New York Law School

The School to Prison Pipeline: A Necessary National Conversation

The phrase “school-to-prison-pipeline” has been heard frequently around the country over the past several years as schools have shifted towards implementation of zero tolerance policies that criminalize student behavior, resulting in students entering the criminal justice system for offenses that would once have warranted a trip to the principal’s office, after-school detention, or a meeting with parents to discuss the behavior. Even more disturbing is the fact that African-American, Latino, LGBT and disabled students are disproportionately impacted by these policies. The school-to-prison-pipeline is exactly what it sounds like; a pipeline through which students are pushed out of schools and into the criminal justice system due to a national trend in schools criminalizing minor infractions and handing over control of school discipline to law enforcement. Instead of counseling or educational assistance, students are criminally punished for minor infractions and introduced to the juvenile justice system at an early age, increasing the likelihood that they will return to the system in the future.

Despite the pushback against the pipeline and zero tolerance policies from parents, students, communities and advocacy groups, there has been a notable absence of movement on the national and federal level in addressing this problem, possibly because of the tradition of schools being controlled locally. America needs to have a national conversation about the direction of school discipline in order to encourage reform efforts in school districts that are feeding the pipeline through continued use of zero tolerance policies. Two recent events have resulted in the school-to-prison-pipeline finally receiving some long overdue national attention. In October 2012, the Department of Justice (DOJ) filed a lawsuit against Meridian, Mississippi and its juvenile justice court system for violating children’s civil rights, and in December 2012, the school-to-prison-pipeline was the focal point of a Judiciary Committee meeting, marking the first time a Senate hearing addressed this pressing problem. Hopefully these events will open a national dialogue about ways to dismantle the school-to-prison-pipeline and put pressure on states, school districts, educators and communities to reform school discipline policies and procedures.

The DOJ’s complaint against Meridian, Mississippi levels harsh accusations, stating that Meridian’s practice has been to “systematically arrest and incarcerate children, including for minor school rule infractions, without even the most basic procedural safeguards.” Individual stories from students in Meridian corroborate the DOJ’s accusations. A teenage girl with a bladder disorder was arrested for leaving class and ignoring a teacher because of her urgent need to use the bathroom. According to another student, he was put on probation after a getting into a fight at school. After being put on probation he was heavily sanctioned for minor rule violations, such as wearing the wrong color socks. These minor infractions were counted as probation violations, causing him to be suspended and incarcerated in a juvenile detention center. A recent report by civil rights groups exposing Mississippi’s school discipline crisis noted that students on probation are routinely suspended and then automatically incarcerated for minor infractions such as using profanity.

The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) and the NAACP identified Meridian as a problem area in 2008, when they discovered that 67% of young people in Meridian’s juvenile detention centers came directly from Meridian’s school system. The trend in Meridian’s schools has been to target African-American students, with Jody Owens, the managing attorney for SPLC’s juvenile justice initiative stating, “there was never once a white kid that was suspended for the same offense that kids of color were suspended for.” The recent civil rights report, Handcuffs on Success, reveals that these egregious, discriminatory practices are occurring all over Mississippi and have been happening for decades. In 2000, five black high school students were arrested for felony assault because they were throwing peanuts, one of which hit the school bus driver. The bus driver called the police, who directed the driver to bring the students to the police station, rather than to the school. This outrageous practice of schools using police as disciplinarians for students needs to be stopped immediately. Police are not trained to deal with students, police are trained to deal with criminals. While there may be some rare situations where it is necessary to involve police in school disciplinary issues, it should be the exception and not the rule. Schools must be held accountable and forced to stop outsourcing an important part of their job to police departments. Instead of creating stronger ties between schools and police departments, educators, administrators, parents, students and communities should discuss ways to reframe disciplinary practices within the context of schools. A student who uses profanity in the classroom should be punished, but after-school detention or additional homework is a much more appropriate punishment than incarceration.

The December 2012 Senate hearing addressing the school-to-prison-pipeline allowed the Judiciary Committee to hear testimony from federal government officials, leaders in criminal justice, reform advocates from organizations such as the Advancement Project and Edward Ward, a former student who grew up in the Chicago public school system. Mr. Ward provided compelling testimony about the devastating impact of the oppressive policies and police presence in his school, noting that the students felt like they were “under siege” and had to be on “a constant state of alert” in the school environment.

The solutions proposed by the witnesses at the Senate hearing focused on behavioral interventions and restorative justice as possible alternatives to the current methods, where students are suspended from school and incarcerated when they misbehave. Senator Dick Durbin (D.-Ill.), the man responsible for organizing the meeting, introduced the topic by referencing the statistics released by the U.S. Department of Education, Office for Civil Rights in March 2012. The statistics demonstrate the disproportionate impact that zero tolerance policies are having on black, Latino, LGBT and disabled students. Although black students make up 18% of the student population, statistics from 2009-2010 showed that they were 3.5 times more likely to be expelled than white students. This is just one of many disturbing statistics that were cited during the meeting.

The DOJ’s lawsuit and the Senate meeting are encouraging steps, but the national conversation needs to continue and put pressure on states and local school districts to reform their disciplinary practices. The zero tolerance policies responsible for creating the school-to-prison-pipeline exist in many states besides Mississippi, such as New York, California, Florida, Tennessee, Louisiana and Alabama. Whether the answer to dismantling the pipeline lies in federal legislation, local initiatives or a combination of the two, it is important that the momentum created by this national attention leads to concrete action in order to keep more students from being pushed out of the educational arena and into the criminal justice system.

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