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New To The School-To-Prison Pipeline: Armed Teachers, Facial Recognition, And First-Graders Labeled ‘High-Level’ Threats

A Miami-Dade Police officer before a briefing on security at a school in 2018
Joe Raedle/Getty Images

New To The School-To-Prison Pipeline: Armed Teachers, Facial Recognition, And First-Graders Labeled ‘High-Level’ Threats


Spotlights like this one provide original commentary and analysis on pressing criminal justice issues of the day. You can read them each day in our newsletter, The Daily Appeal.

Last week, Searchlight New Mexico published an investigation into the Albuquerque Public Schools’ use of threat assessments and their disproportionate impact on students with disabilities and Black students. Ike Swetlitz looked at the experience of Jamari Nelson who was in first grade when he was deemed a “high-level threat” to the school. Jamari has autism and Swetlitz’s investigation notes that a disproportionate fraction of the children who are the subjects of threat assessments in Albuquerque schools have disabilities.

District data revealed that in the 2018-19 school year, children in special education were the subject of 56 percent of the threat assessments despite making up only 18 percent of the district’s student population. Black children were the subject of nearly 10 percent of threat assessments but are only 2.6 percent of all students.

Writing about Jamari, who is Black, Swetlitz writes that his “predicament illustrates a systemic problem in Albuquerque and serves as a warning to schools nationwide. In well-meaning attempts to prevent gun violence and keep students safe, districts around the country have implemented threat assessment procedures that can stigmatize whole groups of students, most notably kids with disabilities.” Furthermore, “Jamari’s evaluation could remain on his school records for years to come.”

One expert Swetlitz interviewed pointed out that the threat assessment forms explicitly list certain disabilities as reasons to consider a child a threat. “The bias is present. It’s written. It’s stated. It’s plain,” she said.

Albuquerque’s use of threat assessments, which were originally intended to be narrowly used and result in support for identified students, is just one example of the ways in which Black and Latinx students, and students with disabilities have borne the brunt of measures adopted in recent years to prevent school shootings. Nationally, discipline disparities have only grown for students of color and those with disabilities.

The concerns about racism in the application of school discipline measures, and their lifelong consequences, take on added urgency as schools adopt increasingly invasive, even dangerous, security measures.

Just last week, an investigation from Wired looked at how schools are starting to incorporate the use of facial recognition technology. The technology’s use has been questioned in private and public contexts, and a growing number of jurisdictions have banned its use by their governments. It is employed in schools to surveil those entering school premises and events. Often it is used to exclude students who have been suspended or expelled.

When the school district in Lockport, New York, planned to install a $1.4 million facial recognition system last year, parents protested. As one father put it: “The moment they turn those cameras on, every student, including my daughter, is being surveilled by a system that can track their whereabouts and their associations.” The school district said it would not be watching current students, focusing instead on other targets, including suspended students, at one stage of the proposal. But as the New York Civil Liberties Union pointed out, it is Black students who are disproportionately likely to face suspension. The parent protests were ultimately successful in defeating the plan.

Other school districts have adopted the use of facial recognition technology, however, incurring costs of hundreds of thousands of dollars. Wired noted that it found “eight public school systems, from rural areas to giant urban districts, that have moved to install facial recognition systems in the past year. There likely are many more. The technology watched over thousands of students returning to school in recent weeks, continually checking faces against watch lists compiled by school officials and law enforcement.”

In some states, the concerns about students who are disproportionately targeted by school discipline and security measures now extends to their physical safety. Reports of officers in schools assaulting students are alarmingly frequent. Elementary school children have been arrested. Just last month, two 6-year olds in Florida were arrested by a retired police officer assigned to a charter school.

Now an additional cause for concern in Florida is a measure that went into effect this fall that allows teachers to be armed. The measure was first considered last year, in the wake of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland that left 17 dead. The provision to arm teachers was defeated at that time, although the “guardian program” that was created did allow for other armed school employees. The state has already spent $2 million on “firearm supplies such as ammunition, weapons and gun holsters and at least $3 million in spending for salaries and benefits of employees involved in the training process,” reports the Washington Post. Now, with the strong support of Governor Ron DeSantis, districts can arm teachers as well.

When one Democratic lawmaker introduced an amendment to the guardian expansion to require teachers and school staff to undergo implicit-bias training, he was accused by Republican colleagues of being racist. On the anniversary of the Parkland school shooting, the Washington Post reported, Fedrick Ingram, president of the Florida Education Association said that arming teachers was the “wrong conversation” for lawmakers to be having when it comes to keeping children safe.

“What we know is that arming teachers in the state of Florida is not a real solution,” he told MSNBC. “We should be talking about mental health, we should be talking about school counselors, we should be talking about a psychiatrist, and we should be talking about the funding that it takes to actually make our schools safer.”

Reporting by The Guardian revealed that most districts, covering the vast majority of Florida students, do not plan to allow their teachers to be armed. But the concerns do not end there. A special report from the Southern Poverty Law Center published this month details the troubling makeup of, and alarming recommendations from, a state commission created in the wake of the Parkland shooting. The commission’s recommendations, the report warns, “will place students at greater risk of getting shot and/or wrongfully arrested; put their privacy and liberty in jeopardy; strip them of civil rights; create school environments that are more tense, anxiety-provoking and traumatic; breed distrust between students and faculty; and absorb funds that could be used on programs that are actually shown to make schools safer for all students.”