Stop funding the ‘National School Pipeline to Prison.’

 Tammy Kister

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By Lydia M. Long, PhD.:Criminal Justice Conslt. and Adjunct Prof. at McMurry | April 1, 2013

The school-to-prison pipeline refers to the national trend of criminalizing, rather than educating, our nation’s children. The pipeline encompasses the growing use of zero-tolerance discipline, school-based arrests, disciplinary alternative schools, and secured detention to marginalize our most at-risk youth and deny them access to education. Follow the money. Who benefits and who loses from removing ‘troublesome’ students from the school system and transferring them to the juvenile system? It only benefits the schools and juvenile justice system. The end results are higher attendance rates, tests scores and an expanding juvenile justice system. Meanwhile, the students who especially need school, guidance and education are removed from the schools. We need to invest in our school systems and instead of expanding our juvenile justice system, help them help our most needy students. Before schools even think about incarceration — an option that should still be preserved, but only for those in need of most serious intervention in a secure environment, all disciplinary resources should be exhausted at the school. {{more}} Millions of U.S. public school students in grades K-12 are suspended or expelled in an academic school year, particularly students in middle and high school. Research demonstrates that when students are removed from the classroom as a disciplinary measure, the odds increase dramatically that they will repeat a grade, drop out, or become involved in the juvenile justice system. These negative consequences disproportionately affect children of color as well as students with special needs. Policymakers and practitioners have a growing need to identify strategies for effectively managing student’s behavior and aligning schools’ policies in order to support student engagement and learning, and reduce poor academic outcomes and juvenile justice contact. Although some states and local governments have taken promising steps to address these issues, decision makers and front-line practitioners lack a comprehensive, multisystem approach to making school discipline more effective . Zero-tolerance policies impose severe discipline on students without regard to individual circumstances. Under these policies, children have been expelled for giving Midol to a classmate, bringing household goods to school to donate to Goodwill, and bringing scissors to class for an art project. “Zero tolerance has become a one-size-fits-all solution to all the problems that schools confront. It has redefined students as criminals; with unfortunate consequences…Unfortunately, most current [zero-tolerance] policies eliminate the common sense that comes with discretion and, at great cost to society and to children and families, do little to improve school safety.”. There is no evidence that zero-tolerance policies make schools safer or improve student behavior. On the contrary, research suggests that the overuse of suspensions and expulsions may actually increase the likelihood of later criminal misconduct. Schools today rely on law enforcement, rather than teachers and administrators, to handle minor school misconduct. Growing numbers of school districts employ full-time police officers, or “school resource officers,” to patrol middle and high school hallways. With little or no training in working with youth, these officers approach youth as they would adult “perps” on the street, rather than children at school. Children are far more likely to be arrested at school than they were a generation ago. The vast majority of these arrests are for non-violent offenses such as “disruptive conduct” or “disturbance of the peace.” Children as young as five years old are being led out of classrooms in handcuffs for acting out or throwing temper tantrums. The explosion of school-based arrests cannot be attributed to an increase in youth violence. Between 1992 and 2002, school violence actually dropped by about half. Despite the fear generated by a handful of highly publicized school shootings, schools remain the safest places for young people. In the meantime, incarceration rates and corrections budgets have continued to increase at an unprecedented rate over the last 30 years. Though research indicates that investments in education are effective at reducing crime rates, funding for education has fallen severely behind budget allocations for corrections. Funding for corrections has increased more than 2.5 times the rate of education and libraries in the last 30 years. The rise in suspensions, expulsions, and school-based arrests may be due, in part, to the rise of high-stakes testing. As a result of test-based accountability regimes such as the No Child Left Behind Act, schools have an incentive to push out low-performing students to boost overall test scores. One study found that schools meted out longer suspensions to students who performed poorly on standardized tests than to high-performing students for similar offenses. This “punishment gap” grew substantially during the period of time when standardized tests were administered, indicating that schools may use “selective discipline” to keep low-performing students out of school during testing days. Students confined in juvenile detention facilities have access to few, if any, educational services. Students who enter the juvenile justice system face many barriers blocking their re-entry into traditional schools, and can be haunted by their criminal records later in life. The vast majority of juvenile justice-involved students never graduate from high school, and may be denied student loans, public housing or occupational licenses because of their prior criminal records. A study reported in the American Economic Review on the effects of education on crime found that a one year increase in the average years of schooling completed reduces violent crime by almost 30 percent, motor vehicle theft by 20 percent, arson by 13 percent and burglary and larceny by about 6 percent. These same researchers concluded that “A 1 percent increase in the high school completion rate of all men ages 20-60 would save the United States as much as $1.4 billion per year in reduced costs from crime incurred by victims and society at-large. States and communities should first consider education a long-term investment that may not necessarily bring about immediate changes, but would create lasting changes for communities in terms of economic development, civic involvement and crime. Shifting money away from law enforcement and corrections and into building educational opportunities would create improvements in public safety. Such attention to spending should be particularly focused in communities of color and high school aged youth.For more information on Breaking Schools’ Rules: A Statewide Study on How School Discipline Relates to Students’ Success and Juvenile Justice Involvement. Visit: Lydia M. Long, Phd. is a Criminal Justice Adjunct Professor at McMurry University.