Imagine spending nearly $150,000 per year to send a juvenile to jail for getting upset and kicking a trash can in a classroom incident in which no one was hurt. Del. Mike Mullin can’t, and that’s one of the many reasons that led him to introduce a bill in Virginia’s House of Delegates to reform school discipline and work with school administrators to exercise a variety of disciplinary options before they refer students to the juvenile justice system.
Mullin and I clicked immediately when we spoke about his passion for this issue. One of the first things he shared with me when we spoke on the phone was that his father taught high school English and was an educator for more than 26 years. That resonated with me because I spent my first five years post-college in the classroom, three of which were in my hometown of Baltimore City, in the very neighborhood made famous by the TV show The Wire. As Mullin talked about the kinds of kids he recognized were already vulnerable and wanted to make sure didn’t wind up in the system because of minor offenses, I was easily able to picture them because they were the very same kids I’d worked with over the years: kids of color, poor kids, disabled kids, and kids from single-parent homes.
During our conversation, Mullin explicitly named these type of kids. Not only did he mention the financial benefits to keeping kids in classrooms, he named it as a moral and social imperative. In a time when it’s easy to feel hopeless about our politicians, it was refreshing to hear from a lawmaker who seemed to care so very much about what happens to young people, particularly those who are the most at-risk.
Of course, Mike Mullin isn’t your typical politician. He is a criminal prosecutor with 10 years of experience in juvenile and domestic relations courts—which means he’s seen all kinds of things like juvenile gang cases, sex crimes, etc. When we talked, he described himself as a “law enforcement guy.” He was inspired to sponsor this bill because he started seeing things that used to send students to the principals office now sending students to his courtroom.
Not only did Mullin notice that these things (like the trash can incident or two teenage girls getting into a shoving match over a boy) were sending young children into the juvenile system unnecessarily, they also resulting in the state being No. 1 in the country when it comes to referring misbehaving students to law enforcement.
When I asked him what that means, he responded:
“What this means is that we have failed our students in many ways when it comes to ensuring that they receive the kind of education that they need to be able to thrive and to be able to become educated and become productive members of society. Here in Virginia you are under a constitutional obligation to provide the best obligation possible for our children. That’s a legal obligation but that’s a moral one as well.”
Ever the prosecutor, Mullin noted the bill was designed to encourage school administrators to exercise discretion and good judgement in discerning which reporting crimes are serious and criminal—such as bringing a gun to school, arson, dealing drugs, and other things that may technically be criminal but don’t warrant administrators calling law enforcement. He reminded me that one of the things that adults often forget is that the human brain isn’t yet fully formed until age 26 and that adolescents aren’t often always engaging in rational thought. I pondered this thought for a while during our conversation and long after—especially because both stereotypes and the size and development of children of color often leads adults in schools and in the juvenile justice system to treat them as adults when they are, in fact, just children. Tamir Rice, for one, immediately comes to mind. And so Mullin’s point that some of these actions, which may exhibit poor decision-making skills but not criminal intent or behavior and deserve measured responses, is really well taken.
Of course, nothing is ever as easy as it seems. This was Mullin’s first year as a state delegate. He admits he is still learning the ropes and he was taken aback by the significant opposition to the bill.
“I thought it was going to be non-controversial...I talked with law enforcement people and they were all on board. I talked with teachers and they were on board...But then we got to Richmond...I found that there was significant opposition to this. And it wasn’t partisan in nature. It wasn’t Republican or Democrat. It was school administrators. They saw it as tying their hands.”
Unfortunately, even with a broad coalition of supporters ranging from parents, law enforcement officers, education associations, the NAACP, and those who wish to end the school-to-prison pipeline, the bill died in committee. But that won’t stop Mullin from trying again. He would like to try to talk with administrators to help assuage their fears that this is not about losing their autonomy or taking away their discretion, and he wants to find a way to satisfy all the stakeholders involved. But he remains steadfast that removing kids from the classroom and putting them into the system is the real failure. And he reminded me that in addition to social and moral costs, there is a quantifiable cost to all of this failure, as it costs $144,000 per year to incarcerate a child in Virginia, compared to $9,000-$11,000 a year to educate that same child, depending on the jurisdiction.
Finally, he left me with some important parting words.
“Being a juvenile prosecutor, I’ve sent hundreds of kids to the Department of Juvenile Justice over many years. But I’ve never put a child in the Department of Juvenile Justice who had an after school activity that kept them involved in something, from when school got out til 6 or 6:30...who had an adult who cared about them—and thats what’s wonderful about being involved in things like basketball or choir or the Boys and Girls Club—whatever activity you choose that you’re a part of so that you have an adult who cares about you and that you have some place to go so that you are not on the street, makes the difference of being in my courtroom or not. And those programs are pennies on the dollar compared to incarcerating a child. But we have to stop thinking of children as costs and start thinking of them as investments.”
I left the K-12 classroom setting in 2004. I never planned to make it a long-term career and I was worn out after dealing with the challenges of working in very tough conditions with such little resources. To this end, I can appreciate the tough job of administrators dealing with behavioral challenges. Most of my students in Baltimore City came to school with many issues that had nothing to do with what happened in the classroom. They were hungry, they were tired, they were dealing with drug addicted parents, they were dealing with abuse and all kinds of things at home and in the neighborhood, and they acted out. And in spite of all that, they were also incredibly bright and very capable of learning when given the chance.
The lessons I learned in the classroom have stayed with me for the last 13 years. I’ve never stopped thinking about those students as my responsibility. I am determined to live in a country where every student thrives and has the right to a quality education and becomes a productive member of society. I’m grateful for the work that educators, parents, and activists are doing to stop the school-to-prison pipeline and ensure that all kids, particularly the most vulnerable, are seen as investments.
In a culture in which we understand so much to be disposable, we have to undo ourselves of the mentality that people are disposable, too—especially our young, and particularly those who are the most marginalized. And with gratitude and appreciation, I lift up the work of Virginia Del. Mike Mullin for all that he is doing to end the school-to-prison pipeline and to ensure that the children of Virginia are happy, healthy, and well-educated.
For more resources on the school-to-prison pipeline: