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Pipeline to Prison: Special Education Too Often Leads to Jail for Thousands of American Children

GRENADA, Miss.— Cody Beck was 12-years -old when he was handcuffed in front of several classmates and put in the back of a police car outside of Grenada Middle School. Cody had lost his temper in an argument with another student, and hit several teachers when they tried to intervene. He was taken to the local youth court, and then sent to a mental health facility two hours away from his home. Twelve days later, the sixth-grader was released from the facility and charged with three counts of assault.

Officials at his school determined the incident was a result of Cody’s disability. As a child, Cody was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. He had been given an Individual Education Program, or IEP, a legal document that details the resources, accommodations, and classes that a special education student should receive to help manage his or her disability. But despite there being a medical reason for his behavior, Cody was not allowed to return to school. He was called to youth court three times in the four months after the incident happened, and was out of school for nearly half that time as he waited to start at a special private school.

Cody is one of thousands of children caught up in the juvenile justice system each year. At least one in three of those arrested has a disability, ranging from emotional disability like bipolar disorder to learning disabilities like dyslexia, and some researchers estimate the figure may be as high as 70 percent. Across the country, students with emotional disabilities are three times more likely to be arrested before leaving high school than the general population.