Guest Blog: Together, One Pedal at a Time, Lets End the School to Prison Pipeline

Some Thoughts by Attorney and Child Advocate Rebecca Ballard DiLoreto 

We have likely all heard the urban legend and MISNOMER that a state knows how many prisons to build based on third grade reading levels. Yet, we have seen a move afoot over the last twenty years that has resulted in an increase in the charging of children with crimes for behavior that in the past was understood as something much less than criminal. The School-to-Prison Pipeline is a term used to describe what happens to children when we turn what in the past was understood as adolescent misbehavior, into criminal wrongdoing.

The pipeline begins with children like my Kindergartner client who was suspended three separate times the first five months of his educational experience: once for hitting a child on a playground, once for squeezing a teacher’s hand too hard and once for “being disruptive.” The school had not evaluated him for any supportive services before we got involved to try and help him. Instead, they had just sent him home, time and time again for an ever increasing number of days. Once school personnel were forced to see the child differently and treat him with more compassion, focusing on his educational needs, he began to thrive. But before attorneys stepped in as advocates, this child was painted by the school district as a youth of color inevitably headed to prison and not worthy of deserving an education. In Kindergarten!

This effort to bring attention to disparities in all of our systems is one that requires the assistance from the youth themselves, as Jessica has thoughtfully considered in a previous post. Children’s Law Center works to provide opportunities for youth to advocate for themselves, and tell their stories. The harm is real.

Sociologist, Dr. Brea Perry, established in an extensive, longitudinal study of a school district in Kentucky, that a child who is suspended even one time in a three year period drops over thirty percentage points in her ability to perform on standardized tests; a child suspended two times during a three year period, drops over fifty percentage points and a child suspended three or more times drops over seventy percentage points. Dr. Brea L. Perry, Social Inequalities in School Discipline: Predictors of Punishment in Fayette County Public Schools and Consequences for Academic Achievementpublished in October 1, 2012.

Those who are focused on ending the School to Prison Pipeline identify exclusionary discipline, the loss of educational time, as one big culprit in this pipeline. Several types of discipline can result in loss of educational time and be exclusionary, including: expulsion, suspension, involuntary transfer to a punitive alternative program (that does not provide the same educational curriculum for a child), court charging and juvenile detention. This is why Children’s Law Center’s advocacy focuses a lot of effort in educational systems including those that cross into the juvenile justice system.

The School to Prison Pipeline costs us a lot of money. Students who experience out-of-school suspension and expulsion are far more likely to drop out of high school, harming society as a whole.  A high school dropout will earn $400,000-$485,000 less over a lifetime than a high school graduate.  The loss in tax revenue to state and federal governments is in the billions of dollars.  Healthcare is also affected by higher dropout rates which are attendant to poorer health and lower life expectancies.   In contrast, the low ball number for the annual cost to taxpayers when a child is placed in juvenile detention is more than $97,000 per year.  And to think, in my home state, we have used this method of punishment routinely for years for children who were truant from school. If you will not go to school, we will put you in jail so that you can have an even more substandard education in juvenile detention with children who are charged with serious criminal offenses and gain the stigma of being a mini-criminal.

Children are suspended and transferred to punitive alternative programs for both serious and incidental offenses. The majority of offenses are for disruptive behavior, disregard for authority and fighting between students. Situations may begin small but escalate and then the child is removed. Advocates for children and front line educators want solutions and together have encouraged the use of evidence based positive behavior interventions to teach appropriate behavior and enforce graduated sanctions rather than automatically separating children from their educational environment. Organizations like SaferSanerSchools in Philadelphia encourage the use of restorative justice to resolve ongoing disputes among students and between students and teachers. See http://www.safersanerschools.org/. Even states that may be seen as low on resources have access to these evidence based practices. For example, all of the schools in Kentucky can access the expertise of a professional educational organization devoted to positive behavior interventions [PBIS], the Kentucky Center for Instructional Discipline found online at http://www.kycid.org/. KYCID is generous in its assistance and offers proof that PBIS is making a difference in educational outcomes for the children of our Commonwealth.

Dr. Perry and her colleague, Dr. Edward Morris, did a follow-up study which established that the more punitive the school environment and the more administrators relied upon exclusionary discipline, the more all students in that environment suffered academically. Their extensive body of work established that students who attend schools with a strong culture of exclusionary punishment exhibit lower achievement even if they are not personally suspended, reflecting a hidden cost of the emphasis on punishment and social control in education. Furthermore, their work established that exclusionary school punishment exacerbates racial inequalities in achievement. See Brea L. Perry, Edward W. Morris, Suspending Progress: Collateral Consequences of Exclusionary Punishment in Public Schools, published in American Sociological Review, November 5, 2014.

When there are good solutions, it only makes sense to use them, especially in those instances where the child’s misbehavior, if addressed appropriately is not a public safety threat. Certainly, our schools need support. Taxpayer dollars must go to remedying the overcrowded classrooms, lack of text-books, inadequate teacher training and support, and racially and socioeconomically isolated environments.

If student misbehavior is addressed with consequences close in time to the event and at the community level, students can develop more empathy for those whom they have harmed, assume more responsibility for their misbehavior and have a greater chance of conforming their behavior to reasonable adult expectations. See Improving School Climate: Findings from Schools Implementing Restorative Practices, located at http://www.iirp.edu/pdf/IIRP-Improving-School-Climate.pdf

Neil Postman, in The Disappearance of Childhood poetically noted that “children are the living messages we send to a time we will not see.” Our children are at a critical stage in their lives. And they are our greatest asset. We must invest in them today and in their futures for tomorrow. Just as we invest in our children and the systems that affect them we hope you will consider investing in Pedaling Justice so that it can help further our work. 

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