Josue “Josh” Muniz was standing with his girlfriend during the lunch period at in the quad of Arroyo Valley High School in San Bernardino, when he decided to give his female friend a hug. A school police officer saw the hug and told Muniz, who was at the time 17-years old and a junior, to step away from the girl. Muniz did so, but when the girlfriend began to get upset he briefly stepped back to her side and gave her a small quick hug to comfort her. Then, according to Muniz, there was no more contact. His girlfriend walked away and that was that.
However, the incident was apparently not over for the school police officer, according to Muniz, who told reporter Susan Ferriss of The Center of Public Integrity that the school cop barreled his direction saying that the boy should come with him. Muniz was starting to comply, when the officer reached out and “put his hand on my throat,” Muniz told Ferriss. “That’s when I start freaking out. He tells me to stand up. And that’s when his grip on my throat got a little stronger and when I started really panicking.”
A frightened Muniz pushed at the officer to get him “just a little bit off me.”
Ferriss reports that the twosome tumbled to the ground and, according to a civil lawsuit that Muniz, now 20, has filed, the officer “showered” the teenager with pepper spray, handcuffed him, dragged him into a nearby security office by the cuffs and planted a knee in between his shoulder blades while delivering “multiple blows” as Muniz lay face down on a carpet, producing bruises and scrapes to Muniz’ head and face.
After it was over, the officer read the adolescent his rights and placed Muniz under arrest — for alleged misdemeanor assault on an officer.
“In fact,” she writes, “he was one of tens of thousands of juveniles arrested by school police in San Bernardino County over the last decade. The arrests were so numerous in this high-desert region known as the Inland Empire that they surpassed arrests of juveniles by municipal police in some of California’s biggest cities.”
Unnerved by the battering and the charges brought against him (which were later dropped in court), Josue Muniz dropped out of school, an all too common response when kids are criminalized instead of helped when they break minor school rules, or briefly act out because of some trauma at home. Yet, eventually, Muniz spoke out about his experience. Most kids don’t.
SCHOOL DISTRICTS BUCKING THE TREND TOWARD REFORM
After the Columbine school massacre in 1999, fearful school districts across the nation began enacting draconian zero tolerance policies that, in an effort to protect students, went catastrophically overboard. As research has shown us in recent years, these well-intentioned policies created widespread damage by criminalizing kids unnecessarily and using minor incidents to shove students on a path that led out of school and into the juvenile justice system, with lower income students of color being hurt the worst.
Recent trends in school discipline reform have persuaded many California school districts like Los Angeles Unified to reach agreements with their school police to only arrest students in cases involving public safety, not for behavior infractions that can be better handled by school administrators.
But, despite the current trend for reform, in San Bernardino County, arrests by school police in two of that county’s districts—San Bernardino and Fontana—have remained shockingly high.
In her series for The Center of Public Integrity, with companion stories on KQED, with reporter Amy Isackson, Ferriss delves into the tales of three different kids as she looks at the larger alarming pattern of questionable arrests of students in Fontana and San Bernardino school districts, a pattern that some describe as having reached epidemic proportions.
Here’s a clip from Ferriss’ story:
The San Bernardino City Unified School District, where Muniz was a student, has its own police department, with 28 sworn officers, eight support staff and more than 50 campus security officers trained in handcuffing and baton use.
The department made more than 30,000 arrests of minors between 2005 and 2014. The area has a reputation for youth-gang crime, but only about 9 percent of those arrests were for alleged felonies. Instead, the vast majority of arrests were for minors violating a variety of city ordinances — such as graffiti violations or daytime curfews — and for nearly 9,900 allegations of disturbing the peace. That’s a frequently-used catchall that raises questions among critics about whether most of these arrests were necessary for public safety.
The bulk of the minors arrested or referred to school police represent some of the most academically vulnerable demographics in the state: low-income Latino and black kids, as well as kids with disabilities, in disproportionate numbers, according to California arrest statistics and national education data examined by the Center for Public Integrity.
Based on 2011-2012 data collected from U.S. schools by the U.S. Department of Education, the latest available, Muniz’s Arroyo Valley High referred students to law enforcement at a rate of 65 for every 1,000 students. That was more than 10 times the national and California state rate of 6 per 1,000.
Those kinds of statistics raise red flags for critics who charge that school officers in some districts, especially those with substantial minority and special-needs populations, are turning what should be minor disciplinary indiscretions into criminal justice matters that put kids on a road to bigger problems — the so-called ‘school-to-prison pipeline.” In San Bernardino, cops, school officials, parents and community groups have started wrestling with how to balance demands for order — and security — without criminalizing kids.
HUMILIATING SEARCHES AND BRUTALIZED SPECIAL NEEDS KIDS
Ferriss also writes of the case of a middle school girl enrolled in the San Bernardino city district who, last April, was allegedly ordered to remove some of her clothing, unhook her bra and shake her breasts to see if she was hiding marijuana while a male school security officer stood by, according to the girl’s mother, Anita Wilson-Pringle.
And in the community of Chino, Ferriss describes the case of a student with Down syndrome who was roughed up and arrested at school in a manner that illustrates the concerns of juvenile advocates that special-needs kids are getting disproportionately criminalized at school in these same districts.
There’s a lot more, so check out Ferriss’ series as a whole.
Top photograph of Josh Muniz by Susan Ferriss/The Center for Public Integrity. Photo of injured Josh Muniz courtesy of Josh Muniz, via Susan Ferriss.