Data reveals large racial disparities in school policing

(Clark County School District Police Department Facebook feature photo)

Black students received a disproportionately large number of police referrals compared to their white classmates, according to data from the Clark County School Justice Partnership.

In the last three years, Black students accounted for about 43 percent of police referrals in Clark County — meaning arrests or citations — while representing about 14 percent of the student body.

White students, who account for about 25 percent of the student body, on the other hand accounted for about 14 percent of police referrals.

Latino students accounted for 37 percent of referrals while representing about 47 percent of the student body.

There has been a sizable drop in the number of police referrals to the Department of Juvenile Justice Services since 2017 because of alternative policing efforts, but even that data has shown a racial disparity between Black students and their classmates. 

Juvenile police referrals for white students dropped by 36 present while Black students only dropped by 20 percent, the smallest decrease of any racial group. Juvenile arrests overall have declined 28 percent and juvenile citations have decreased by 70 percent since the 2015-2016 school year.

“Data regarding race and ethnicity highlights that we have a very large disparity in the treatment of Black and African American students when it comes to referrals,” said Bridget Duffy, chief of the juvenile division for the Clark County District Attorney’s office and the co-chair of the School Justice Partnership, during a presentation to the Clark County School District Board of Trustees Thursday

Data for the School Justice Partnership is reported and maintained by the Department of Juvenile Justice Services and includes citations and arrests by Clark County School District Police.

The School Justice Partnership started in August of 2018 as a partnership between the Clark County School District, Juvenile Justice Services, and the District Attorney’s Office. 

The goal of the partnership is to reduce the disproportionate encounters of minority students with police and ensure consistency in the punitive discipline practices being used in schools. 

Three main “Focus Acts” of the partnership is to ensure the collaboration between the District Attorney’s Office and the Clark County School Police Department, to establish a process to address specific low-level, non-violent misdemeanors, and to prevent unfair labeling of criminality among students.

Duffy argues that the juvenile justice system is “just a big gigantic mental health facility which is really not much different than our adult jails and prisons,” adding that it can be improved for students’ benefit.

Data from the Clark County School Justice Partnership (SJP) gave a peek of the racial disparity in students’ who are first subjected to encounters with school police officers.

Black students accounted for about 40 percent of written warnings issued by the Clark County School District Police Department (CCSDPD) during the 2019-2020 school year, a significantly higher rate than their white classmates, who accounted for 10 percent of written referrals in elementary, middle and high school.

Written warnings are issued for “minimal, small behaviors” in schools, said CCSDPD Captain Kenneth Yong during the presentation to the school board, and do not necessarily lead to interactions with courts but are a first strike that can lead to future interactions.

Legal Aid Center of Southern Nevada attorney Kelly Venci Gonzalez, who represents abused and neglected children for the Children’s Attorneys Project in Clark County, estimated that about a fourth of the cases she represents are from Juvenile Justice Services, most of which were due to school-based offenses. 

“The thing is once a kid is labeled as a bad kid it’s hard to overcome,” Gonzalez said. “Those things stay with our kids when they are young and that’s their first interaction with law enforcement. It can be a traumatic experience.”

Many of the top 20 offenses resulting in police referrals among juveniles in the last three years were minor and included charges like habitual truancy, disturbing the peace, loitering on school grounds, trespassing, school disturbance, possession of drug paraphernalia, and fighting.

Police referrals have dropped in nearly all of the top 20 offenses, with the exception of three. 

Charges for disorderly conduct did not change while charges for possession of marijuana rose by 8 percent. Referrals for obstructing an officer rose at an alarming rate, climbing by 55 percent over the last three years.

“It has not gone unnoticed that we have an increase in that charge over the last three years. Our SJP is noticing it, our advisory board is noticing it, and it will be a topic of conversation with our police partners for why that is occurring over the last three years,” Duffy said.

Habitual truancy dropped by 99 percent, from 622 in 2017 to eight in 2019, although not because of a drop in chronic absenteeism but because courts lacked the resources to book children for being absent.

“We just have not prosecuted it. They stopped referring cases to the juvenile justice system because we did not have the resources to prosecute all of the truancy cases that the school district would refer to us,” Duffy said, adding that Juvenile Justice Services is working on a program to deal with truancy. 

Black students also accounted for about 46 percent of students committed to long-term detention facilities from 2017 to 2019, while white students accounted for 12 percent. Latino students accounted for about 31 percent, despite representing about 47 percent of the student body in Clark County.

The Clark County School Justice Partnership has invested in creating “high-quality transitional services” for students while incarcerated in the Spring Mountain Youth Camp and Summit View Youth Center detention centers.  

Data for students exiting the centers after receiving transitional services show that Black students were the largest beneficiaries of those services, accounting for 48 percent of students who were given transitional services.

However, despite receiving the most services, Black students also accounted for a disproportionate rate of juvenile recidivism, meaning students who returned to juvenile detention later. 

Black students accounted for 50 percent of students who returned to juvenile detention after being released, white students accounted for 4 percent. Latino students accounted for 31 percent.

The data released doesn’t answer why Black students are referred to law enforcement at a higher percentage rate than their enrollment figures, or alternatively, why white students are referred at a lower percentage rate, but officials say the data is an important first step.

“Beforehand we never had a rate. The reality is this data sometimes outside of education doesn’t even exist in other entities. Now we have a rate that we track of students we are interacting with and if they … go back to juvenile detention in some way,” said Mike Barton, Chief College, Career and Equity Officer at the CCSD, during the presentation.

Across the country protests over police brutality have amplified long-standing criticism that police presence in schools has fed a school to prison pipeline, especially for minority students, leading to calls from the public to remove police from schools and use those funds for school counselors, nurses, social workers, and psychologists.

The Clark County School Justice Partnership has partnered with The Harbor, a juvenile assessment center, which has been successful in preventing children from entering the juvenile justice system in an effort to move toward restorative justice.

About 90 percent of youth referred to The Harbor did not escalate to the Department of Juvenile Justice Service.

In the last three years, The Harbor has taken up 2,548 Clark County School District Police referrals as of June, with the largest percentage of referrals being for children under the age of 10 at 132 percent.

“With this process that’s been taking place over the last three years with these earlier interventions of younger students we are hopeful that we are going to see these referrals going down,” said Duffy, adding that they are beginning to see a downward trend.

Schools face a difficult challenge ahead in expanding restorative justice and ending the school to prison pipeline, Duffy said.

“We don’t have enough social workers. We now have this tool families can use when we see children going down this path to help prevent them from entering the juvenile justice system and that school to prison pipeline,” Duffy said.

“Listening to this meeting today, I’m hearing an outcry for more mental health services for children. Recognizing the needs for our kids that may cause some of these behaviors that are resulting in referrals to the juvenile justice system is a really big step.”

Jeniffer Solis
Reporter | Jeniffer was born and raised in Las Vegas, Nevada where she attended the University of Nevada, Las Vegas before graduating in 2017 with a B.A in Journalism and Media Studies. While at UNLV she was a senior staff writer for the student newspaper, the UNLV Scarlet and Gray Free Press, and a news reporter for KUNV 91.5 FM, covering everything from the Route 91 shooting to UNLV housing. She has also contributed to the UNLV News Center and worked as a production engineer for several KUNV broadcasts before joining the Nevada Current. She’s an Aries.