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Dealing with the school-to-prison pipeline

27th April 2015   ·   0 Comments

By Kari Dequine Harden
Contributing Writer

A group of educators, students, lawyers, city officials and other concerned community members gathered at Loyola Law School recently for a town hall meeting titled, “The School to Prison Pipeline: What are the Problems? What are the Solutions?”

According to the American Bar Association (ABA), which sponsored the event, more youths are incarcerated in the U.S. than any other nation by a 5 to 1 margin.

Two million children are sent to juvenile detention every year across the nation, with 75 percent of juveniles in detention for nonviolent offenses. Sixty-six percent of those detained never return to school.

Eden Heilman, director of the Southern Poverty Law Center, said that the phrase “school to prison pipeline” does not accurately capture the complexity and numerous factors leading to the over-incarceration of youth.

However, through the SPLC’s work, Heilman said they have identified three “points of entry,” or three specific ways in which schools directly contribute to funneling kids into the justice system.

First, students are arrested directly at school.

Heilman pointed to Jefferson Parish as an example, where the school district has a contract with the Sheriff’s office to place officers in schools to assist with rule enforcement. During the 2013-14 school year, there were close to 600 arrests in the Jefferson Parish’s schools for school-based offenses. Of those, almost 400 arrests were for non-violent offenses such as “Interference with an Educational Facility, Disturbing the Peace, or Truancy.”

There is also a disturbing racial disparity. According to the ABA, nationwide 70 percent of students involved in in-school arrests or referred to law enforcement are Black or Latino.

Of the approximate 600 arrests in Jefferson Parish schools, 80 percent were African-American students, even though African-American students comprise only about 46 percent of the student body.

Jason Nance, one of the panelists and a law professor at the University of Florida, wrote in his paper “Students, Police, and the School-to-Prison Pipeline:” “The Pipeline does not impact all racial groups equally. Abundant empirical evidence demonstrates that students of color are affected disproportionately throughout every stage of the Pipeline. For example, minority students are disciplined more often and more severely than white students for committing similar offenses, and have higher arrest and conviction rates when they are referred to the justice system.”

The problem with using police in schools, according to Heilman, is that “Police officers are generally trained to deal with adults on the street, not youth in a school setting. They enter the school environment without training on child and adolescent development, de-escalation techniques, or protections for students with special needs.”

Nance presented his research on schools employing “school resource officers” to deal with discipline issues.

According to Nance’s analysis of U.S. Department of Education data: “A police officer’s regular presence at a school significantly increases the odds that school officials will refer students to law enforcement for various offenses, including these lower-level offenses that should be addressed using more pedagogically-sound methods.”

In other words, issues that previously had been dealt with by the school and educators are now being increasingly dealt with by law enforcement. Nance writes: “The consequences of involving students in the criminal justice system are severe, especially for students of color, and may negatively affect the trajectory of students’ lives. Therefore, lawmakers and school officials should consider alternative methods to create safer learning environments.”

In his paper, Nance lists specific anecdotes from his extensive research: “For example, police officers stationed at schools have arrested students for texting, passing gas in class, violating the school dress code, stealing two dollars from a classmate, bringing a cell phone to class, arriving late to school, or telling classmates waiting in the school lunch line that he would ‘get them’ if they ate all of the potatoes. In 2007, the police even arrested six-year-old Desre’e Watson for throwing a temper tantrum in an elementary school in central Florida. The police had to place the handcuffs around Desre’e’s biceps as the police escorted her to the police station because her wrists were too small.”

Nance continues: “Although some may believe that arresting students may ‘scare them straight,’ on the contrary, an arrest usually does not achieve the desired reformative effect, and the negative consequences that often occur instead are quite severe. Empirical studies demonstrate that arresting a student substantially reduces the odds that the student will graduate from high school, especially if that student appears in court. It also lowers the student’s performance on standardized tests, decreases future employment opportunities, and increases the likelihood of future involvement in the criminal justice system.”

The second “point of entry” Heilman lists occurs when schools push kids out.

In New Orleans, where the privatized public charter schools set their own discipline policies, kids are being suspended at shockingly high rates, and frequently for very minor infractions.

According to Heilman: “Although New Orleans schools are supposed to be some of the most innovative schools in the country, they are far from it when it comes to discipline. For the last five years, New Orleans has had at least 15 or so schools with suspension rates exceeding an already high statewide average. In fact, a handful of schools have been suspending kids at rates of 40, 50, 60% and more each year. These are likely some of the highest suspension rates in the nation.”

Critics of the privatized New Orleans model of reform point to ill-equipped teachers, and argue that by filling the classrooms with inexperienced, uncertified teachers from programs like Teach for American or TeachNOLA, many schools have struggled with the inability of young teachers to control their classrooms.

And because schools create their own, often inconsistent, suspension policies with little oversight from the state, they can punish their students for virtually anything – from wearing the wrong color socks to raising hands without a locked elbow.

One of the most common reasons for suspension, categorized as “willful disobedience,” is highly subjective and wide open to interpretation, especially from the perspective of a 21-year-old teacher unfamiliar with the local culture and entering the classroom after just five weeks of training.

Sky-high suspension rates have significant consequences, Heilman describes: “First, problematic behavior is reinforced when kids see getting out of going to school as a good thing. Second, kids end up out on the street without adult supervision. Third, they aren’t in classrooms learning and thus fall further behind academically, increasing the likelihood they will eventually drop out. Suspensions also increase the likelihood of being arrested in their lifetime.”

The fragmented landscape of New Orleans also makes it very difficult to track children who are pushed out of schools, or never enroll in the first place.

While the proponents of privatization tout graduation rates and test scores as the measure of a successful system, these numbers fail to consider the significant percentage of children in New Orleans who are not in school.

Though operating with public money, the numerous selective admission schools only enroll the students they want.

And as documented in a recent report from the Education Research Alliance, a number of leaders at New Orleans schools required to enroll all students who apply admitted to “creaming” the best students and excluding less desirable students.

Without any single entity responsible for tracking all school-aged children in New Orleans, it is difficult to calculate how many kids are not in school on any given day.

For the 2012-2013 school year, school officials estimated that 28 percent of high school students are “chronically absent,” meaning that they missed more than 10 percent of the school year.

And this does not include the kids who never enrolled during that school year.

According to a report from the Cowen Institute for Public Education Initiatives, about 14,000 youth in New Orleans aged 16 to 24 are neither working or in school.

There are approximately 38,000 total students currently enrolled in public schools in New Orleans.

The third “point of entry” Heilman identified was the failure of schools to provide appropriate services to children, including those with special needs.

Students with disabilities, in­cluding emotional and behavioral disabilities are supposed to be pro­tected under federal laws to ensure that they are not being suspended for misbehaviors that are directly related to their disability.

A lawyer from Los Angeles who specializes in advocating for children with special needs said at the meeting that the “tremendous rise in charter schools” has resulted in a significant set back in decades of work toward ensuring that the rights of students are protected. From a civil rights perspective, the lawyer called the “deregulation” of public education “horrible,” and a contributing factor to the school to prison pipeline.

Dana Peterson, deputy superintendent for external affairs for the Recovery School District (RSD), spoke about efforts over the last few years to address the issues surrounding the schools-to-prison pipeline.

First, a centralized enrollment process was created, known as OneApp. Peterson said it was evident that school were not being as “accommodating as they could be” in terms of enrolling all students.

(However some schools still do not participate in the OneApp.)

A centralized expulsion policy was also created – defining what offenses were legitimate grounds for expulsion. Previously, schools could expel children for anything they wanted.

Peterson said the number of expulsions decreased significantly as a result.

A centralized suspension policy does not exist.

In 2014, the OPSB and RSD combined efforts to create the Youth Opportunity Center. The center is designed to provide more comprehensive resources and support to families and students struggling with chronic absenteeism.

Peterson said that while there is still a long way to go, much progress has been made.

Devan Petersen, an advocate for children in foster care, spoke candidly on the panel about her own experience as a foster child and survivor of sexual and physical abuse.

Presenting statistics on the increased risk of foster children to end up homeless or incarcerated, Petersen stressed the need to provide a stronger support system to protect children in foster care, and especially those who have been victims of sex trafficking.

Orleans Parish Juvenile Court Judge Ernestine S. Gray also spoke, and praised Petersen for her perseverance in beating the odds.

Gray stressed the importance of students not just being enrolled in school, but feeling connected and “meaningfully engaged” in their schools.

Gray derided the current system that “would rather spend money locking someone up than the same amount of money to give them an education and an opportunity for a future.” If the majority of resources continue to go toward incarceration, “we will get more incarceration,” Gray said.

A group of high school students who attended the meeting raised questions they have about discipline policies. One student asked whether students should be taken directly to jail for marijuana possession as the country moves in the direction of legalization.

Another student told the panelists that the hyper-strict discipline policies that characterize most of the city’s high schools actually work to encourage students to break the rules.

The student pointed out that for many students, getting sent home is seen as a reward.

Also debated was the definition of “success.” While it has been largely defined by the schools as high test scores, one audience member asked if that definition best serves children for survival in the existing world.

A high school student commented that while she planned to go to college, she knew that that track was not necessarily what would be best for all her peers.

After the meeting, the students discussed the crippling affects of student debt, and a challenging job market even with a college degree. They said they wanted to see more vocational programs in their schools, as well as more extracurricular clubs and activities.

One student expressed frustration that there didn’t seem to be enough money for lap top batteries and that finishing work was always a challenge because the laptops were always dead. (The well-paid top-heavy administrations at the majority of charter networks suggest otherwise).

A young teacher at the meeting talked about her frustration with finding the middle ground between removing students who are disrupting the education of others and keeping students in school.

Nance stressed the effectiveness of alternatives to out of school suspensions, such as restorative justice and positive behavior support systems.

Heilman commented on a need for a bigger sense of ownership over all children – including those who are not in school. The “out of sight out of mind” tactic of removing challenging students does not benefit society in the long term, she said.

The Cowen report on 16- to 24-year-olds not in school or the workforce documented a cost of $195 million in social services and lost tax revenue in 2011, as well as those “opportunity youth” being overrepresented among the city’s criminals and victims of crime.

Heilman argued for better training and increased support at the classroom level to “keep kids in classrooms and learning.”

She also advocated for community-based alternatives to incarceration, limiting the use of law enforcement on school campuses, and provided front-end services such as mental health care for students who have experienced trauma – “Not waiting until they’re at their worst and then spending taxpayer money to lock them up.”

Nance said he has been a critic of the RSD for many years, but said that “only in the last year or two” did the RSD start to exert some control and address some of the problems regarding discipline practices. After about eight years of what he described as the “Wild West,” there have been some dramatic changes made indicating a “step in the right direction.”

The town hall meeting also highlighted the work of Stand Up For Each Other (SUFEO), a group of Tulane and Loyola law students devoted to keeping kids in school providing representation for students and families who feel they have been unfairly suspended or expelled.

To reach a SUFEO advocate, call (504) 410-KIDS.

This article originally published in the April 27, 2015 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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