School-to-Prison Pipeline: Chicago Youth Calling for a Dollars and Sense Policy

[The following post originally appeared July 14, 2011, on the Connected by 25 blog, published by the Youth Transition Funders Group. It's an unusual example of students advocating against harsh discipline policies that feed the juvenile justice system. - Ed.]
juvenile-justice-reform_VOYCE-Youth-leadersYoung people are gathering on the steps of Chicago Public Schools today, along with parents and teachers, calling for an overhaul of the district school discipline policy. The rally is organized around the release of a new report, Failed Policies, Broken Futures: The True Cost of Zero Tolerance, produced by Voices of Youth in Chicago Education (VOYCE)
VOYCE, a youth organizing collaborative, has approached school discipline through a cost-effectiveness analysis, using the $700 million budget shortfall as a very powerful hook. It's so powerful it has brought the Chicago Teacher Union to the table with CTU Vice President Jesse Sharkey speaking at the rally. Too often teachers are in support of pushing students out of the classroom. Yet the national struggle to come to terms with diminished resources is changing the dynamics.

The report offers a compelling argument that that the current practices are not financially or educationally effective:

Harsh discipline policies have been highly overused in CPS, keeping students out of valuable learning time, decreasing students’ chances of graduating, and costing the city millions of dollars.

  • In 2009, there were 4,597 school-based arrests of CPS students age 16 and younger. 78% were for minor offenses.
  • Students who have been arrested are 50% more likely to drop out.
  • Based on the cost of each lost graduate, the report predicts that CPS's school-based arrests in 2009 alone will cost Chicago taxpayers around $240 million in long-term costs. Simply cutting the annual number of arrests in half would result in $120 million in economic benefits to the city per year. 

CPS’s overuse of harsh discipline policies has cost the city millions of dollars and has diverted funds from more effective and proven approaches to school safety, such as guidance counseling, mental health supports, and peer mentoring.

  • Last year, the budget of the Office of Safety and Security was 48 times larger than the budget of the Office of Student Support and Engagement, and 84 times larger than the budget of the Office of Teaching and Learning.
  • Last year, CPS allocated just $3.5 million towards school-based college and career coaches, and $51.4 million towards school-based security guards.

The Chicago School District has already been seeking ways to better understand how to create positive cultures of learning.  With both internal leadership and outside organizing seeking to align the education system around student needs, we might be able to see the types of systemic changes that go beyond the introduction of supplemental or positive behavior programming. There isn't a simple or easy fix to aligning a district and schools. It's going to take embracing the fact that curriculum needs to be engaging to students, flexibility to help students balance school with the responsibilities and challenges in their lives, creating more options for students who need more structure or more intensive support. Most of all, it's going to take administrators, educators and students sitting down and listening to each other respectfully, working together to find the solutions that will work for all of them. 
For funders interested in expanding youth organizing, the VOYCE model has a lot of potential. It's a collaborative made up of seven community organizations throughout Chicago: Albany Park Neighborhood Council, Brighton Park Neighborhood Council, Kenwood Oakland Community Organization, Logan Square Neighborhood Association, Organization of the NorthEast, Southwest Organizing Project and TARGET Area Development Corporation. I have been impressed with the model of multiple community service organizations sponsoring community organizing.  I hadn't seen this model, in which a number of organizations sponsor youth organizing, and from what I can tell, it should be able to be adapted for other communities. 


juvenile-justice-reform_Chris-SturgisChris Sturgis is strategic advisor for the Youth Transition Funders Group, which she co-founded in 1999. YTFG facilitates the collaborative efforts of 40 foundations all dedicated to improving outcomes for vulnerable youth. Before that, she managed program efforts at the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation and the Omidyar Foundation. She received her M.A. in Public Policy from Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government.

Updated: February 08 2018