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School-to-Prison Pipeline For Juveniles

I graduated summa cum laude with a BS in Justice Studies from Arizona State University and magna cum laude with a MS in Criminology and Criminal Justice from Indiana State University. I am very proud of these honors. I will also be the first to admit that I was almost expelled from school when I was in the 7th grade. If it wasn’t for the fight my mom put up in front of the expulsion committee, my life might have turned out very differently. This is not to say that I didn’t struggle with oppositional and defiant behaviors for many school years after my hearing, but it allowed me to continue my education uninterrupted. I was chronically absent and/or tardy. I hung out with the anti-social stoners. I spent a lot of time in Saturday school, as well as, in-school and after school detention. I often talked back to my teachers or even refused to acknowledge they were talking to me at all. When I was in 8th grade, I made one of my teachers so mad by my defiance that he shoved me up against the wall outside the classroom. I was that kid. I’m grateful now that I went through school when I did. Before zero-tolerance rules took away teacher and administrator discretion, before counselors were deemed an extraneous expense and cut and before schools looked to police officers to handle disciplinary issues. But mostly, before the School-to-Prison Pipeline became a devastating reality.

 School-to-Prison Pipeline

Although not a new concept, the efforts by many juvenile justice and education professionals to address and plug this pipeline has brought this term into the public consciousness. ACLU describes it as “a disturbing national trend wherein children are funneled out of the public schools and into the juvenile and criminal justice systems. Many of these children have learning disabilities or histories of poverty, abuse or neglect, and would benefit from additional educational and counseling services. Instead, they are isolated, punished and pushed out.” Policies and practices within the school system are creating an environment of discretionary punishment often sending children away from the classroom into a courtroom. As the editors of Rethinking Schools explain, we’ve moved away from “collaborative learning environments, multicultural curriculum, student-centered, experiential pedagogy” to a “back-to-basics backlash” with an “ever more alienating curriculum”.

Although many have speculated on causes for this trend, the most commonly cited culprits are zero-tolerance rules and standardized testing. Zero-tolerance policies have criminalized minor infractions of school rules. A quick glance at the news shows stories such as, 2 Suffolk (VA) second grade boys suspended after pointing pencils at each other and making shooting sounds, a 15 y/o A/B student suspended for 10 days for bringing to school throat spray and cold relief pills given to him by his father and a NC Senior expelled and charged with a felony for forgetting his shotgun was still in his truck when he went to school. This last incident occurred just this month and this 18 y/o honor student and Eagle Scout’s infraction was only discovered when he realized his mistake and called his mom from the office to come pick up the gun which he had used for skeet shooting over the weekend.

Standardized testing, on the other hand, has been cited as the reason many school administrators want to push-out those students who will lower the school’s score. In my experience, I witnessed my son’s middle school segregate “problem” children putting them into a special classroom that wasn’t considered general education therefore excluding them from standardized testing. Many of these children had academic issues and were struggling without benefit of an Individualized Education Plan (IEP). The Texas study Breaking Schools’ Rules brought up the point that if a child is suspended or expelled when testing is being performed, they are not counted in the school’s performance rating. This has led to many speculations over the timing of suspensions and expulsions.

What’s Working?

There is no doubt that the school-to-prison pipeline is a very real problem with severe consequences on our youth. In response, juvenile justice agencies have put together programs to help. On December 12, 2012, Melodee Hanes, Acting Administrator, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP), Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs addressed the United States Senate hoping to send a clear message from the juvenile justice system-We need to dedicate ourselves to protecting and seeking justice for the our most vulnerable population—our nation’s children. She reiterated Attorney General Holder’s priority of “protecting children and ensuring they are put on a path to success”. She reminded the Senate members, “Studies show that children removed from school as a result of exclusionary disciplinary actions—that is, suspension, expulsion, or arrest—are more likely to repeat a grade, drop out, or become involved in the juvenile justice system. Yet, these studies document that removal is an all-too-common phenomenon.” She went on to outline several programs in place that are improving the well-being of children, youth and families, as well as, promoting public safety. Here is a brief overview of the programs:

Supportive School Discipline Initiative

Launched in 2011, this initiative was jointly announced by Attorney General Holder and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. The Initiative made use of the data presented in the Breaking Schools’ Rules study which showed very few disciplinary actions that resulted in removal from class were for conduct the state law mandated suspension or expulsion. School officials were making decisions based on their discretion and this discretion had major consequences. This initiative encouraged collaboration and action with federal, state and local education and justice professionals, as well as, provided guidance and resources (including monetary) to establish research, evaluation and implementation of best school-based practices while at the same time upholding this nation’s children’s civil rights in the academic setting.

Defending Childhood Initiative

Begun in 2010, the Defending Childhood Initiative was designed “to take an in-depth look at the problem of children exposed to violence.” The research found 60% of American children had been exposed to crime, abuse and violence within the last year. Much of this occurred within their own home. This exposure, as either a victim or a witness, often leaves a child traumatized. Hanes furthers, “A lack of effective and appropriate identification, response and intervention can result in children who are unfocused and disruptive and frequently truant, behavior which often plays out in classrooms nationwide.” Another key element in this initiative is the look at the role youth substance abuse plays in behavior problems. The initiative not only provided pivotal research but again partnered education and juvenile justice professionals in an effort to keep kids in school, safe from further victimization and encouraged considerations of mental and behavioral support children touched by trauma need to be successful.

Federal Interagency Reentry Council (Reentry Council)

OJJDP recognized that we must not only stop the school-to-prison pipeline, but also mitigate some of the harm it has already created in the lives of thousands of youth. The Reentry Council, made up of 20 federal agencies, was established to coordinate reentry services for youth involved in the juvenile justice system who are returning to their community and school. According to a citation by Hanes, “approximately 100,000 youth are released each year from some type of detention facility to school systems that lack a comprehensive mechanism to assess and address the learning needs of youth reentering the system.” This council focuses only on juvenile reentry issues due to the unique opportunities and challenges that exist.

Although there is no guarantee that if my school district would have expelled me I would have ended up behind bars. I’d like to believe that would never have happened. I have also watched as our school systems have become more and more enslaved to zero tolerance and standardized testing. I’m hoping as a former child discipline problem, a mother of two school age boys and a juvenile justice professional that the steps the system is taking to help curb the school-to-prison pipeline will be effective and we can once again look to our schools as a place of acceptance, inclusion, tolerance and learning.