New York Law School

Criminalization over Education: The Disproportionate Enforcement of Truancy Punishments and Suspensions on Low-Income and Black Youth

Around the country school systems have criminalized truancy, encouraging their counties to penalize students that miss too many days of school with fines, court fees, and in some cases even charging them, their parents, or their guardians with misdemeanors and pursuing jail time. These punishments often put an already struggling low-income family in an even deeper economic hole. Additionally, many school systems are attempting to remedy their student’s minor behavioral issues with out-of-school suspensions. This removal from the classroom causes students to miss out on valuable instructional time, resulting in students lagging behind their classmates due to a lack of understanding for the materials covered during their suspensions. Furthermore, a substantial amount of these suspensions are being sought for even the most inconsequential of incidents and school infractions. However, these truancy punishments and out-of-school suspensions are being pursued and enforced disproportionately against low-income and Black children with absolutely no regard for the long-term consequences of these actions.

The disproportionate enforcement of harsh disciplinary measures against low-income and Black youth is ground zero for what has been called the “school-to-prison pipeline.” The ACLU defines the school-to-prison pipeline as ”…policies and practices that push our nation’s schoolchildren, especially our most at-risk children, out of classrooms and into the juvenile and criminal justice system. This pipeline reflects the prioritization of incarceration over education.” In order to reverse this trend, school systems must come to the realization that truancy and behavioral issues can be symptoms of more serious problems, rather than simple rebelliousness. In addition to being signs of a larger problem, much of this behavior is often age-appropriate, but deemed punishable due to racial discrimination.

Each year, significant numbers of students miss class due to suspensions and expulsions – even for minor infractions of school rules – and students of color and with disabilities are disproportionately impacted, according to the Justice Department. A study done by the Advancement Project found that the likelihood of being suspended at least once for black students is 1 out of 6, and 1 out of 4 if they are a black student with a disability. When compared to 1 out of 20 white students, or 1 out of 14 Latino students, it is clear that there is an underlying issue connecting black youth and suspensions. According to Kirwan Institute research on implicit bias, “cultural deficit thinking” is to blame. Cultural deficit thinking is the harboring of negative assumptions about the ability, aspirations, and work ethic of students-especially poor students of color- based on the assumption that they and their families do not value education. These racist perceptions create a stereotype that students of color are disrespectful and disruptive, which zero tolerance policies exploit. This form of racial discrimination has been linked to the source of why low-income and Black youth are punished disproportionately more than their White peers for subjective offenses, like “acting out” or “disrupting class”, or minor school infractions, even though Black and White students commit these acts equally as much.

Chronic truants are often Black students from low-income families. According to a 2015 report by the Attorney General California, over 75% of students with chronic attendance problems are low-income. Additionally, 20% of Black elementary school students were chronically absent in the 2014-2015 school year, while only 8% of Whites and 3.7% of Asians were chronically absent. Moreover, chronic absence rates for Black students were almost 30% in kindergarten. These are the families facing the brunt of the fines and jail time imposed for chronic truancy, with little regard as to the root cause of the truancy.

The argument for the proposition of criminalizing truancy is that it somehow forces a student to “tighten up” his efforts to attend school, or forces a parent or guardian to “tighten-up” their methods of supervising their child. However, these rationales are false as truancy is rarely attributable to lack of effort or inadequate methods of supervising. Rather, the root causes of truancy are predominately linked to hardships arising from the home. Common root causes for chronic truancy include economic hardship, abusive situations at home, drug use, neglect, or even caring for a relative. Criminalizing truancy DOES NOT address any of these root causes. On the contrary, it actually stigmatizes them. It induces a student into believing that they will never excel in the classroom, or that their personal problems are too insurmountable to succeed, or that school administrators are not the least bit concerned about their life, or possibly all of the above. These beliefs reinforce a mindset that can create a perpetual state of poverty for low-income students.

One of the primary objectives of the educational system is to develop students into functioning and productive members of society. Having a criminal record is often seen as ones failure to become that kind of member of society. Criminalizing truancy is counter-productive to that primary objective. Furthermore, pursuing fines and jail time for low-income parents do not put the family in a better economic situation or resolve any of the other potential issues that are preventing that child from engaging with his education. In fact, fining or incarcerating the parent of a truant may only exacerbate existing financial hardships,, ironically leading to even more hardships for the family, and likely less time spent at school for the student.

It seems that truancy punishments are often put in place not to prevent truancy, but to allow schools to wash their hands of the issue and transfer the problem to the courts, or worse to permit the county to profit from truants and their families. According to an article recently published by the Huffington Post, in Texas, $10 million was collected from court costs and fines from students for truancy in fiscal year 2014 alone. In Lebanon, Pennsylvania, the school district filed 8,000 truancy violations between 2005 and 2010, collecting $1.3 million in fines. These fines have a striking resemblance to poll taxing, and have even prompted an investigation by the Department of Justice.

Truancy, disengagement in the classroom, and behavioral issues at school can also be symptoms of problems within the school itself. For example, overcrowded classrooms, a lack of qualified teachers, and insufficient funding for behavioral counselors, special education services, and textbooks are all problems that create a second-rate educational environment for students, especially at-risk Black children. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, this failure to meet educational needs not only increases disengagement in the classroom, but increases the risk of behavioral issues at school and future court involvement.

So what steps can school systems take to end disproportionate punishments for Black and low-income students, and stop treating behavioral issues and truancy as warranting referral to the criminal justice system? For truancy, modest investments in truancy prevention and intervention programs may be the answer. In California, Paso Robles Public Schools work with over six outside agencies in order to assist parents, as well as the district truancy officer, with interventions to determine the root causes of a child’s truancy. Their district truancy officer averages 100 home visits per month. Also, their district allocates money for intervention specialists at all school sites to assist at-risk students. Additionally, the Attorney General of California has implemented a 7-Step-Strategy that addresses elementary school truancy and chronic absence. This strategy treats truancy as a solvable problem, rather than a punishable act, and should be implemented nation-wide.

To stop disproportionate and discriminatory suspensions, school systems must require teacher training on cultural awareness and diversity. According to Charlotte Hayer, president of the Richmond (Va.) Education Association, “[We] need to teach teachers how to build relationships with students who might not be like them.” While some teachers have been getting the training they need through increasingly popular “restorative practices” that help educators get to the root of disciplinary issues, there is still much work that needs to be done. Suspending a student or sending them to the office is quick and easy; therefore it is often used as a tool to deal with at-risk youth. However, this tool frequently leads a student down a pipeline that leads to trouble with authority, the juvenile justice system, and finally, prison.

Schools should vow to keep our children in school above all else. Funneling money from their families as a means of punishment, and suspending them from school, should strictly be reserved for the most serious offenses. Implementing and maintaining comprehensive truancy intervention and prevention programs is not easy work, and allocating more money to provide students with better resources at school, such as behavioral counselors and culturally aware teachers, can be expensive, but this is the cost of creating an environment that stimulates the minds and ensures the future successes of ALL students. That is the objective of our educational system, and it will never be achieved without the necessary resources.

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