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Is online learning creating a virtual school-to-prison pipeline?

The school-to-prison pipeline has gone “virtual” as a result of online schooling during the pandemic, warned  a paper published in the Loyola Children’s Legal Rights Journal.

The legal issues presented by virtual school disciplinary policies, have grown even more complex, The Regulatory Review, a publication of the Penn Program on Regulation, reports. 

The author of the paper, Victor Jones, an Education Special Counsel at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. (LDF), where he litigates school desegregation and other educational equity cases, argues that students are having their home behavior regulated through virtual platforms — a practice that results in the disproportionate referral of students of color and students with disabilities becoming system-involved.  

Typically, some behavior in the classroom would simply be referred back to the parent for home correction, but because of the pandemic and virtual learning, behavior that’s isolated at home is now open to scrutiny by teachers in an academic setting.  

Jones wrote that these federal and state policies, in the name of student safety, have led to negative unintended consequences for students.

'Exclusionary discipline' miles away

In an academic setting, “exclusionary discipline” takes place when a student is removed from the classroom setting due to a behavioral infraction, such as by a suspension, expulsion, or detention. 

Studies have shown that these types of disciplinary measures can lead to even lower academic achievement, and amplify the inappropriateness of exclusionary discipline.

Many of the examples detailed by Jones in his paper highlight the dichotomy of youth student treatment while attending school online, and shine a spotlight on surging questions regarding how students can be punished for things and behavior done in their own home — while students, teachers and administrators are essentially miles apart.

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Nine-year-old Ka’Mauri Harrison’s story is recounted by Jones, noting that he was taking an online test when his younger brother ran into his room, and tripped over a BB gun.

Then, Ka’Mauri had to move the toy gun off from the floor and out of harm’s way. By holding the toy gun on camera while in a virtual classroom setting prompted the school to open a case against him for the incident, suspending him for five days and facing expulsion. 

Similarly, another student, “Ben,” a 12-year-old Latinx preteen with a hearing impairment was suspended for five days and faced expulsion from Patrick F. Taylor Science & Technology Academy in Louisiana after he briefly showed his virtual classmates his katana sword used for martial arts.

Lastly, Jones details the case of Isaiah Elliot, another 12-year-old student of color with a disability, momentarily held a toy NERF gun while he had his online class, and the school suspended him and called local law enforcement to conduct a welfare check — all before notifying his parents of the incident.

Jones warns that “at least two decades of multi-disciplinary research finds that the use of exclusionary discipline practices against children in schools does not serve its goals of reducing disruptive and unsafe behavior.”

Jones also says that as teachers begin to reach through their student’s screens and police their behaviors and toys at home, the worry is that they’ll begin disciplining free speech, like telling a student what they can and can’t have on the walls like posters in their bedroom that have served for the background of their virtual learning for years. 

Parents also argue that the use of images in their home or recorded video during virtual class is a violation of privacy. 


In his paper, Jones recommends that school districts must first reimagine their disciplinary policies, and implement district-wide disciplinary regulations for virtual platforms. 

He says these changes are “necessary” to address the new constitutional issues presented by online classrooms and racial and disability discrimination. 

On the topic of NERF guns and BB guns, Jones suggests that “Weapons-free” zero-tolerance policies and the Gun-Free Schools Act should not extend into students’ homes through online class, he argues, as it oversteps boundaries of policing what a child can and can’t have or play with at home — especially when it happens to be in sight of the camera.

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Moreover, Jones suggests that school districts should encourage students to use neutral virtual backgrounds and forbid them from recording their classmates during virtual school to protect the student and family’s right to privacy. 

“When families are fighting to maintain their health and stability, the last thing a child or parent should have to worry about is whether an unintentional action caught on a computer camera during virtual school instruction can lead to disciplinary actions that bode adverse and potentially lifelong consequences,” Jones concludes in his paper.

This report was first published by The Crime Report.

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