [they] fail to protect his safety, but [they] endangered his life, potentially, by calling the police,” she says. 

But the district says it acted with Isaiah’s well-being in mind, though it is not policy to send SROs to the home. 

Isaiah’s parents pulled him out of D-3’s Grand Mountain school after the incident due to, they say, fears for his safety. But Elliott says Isaiah’s interaction with the EPSO deputies took away a piece of his innocence. She says he was in tears after the visit and thought he was going to jail. All of a sudden, an already difficult school year became even harder. [Read the full story]



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Founder of The Des and freelance criminal justice reporter based in Washington, D.C.