2015 Knight Award for Public Service finalist

Criminalizing Kids

Susan Ferriss, Ben Wieder, Chris Zubak-Skees

Reveal Radio
The Center for Public Integrity

Knight Award for Public Service


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About the Project

The Center for Public Integrity’s latest major “Criminalizing Kids” story introduced the nation to Kayleb Moon-Robinson, an autistic 11-year-old charged—and convicted—of alleged crimes at his Virginia school this past year.

What did Kayleb do?

A police officer posted at Kayleb’s middle school charged him last fall with disorderly conduct for kicking a trash can in anger. Then, just weeks later, when the sixth grader left class without permission, the same officer followed and grabbed him. Kayleb pushed back, and the cop wrestled the special-needs child to the ground, handcuffed him and charged him again.

This time Kayleb was accused of felony assault on a police officer. He was found guilty in April 2015, and faces possible detention later this year, if a judge decides to order that punishment at a follow-up hearing. Whatever happens next, Kayleb has already been slapped with a felony record that he will have to disclose and that can be opened up under certain circumstances. Kids in the neighborhood, his mother said, call him a criminal.

Our report featuring Kayleb sparked widespread outrage—and significant impact—across the country and in Virginia. With its online presentation of national data, it also broke open a broader discussion across the country on the negative consequences of putting police in schools without definitive limits on the role of cops.

The story provided clear evidence that children who are ethnic minorities—Kayleb is black—and who have special needs are particularly affected by this trend to criminalize children’s behavior at school. Contrary to the notion that kids learn a healthy lesson from this harsh treatment, children face potentially lifelong negative consequences for behavior that used to be handled inside schools by principals and counselors.

In direct response to our story, the governor of Virginia has appointed cabinet members to investigate school policing and referrals to courts.

More parents have come forward to disclose their stories of children unjustly prosecuted at school for perceived infractions. Our story pointed out that school administrators in some jurisdictions feel powerless to object once police get involved in an incident at school. In our follow story on the governor’s response, we reported that the mother of another autistic child was told that once her son touched a cop, he had to be charged.

Some Virginia school districts featured in the investigation have pledged to reform and roll back the use of officers to respond to disciplinary problems. Some prosecutors also called for reforms immediately after our story was posted and distributed through national and local media.

To start our story, we used national education data to rank states for how often schools refer students to cops or courts, with an arrest or not. The national data didn’t say why kids were referred to police. So we drilled down on Virginia, which ranked first among states, and requested a sampling of local police reports through public-records act requests. The state does not track referrals to juvenile courts from schools, so local police reports served as a sample database to help define what kinds of charges kids were facing for incidents at school.

The records we obtained showed that a shocking number of young children—kids younger than 10—were charged by school police for disorderly conduct, assault and even with making bomb threats. Public defenders told us about middle-school children charged for yelling, slamming lockers or involvement in fisticuffs. Some preteens were given multiple criminal charges, including obstruction of justice and resisting arrest for trying to wriggle free from a cop’s grasp.

Our original analysis of the national education data provided the public with a state-by-state interactive breakdown of how often students are referred to police or courts from public schools. The breakdown revealed how grossly disproportionate these referrals are nationally and in most states for African-American students, especially, and for students with special needs, such as autism.

As part of the digital package, we posted a radio piece we produced with Reveal, a new national radio program from the Center for Investigative Reporting, featuring Kayleb and others interviewed for our investigation.

Just days after its debut, the online-radio story was either carried or featured in blogs in more than 80 publications, TV and local and national and state radio programs. A petition drive began to request a pardon for Kayleb, which has been signed by more than 128,000 people. Lawyers contacted the Center to offer to help Kayleb with an appeal. Staff at Virginia’s legislature and in local governments contacted the Center for help understanding the national and local police records we had collected and analyzed.

An op-ed by a state PTA mother and an attorney appeared in the Richmond Times-Dispatch newspaper; it cited the Center’s investigation and said it was imperative that the state move forward with requiring special training for school police. The Virginian-Pilot published an editorial calling practices the Center discovered in Virginia a “pipeline to jail” and calling for immediate steps to rethink practices and improve data collection.

Our investigation was carried in full by TIME online and Public Radio International’s “The World,” among other outlets, and our radio version of the story aired on more than 250 stations. The Associated Press and Reuters both produced reports on our story that circulated widely.

The piece was featured prominently in blogs from Ebony magazine to the New York Times’ popular MotherLode blog about childrearing and family. A number of radio stations across the country generated their own stories, using our reporting as a starting point, and often interviewing reporter Susan Ferriss. The day the story appeared Ferriss was interviewed by the popular “TakeAway” public radio program. Days later, the story was still circulating, with a segment on Los Angeles popular talk show, “Judge Cristina.” Multiple autism and legal groups also linked to the story, with some issuing statements calling for 11-year-old Kayleb, the autistic boy, to be pardoned.

We are proud of our investigation’s impact, and how it has inspired parents, communities, schools, law enforcement and political leaders to pursue meaningful changes.