End the school-to-prison pipeline
A recent poll seems to imply that the general public does not understand, and maybe has never heard of, the school-to-prison pipeline.
It is a national trend in which children — more often than not, minorities — are caught up by “zero-tolerance” public school policies that criminalize minor infractions of school rules.
In the past, such violations might have been handled internally by the principal or dean. But the increase of law enforcement staff in schools has led to outsized punishments that set children at risk for further run-ins with the law and, ultimately, landing in the juvenile and criminal justice systems.
Last February, The Civil Rights Project at UCLA reported that across the country, an overreliance on student suspensions to maintain discipline in public schools has led to U.S. kids losing almost 18 million days of instruction, with minority children representing a disproportionate number of those suspended.
In terms of expulsions, the Civil Rights Data Collection, compiled by the U.S. Department of Education, shows that while in 2011-12, black students comprised just 15.9 percent of the total student population, they represented 36 percent of students who were expelled.
Additionally, black students were 34.6 percent of those subjected to corporal punishment, 30.1 percent of those arrested at school and 27.4 percent of those referred to law enforcement.
This well-documented phenomenon led the U.S. Department of Justice and the U.S. Department of Education to publish a “Dear Colleague” letter in January 2014. It reiterated that school disciplinary policies can be determined by individual school districts, but: “Federal law prohibits public school districts from discriminating in the administration of student discipline based on certain personal characteristics. The Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division (DOJ) is responsible for enforcing Title IV of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 which prohibits discrimination in public elementary and secondary schools based on race, color, or national origin, among other bases.”
Last week, the Education Next journal of opinion and research, along with the Program on Education Policy and Governance at Harvard’s Kennedy School, released its ninth annual poll on education policies.
One of the survey questions asked a nationally representative sample of 4,083 adults whether they “support or oppose school district [or federal] policies that prevent schools from expelling or suspending black and Hispanic students at higher rates than other students.”
The results were shocking. Fifty-one percent of the public opposed federal “no-disparate-impact” policies, with 21 percent supporting and 29 percent neither supporting nor opposing. Among teachers, opposition to no-disparate-impact discipline was even higher, with 59 percent opposed and only 23 percent in support. Higher levels of support for the federal policy were observed among African-Americans, with 42 percent in favor and only 23 percent opposed. But among Hispanics, only 32 percent of respondents supported the policy and 43 percent opposed it. Only 14 percent of whites favored the policy, while 58 percent expressed opposition.
I think people just don’t understand the issue at hand: Of course we want kids to behave in classrooms so that teachers can teach and students can learn, but we must achieve that through methods that don’t punish pupils more for their race or ethnicity than for their misbehavior.
Barbara Fedders, a professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and an expert on the school-to-prison pipeline, told me, “Without any context, the situation described in the question sounds like fairness run amok rather than equitable sanctions for equal infractions. To someone uninformed on the topic, a natural reaction might be: ‘Well, it must be the case that black and Hispanic students must be misbehaving more often,’ but the data show the disparities are so, so vast and not explainable on merit.”
“Research shows black students are punished more frequently and more harshly for the same offenses,” said Jason Langberg, an education advocate for the JustChildren Program of the Virginia-based Legal Aid Justice Center, “and that the vast majority of those punishments are for minor, subjective offenses.”
Both noted that peer mediation, behavioral interventions and more social work/counseling staff in schools are successful methods of dealing with misbehavior that improve, rather than degrade, classroom and school-building learning atmospheres.
For now, though, the best intervention to end this pipeline may be to make more people aware that it exists and can be effectively addressed, if it is acknowledged.
Esther Cepeda’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter, @estherjcepeda.
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