For the past 10 years, California has been slowly dismantling a tough-on-crime infrastructure that led to the prison population peaking at 173,000 in 2006. Today, the prison system in America’s largest state holds fewer than 100,000 prisoners. It’s a fascinating turnaround for a state that, after passage of the Three Strikes law in 1994, had for many years been a byword for harsh sentencing.
Despite this, activists fear that too many young people are still attending schools where they are set up to fail. For poorer Californians, the so-called schools-to-prison pipeline—the assumption that youngsters from some backgrounds are inherently suspect and, consequently, should be coercively controlled—remains operational. Each year in California, according to the National Center for Youth Law, about 6,500 students are expelled from schools, over a quarter of a million are suspended, and many students are placed in “alternative” education settings in which they receive a bare minimum of in-person instruction each week and are then sent home with handouts to make up the difference.
Once students are deemed incorrigible and essentially banished from the school system, they are that much more likely to cycle in and out of jail and prison over subsequent decades, and that much less likely to succeed economically. It’s a circle of dysfunction that locks into place race and class disparities.
Black students are vastly more likely to be suspended than are members of other groups. Ten years ago, 133 in every 1,000 Black students in the state were suspended at some point in a year. Today, that number is down, but it still remains shockingly high, at about 80 per 1,000. For Latino students, that number is closer to 30; and for whites, it is about 25.
How students are treated in schools varies tremendously from district to district. Students in poorer cities, or in schools with a large number of students bused in from poorer neighborhoods, and with higher percentages of non-white students, are more likely to be subject to sweeping, catch-all enforcement policies.
Three weeks ago, two Black students at El Cerrito High School in Contra Costa County got into a fight. In the course of that fight, one of the students produced a gun and brandished it. Thankfully, he didn’t fire the gun and the incident ended without bloodshed.
Not surprisingly, El Cerrito police were called in to investigate and an arrest was made by nearby Richmond police later that same day. Also not surprisingly, in the wake of the incident the West Contra Costa Unified School District implemented a temporary policy that all students’ backpacks and bags would be searched before the teenagers were allowed onto school grounds.
So far, so good. The day after the fight, according to relatives of students at the school, district school safety officers and staff at the high school began searching the kids. Had it stopped there, I doubt anyone would have been outraged; as likely as not, parents, students, and teachers alike would all have accepted this as a tragic necessity, a consequence of the violent times we live in.
But a day later, things got strange. On March 10, fully uniformed military personnel were stationed at the school’s entrance, searching children before they could go to their classes for the day. A local Antioch City Councilwoman, Tamisha Walker, a formerly incarcerated individual who runs a nonprofit called the Safe Return Project, was at the school that day dropping off a relative. She took a series of photographs of the encounter, in which military personnel, dressed in full battle fatigues, can be seen searching the young children. Black students reportedly told their parents when they went home that day that they were singled out for particularly intrusive searches and interrogations by the military personnel.
After the event, the high school’s principal, Patricia Crespo—who didn’t return an e-mail request to be interviewed for this column—put out a reassuring statement saying the personnel were US Marine recruiters who had, at the suggestion of an alumnus of the school, volunteered to help with the searching of the children. That may or may not be the case; but either way, surely the bigger question is this: Is it appropriate that children—the vast majority of whom had nothing to do with the fight and gun-display from a couple days earlier—in a US city, and with the rights accorded US residents and citizens, should be subject to search and interrogation by military personnel before they are allowed into school in the morning?
“They can’t do this. They have no authority, even if they are on site as recruiters, to search students,” Darris Young, a longtime advocate and social justice organizer in the area, and a relative of one of the students who was searched, told me.
Young has contacted California’s attorney general about the incident, and a number of parents are trying to organize to find out more about what went on at the school and why. Meanwhile, the school district’s superintendent, Young says, reportedly stonewalled the idea of a broad investigation into what happened at El Cerrito High. The West Contra Costa Unified School District denies this is the case. The district’s communication’s director, Ryan Phillips, told me that the principal had gone it alone in bringing in recruiters to search students; that the district had immediately shut the operation down when officials found out about it; and that the event “violated our safety protocols.”
That still raises the question: even if the impetus for this didn’t come from the school district, how could a principal of a high school possibly have thought it was a good idea to use the military to search young children? I can’t see how this would have happened in a more affluent city or among a more affluent student population. Of course, in an era in which there is a shocking number of school shootings, there have to be tools in place to effectively act against gun violence in schools. But there are other ways to keep students safe besides subjecting them to the sort of invasive, intimidatory process, using military personnel against young kids, that went down at El Cerrito High three weeks ago.
If members of the military can be deployed to search school kids, even in a progressive state like California, what does that say about how the country as a whole views the rights of children today?
This article has been updated to include comment from the West Contra Costa Unified School District.