Virginia schools referred students to law enforcement at nearly three times the national rate.
Ryan Turk was an eighth-grader in Prince William County when a misunderstanding with a school resource officer over a 65-cent carton of milk escalated to theft charges.
The incident happened in May 2016 when Turk said he forgot his carton of milk that came with his school-issued free lunch. The police said Turk tried to “conceal” the carton of milk. When Turk separated himself from the resource officer, the incident ended with a suspension from school and a summons to juvenile court
A year ago, the charges against Turk were dropped, but he remains a prime example of what critics call the “School-to-Prison Pipeline” – a trend to charge students as criminals for what might once have been detention-worthy transgressions. According to a 2015 study by the Center for Public Integrity, Virginia charges students more often than any other state.
This trend has triggered a push in the General Assembly to reform criminal justice across the board. One of the latest and most vocal opponents of the pipeline is Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy, a Democrat from Prince William County.
Carroll Foy, who won an open House seat in November, spoke about the problem at an NAACP reception in Richmond last week.
“We send more students from the classroom to the courtroom than any other state in the country,” Carroll Foy said. “Now we lock them up early, and we lock them up at large.”
Carroll Foy plans to sponsor more than 10 criminal justice reform bills this legislative session. They include House Bill 113, which would raise the threshold for grand larceny in Virginia from $200 to $1,000.
Virginia’s threshold for that felony crime is one of the lowest in the country and hasn’t changed since 1980. As a result, someone accused of stealing a cellphone or bicycle can be charged with a felony.
Increasing the threshold might protect children who make bad decisions and prevent them from becoming convicted felons, Carroll Foy said.
“The punishment should fit the crime,” she said. “Felonies should be reserved for some of the most egregious crimes in the commonwealth of Virginia, and that’s not happening.”
Carroll Foy is carrying legislation that might address cases like that of Ryan Turk, who initially was charged with a misdemeanor after the altercation at Graham Park Middle School in the town of Triangle in Prince William County.
She has introduced HB 445, which would eliminate the requirement for principals to report certain misdemeanor incidents to police.
Allison Gilbreath, the organization’s policy analyst, said other bills before the General Assembly seek to disrupt the pipeline.
For example, HB296, sponsored by Del. Dickie Bell, R-Staunton, and Senate Bill 170, by Sen. William Stanley, R-Franklin, would prohibit suspending or expelling students in preschool through third grade except for drug offenses, firearm offenses or certain criminal acts.
“One in five kids who are suspended in our public schools are pre-K through fifth grade,” Gilbreath said. “We want to really focus on the underlying problems that they’re experiencing.”
This story was produced by Virginia Commonwealth University’s Capital News Service.