Blog: School-to-Prison Pipeline

Top 16-20 Juvenile Justice Blog Posts | 2012

Continuing our countdown of the top juvenile justice blog posts of 2012, here are numbers 16-20:
20. Lessons from Death Row Inmates: Reform the Juvenile Justice System
In looking for ways to reduce the number of death penalty cases, David R. Dow realized that a surprising number of death row inmates had similar biographies -- they started out as economically disadvantaged and otherwise troubled kids.
19. Youth Transfers to the Adult Corrections System More Likely to Reoffend
Juveniles transferred to adult corrections systems reoffend at a higher rate than those who stay in the juvenile justice system, according to a recent report from the National Institute of Corrections (NIC).
18. Beating the School-to-Prison Pipeline by Focusing on Truancy, Absenteeism
There is a strong correlation between missing school in the elementary years and winding up in jail, explains a Superior Court Judge.

Revisiting the School-to-Prison Pipeline

School to Prison PipelineThe Thelton E. Henderson Center for Social Justice at UC Berkeley published a report detailing a pilot program aimed at students of color and low-income families to shift from a zero-tolerance school discipline policy to a restorative justice policy. The report, “School-Based Restorative Justice as an Alternative to Zero-Tolerance Policies: Lessons from West Oakland,” [PDF download] draws evidence from Cole Middle School in West Oakland and finds that the restorative approach can help combat the school-to-prison pipeline and have a positive effect on disproportionate minority contact in the juvenile justice system.
The report’s executive summary has a great introduction to the major concepts included in the report (emphasis mine):

Restorative justice is an alternative to retributive zero-tolerance policies that mandate suspension or expulsion of students from school for a wide variety of misbehaviors including possession of alcohol or cigarettes, fighting, dress code violations, and cursing. Although zero-tolerance policies have resulted in substantial increases in student suspensions and expulsions for students of all races, African American and Hispanic/Latino youth are disproportionately impacted by a zero-tolerance approach.
Under zero tolerance, suspensions and expulsions can directly or indirectly result in referrals to the juvenile and adult criminal systems where African American and Hispanic/Latino youth are also disproportionately represented. This phenomenon, part of a process that criminalizes students, has been termed the school-to-prison pipeline.

Why Missing School Matters

Missing school matters, for obvious reasons. The first and most compelling, is that if kids don’t learn to show up, it will impact their ability to successfully shape the course of their lives, and showing up for life is a learned skill. Central Texas students (and this number shocked me!) miss 2.4 MILLION days of school each academic year, costing a loss of more than $34 million dollars annually for our schools. Children suffer academically when they aren’t in class. Chronic absence is an indicator for future drop out rates. Individual classrooms are affected by absence as students miss participation in key elements of their learning. So why do kids miss so much school?
According to Communications Director, Rick L’Amie of the E3 Alliance, when kids were asked why they missed so much school, 49% of them said, it’s boring. At MAP, we think there’s more to it than that. We work with at-risk and disenfranchised youth on a daily basis, and in our work we explore a lot of serious life circumstances and issues with these kids. What I find is that our kids (and I suspect many are like them) often find it difficult to articulate the challenges they face in their daily lives. A 10 year old who misses school because her older brother got in a fight with a neighbor’s kid across the street and the fight led to retaliation which resulted in her house getting burned down and the family having to flee the neighborhood in fear, is not going to verbalize the complexity of that situation. It’s easy to say, I’m bored. But what that kid is also saying is, nothing I’m learning here feels relevant to my life experience.

REPORT: School Exclusionary Discipline Policies Expensive, Ineffective

A new report, Breaking Rules, Breaking Budgets: Cost of Exclusionary Discipline in 11 Texas School Districts, by nonprofit Texas Appleseed shares the negative impacts of the exclusionary disciplinary methods in Texas schools. The study surveyed 11 school districts to discover the cost-benefit ratio of exclusionary discipline and how it affects students and communities. Exclusionary discipline includes out-of-school suspensions, expulsions, and referrals to alternative education programs which leads to high human and financial costs.
In 2011, the Council of State Governments released a groundbreaking report documenting the negative impacts suspension and expulsion have on students in Texas. With many schools utilizing discretionary sentencing for minor violations, the high costs and negative impacts of exclusionary discipline are hindering the Texas public school system.
Excessive state money is being spent on out-of-school suspensions and school security rather than social work services. With 75% of violations strictly school code violations, the annual cost to educate one student through exclusionary discipline methods is three times the average cost of educating a student in the regular classroom.
The Texas Appleseed report gives the following recommendations to help reduce the human and financial costs of exclusionary discipline:

California Legislation Targets School Discipline

California Governor Jerry Brown has signed two bills that seek to reform school discipline in California schools.
The first, Assembly Bill 1729, introduces intervening means of behavior correction prior to suspension or expulsion. Such behavior correction could include tiered interventions that occur during the school day, a parent-teacher conference, a restorative justice program, or an after-school program focusing on positive activities and behaviors.
The second, Assembly Bill 2537, clarifies that over-the-counter medication and toy guns in schools do not immediately trigger zero-tolerance penalties. School administrators may still make such a determination, but it is no longer automatic. This permits some degree of case-by-case analysis into an individual student’s behavior and intent.

Ineffective School Discipline Policies Threaten Public Safety

Law enforcement leaders recently banded together to highlight an important – but perhaps surprising –issue in public safety: school discipline.
San Bernardino County, CA District Attorney Michael Ramos, Sheriff Keith Royal, president of the California State Sheriffs’ Association, Sacramento Police Chief Rick Braziel, Ceres Police Chief Art de Werk, and the president of the California Police Chiefs Association all recently gathered in California to highlight ineffective school discipline policies that actually detract from public safety.
The officials noted that suspending and expelling students for minor offenses increases the number of youths out of the supervised school environment and on the streets, where they are far more likely to engage in troublemaking or even criminal behavior. The law enforcement coalition further pointed out the link between suspensions and dropping out of school, impacting both crime rates and educational gains.
The Sheriffs, Police Chiefs, and District Attorney spoke out after a report released by Fight Crime: Invest in Kids found high rates of suspension for low-level misbehavior. The group contrasted these poor outcomes with the positive gains and cost savings possible with alternative, more traditional school discipline measures which often involve restorative justice.

Dismantling the Cradle to Prison Pipeline

The Children's Defense Fund released the State of America's Children 2012 Handbook last month, an annual compilation of national data on child well-being, as well as its Portrait of Inequality which focuses on the state of the most vulnerable black and Latino children and youth in America. While the snapshots are sobering for both populations, the report on black children outlines a stunning set of statistics that paint the contours of CDF's theory: that black children are fed into a Cradle to Prison Pipeline at higher rates than any other group.
There is quite a bit of work that has been done on the school-to-prison pipeline - a confluence of forces, including zero tolerance policies that push disadvantaged children out of school and in into the criminal justice system. CDF's Cradle to Prison theory argues that black children and youth not only face multiple risks, but that from birth and throughout childhood and adolescence, confront debilitating obstacles that often push them into premature death, prison, and failed lives. Some black children face an entire childhood of hardship and stressors that many adults could not withstand, and ultimately fall into an "abyss of poverty, hunger, homelessness and despair".
Hmm, you might think, could they be overstating this? You may even consider black children that you know who have overcome tremendous odds and achieved success - proving that some can climb their way out of the morass of disadvantage that so easily entangles. However, CDF's report is not a collection of assertions, but rather a fact-based siren warning that an unacceptably high percentage of black children will meet this fate if adults (you and me) don't figure out how to fix things.

A New Program to Reduce Truancy: Washington DC’s Case Management Partnership Initiative

The DC Crime Policy Institute recently released an interim evaluation on a new truancy intervention program (direct download the PDF here). The program, called the Case Management Partnership Initiative (CMPI), aims to reduce truancy by connecting truant students and their families with applicable services and case management. The assumption is that by helping to alleviate the underlying issues causing truancy, such as family problems, truancy as a whole will go down.
While the program has not yet shown that it reduces truancy, CMPI has ideas on how to improve the program moving forward. Via the report:

The CMPI does not seem to be reducing truancy on a scale that would warrant expanding the program in its present form. The program is promising, but warrants modification, enhancement, and further experimentation. Among many possible modifications that might strengthen the program, this evaluation suggests several for consideration.

  • The program may be starting too late to improve the chances for improved attendance in ninth grade, and may need to start months to a year earlier.
  • The program may want to explore modifications to its eligibility criteria. This may involve additional assessments to identify key drivers of truancy before participation in the program, exploring full attendance histories (rather than prior year only), and/or targeting the program to students with a narrower range of prior truancy. Other student and family characteristics, such as academic need and performance, may also be incorporated into existing criteria.
  • Additional program components may be beneficial. For example, the program’s family focus could be supplemented with a component that focuses intensively on the student’s academic performance. Family mental health needs may also warrant increased attention.