The underlying problem with the school to prison pipeline is the use of court referrals as a means of disciplining kids in schools. Court referrals are the primary factor in kids becoming first time offenders, and inevitably repeat offenders, otherwise known as recidivists. The juvenile justice system is not currently equipped to treat non-violent behavioral issues. Rather, they are herded like cattle into the courts and ensnared in a cycle of the criminal justice system that many never seem to escape.
The second factor in kids entering the juvenile justice system is the widespread overuse of suspensions and expulsions. Numerous studies have shown that suspensions and expulsions have a correlation with high drop-out rates and coming in contact with the juvenile justice system. The racial disparity in discipline procedures implemented within the compulsory education school system is detrimental to a minority’s social mobility. African American and Hispanic students are suspended or expelled at a rate almost 3.5 times greater than Caucasian students. Those that support exclusionary discipline argue that students displaying inappropriate behaviors in school should face steadfast regulation. However, research data tells us otherwise. Studies show that in-school and out-of-school suspensions, complete expulsions, and court referral arrests stemming from conduct violations typical in adolescent behavior does not curtail such behaviors. Also included in the research is an indication that African American and Hispanic students are most often disciplined for more subjective offenses, acts such as throwing food, cursing, disobeying a teacher, loitering, or making excessive noise, whereas their Caucasian schoolmates are less likely to be suspended for more concrete offenses that include smoking, skipping school, or vandalism. Suspensions and expulsions present a tremendous cost to our kids, our community and our taxpayers.
We here at RED cannot state, in good faith, that the solution is an easy one. It is not. Traditional ways of thinking have caused this problem to balloon to seismic proportion. It will take a top to bottom educational reform addressing school environments, disciplinary methods and curriculums. We would like to offer up a few suggestions on things to consider when undertaking this educational overhaul. We believe school administration can start by creating nurturing, positive and safe environments that boost student achievement and success; redesigning discipline policies and practices, properly training staff, and having more engagement with families and implement the use of local resources to help students develop their social and emotional skills; implementing supportive procedures that will allow students to address the underlying causes of misbehavior, such as trauma, substance abuse, mental health issues, academic deficiencies and poverty; adopting restorative justice curriculums to promote social, civic and financial literacy. From reviewing adult incarceration statistics, we know that access to education reduces recidivism. We believe the same holds true with juveniles, so our focus should be on disciplining them while keeping them present, inside the school system and not at home, on the streets, or in our criminal justice system.
Individuals interested in reform should be mindful of some guiding principles to facilitate the dismantling of the school to prison pipeline. The following should be considered: a) Engage in deliberate efforts to create a positive “school climate, b) Establish clear and appropriate behavioral expectations and consistent consequences, and c) Equity and continued improvement. Engaging in deliberate efforts to create a positive school climate involves gathering data, prioritizing the use of evidence-based curriculums and prevention strategies, and minimizing law enforcement referrals to the Department of Juvenile Justice. When attempting to establish clear and appropriate behavioral expectations and consistent consequences, we believe schools should focus on promoting a culture of respect within their community, take steps to involve families, students and school personnel in the development and implementation of discipline policies and strategies, discourage bullying or other violent acts, and using the removal of students as a last resort and having the intention of integrating them back into the classroom as soon as possible.
A variation of targeted versus a solely universal educational system is essential to the process of meaningful reform. For example, if a child has an issue with tardiness to school, we may believe it is solely the student’s fault and suspend him/her or send him/her to CSI. This is a universal approach. However, what we propose is digging deeper and working to keep the child in the classroom. In the case of the habitually tardy child, that child should be required to stay after class for the equivalent amount of time they arrived late (which affects the child and parents). Then, the parents should be involved to determine if it is more parent or child driven. Studies have shown that family involvement is important to a student’s behavioral performance. This is targeted. A case by case analysis that focuses on the child’s root cause of the behavioral issue. Educational improvement involves evaluating a school’s curriculum for fairness of all students, training staff to appropriately apply the policies, and having an effective record-keeping system.
This school to prison pipeline cannot be solved with a one-size-fits-all, universal approach. Many students, especially minority students have deeper rooted causes to their behavioral problems. Educational curriculum and educational discipline should include a combination of targeted and universal educational methods. There is no universal solution to a problem that can disguise itself and take on multiple forms. Universal education methods would send the aforementioned example of the tardy child to in-school suspension, and with enough violations it would lead to suspension or even expulsion. Targeting the issue is understanding the root cause. Targeting educational discipline and assessing a student’s problem on a case-by-case basis is crucial to understanding each student’s dynamic issue and providing the appropriate assistance to meet their needs.
Our former president, Obama, publicly stated that schools that implement policies that disparately impact students of a particular race, color, or nationality violate Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Our guiding principles align with the Safe Schools/Healthy Students (SS/HS) initiative, a cross-agency collaboration among the U.S. Departments of Education and Justice and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. The SS/HS found these principles to be key in creating and sustaining a system of positive discipline and a nurturing, conducive school environment that limits judicial contact for juveniles. Disciplining students and keeping them in the classroom with minimal juvenile justice contact will decrease the funneling of students while increasing graduation rates and improving school safety. With more young men and women graduating and becoming law-abiding, tax-paying workers instead of financial burdens within the justice system funded and paid for with our tax dollars, the dismantling of the school to prison pipeline will become a reality and cease to persist.
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