We like to think that schools are a safe haven for children, a place where they learn not just reading, writing, and arithmetic but also social skills that will help carry them through life. It’s anything but that when it comes to dealing with Black children, as the educational system has gained a reputation for treating Black students like criminals and establishing what is known as a school-to-prison pipeline. As draconian as that may sound, and as much as some may not want to believe it exists, when six year-olds are put in handcuffs, it’s hard to argue the school-to-prison pipeline isn’t a real thing.
That’s exactly what happened to Salecia Johnson. On April 13, six year-old Johnson was arrested and handcuffed in her Milledgeville, GA elementary school after what has been described as a “temper tantrum.” The kindergartner was involved in altercation with two other girls and then taken to the principal’s office where, according to a written statement from Baldwin County Schools Superintendent Geneva Braziel, Johnson became “violent and disruptive” and began “pushing several other students; running away from the school staff; slamming chairs around the school office; climbing up and knocking over a bookcase; knocking pictures off the wall; scribbling over the walls and door; and injuring a school employee.” School officials responded by calling the police. The police responded by arresting Johnson and placing her in handcuffs.
They put a six year-old in handcuffs. No matter how many times it’s said, it becomes no less infuriating.
The rise of zero tolerance policies as a response to the school shootings of the late 1990s has served to criminalize student behavior, and have had a disproportionate effect on Black youth. An analysis of data from the 2009-10 school year showed that in school systems with 50,000 or more students enrolled, Black students made up 24 percent of the total population but 35 percent of those arrested, as compared to White students who comprised 31 percent of those enrolled but only 21 percent of arrests. Schools are reinforcing the idea of Black criminality from an early age, sending Black students into the criminal justice system, causing near irrevocable damage to their career and life prospects.
It is often noted about how this injustice is visited upon Black male students, but it is also true that Black girls are increasingly becoming victims of the criminal justice and mass incarceration system. They are not committing more crimes, but because of zero tolerance policies and the dual justice system that operates on stereotypes and deals with Black and White girls differently, Black girls have become the fastest growing population of incarcerated young people. In 2008 in California, the arrest rate was 49 out of every 1000 for Black girls, as compared to 8.9 of every 1000 White girls.
It follows that as the prison-industrial complex grows, and privately owned for profit prisons continue to house more inmates, there will be a need to recruit new demographics to fill those walls. A society that finds virtue in profiting from mass incarceration will have no qualms about criminalizing six year-old Black girls.
This recent story is similar to that of J’aiesha Scott, who in 2005 had a temper tantrum over a jelly-bean counting game. Three police officers were called in after Scott was taken to the principal’s office, where they pulled her out of seat, handcuffed her, and left her in the back of a police cruiser to cry for hours. Johnson was charged with battery and suspended from school for the rest of the year, though the decision was later reversed and the charges dropped. But if we are sending the message that Black girl’s rather normal behavior as children not fully equipped to process their emotions is to be treated as criminal, we set a precedent that is destructive and unsustainable.
Johnson’s parents are calling for her arrest to be removed from her record and that the police not be used in issues of school discipline. It won’t stop her nightmares, or her paranoia that every police officer is going to take her away, but it’s the very least that can be done for Salecia’s future.