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Crime & Justice

U.S. Moves to End “School-to-Prison Pipeline”

WASHINGTON, Jan 9 2014 (IPS) - The U.S. government has released landmark new guidelines aimed at tackling overreliance on punitive disciplinary measures within the national school system, with students being expelled or even referred to law enforcement for minor infractions.

Multiple studies suggest a steadily worsening behavioural track record for students initially disciplined for relatively small problems. Credit: Bigstock

Multiple studies suggest a steadily worsening behavioural track record for students initially disciplined for relatively small problems. Credit: Bigstock

Critics of such tough disciplinary approaches have for years warned that they directly impact on students’ future prospects, with multiple studies suggesting a steadily worsening behavioural track record for students initially disciplined for relatively small problems. Such practices have also been found to have a disproportionate impact on minority students and those with disabilities, leading to accusations of systemic bias.

“A routine school disciplinary infraction should land a student in the principal’s office, not in a police precinct,” Eric Holder, the attorney-general, said while unveiling the new guidelines. This is the first time the U.S. government has offered such guidance, the result of a joint effort between the Justice and Education Departments as well as longstanding advocacy from civil society.

Civil rights, anti-poverty and many education groups are lauding the guidance, which encourages schools to come up with local-level solutions to discipline, sets clear boundaries for law enforcement, and pushes greater roles for counsellors and mental health workers.

The new approaches also mark a turning point in the heightened securitisation that has taken place in schools following an infamous shooting in 1999 left more than a dozen students dead.

“After that tragic incident we saw the move to push towards a ‘zero tolerance’ approach and the heightened presence of police in schools. But that combination was a recipe for disaster,” Thena Robinson-Mock, project director for the Ending the Schoolhouse-to-Jailhouse Track Campaign at the Advancement Project, an advocacy group, told IPS.

“Suddenly, routine disciplinary acts started resulting in the intervention of the police. By now we’ve seen an enormous number of young people, especially youth of colour, negatively impacted both by the interaction with law enforcement and the removal from class. We know that if a child is not in school, they’re more likely to end up on that pathway to prison.”

It was a “watershed moment”, Robinson-Mock says, to hear the federal government acknowledge that zero-tolerance policies have contributed to what both she and federal officials call the school-to-prison pipeline.

Wilful defiance

According to the most recent official data on disparities in U.S. schools, while African Americans constitute around 15 percent of students in the U.S. system, they make up 35 percent of students who have been suspended once and 44 percent of those who have been suspended twice. Those with disabilities are also twice as likely to be suspended as other students.

On Wednesday, federal authorities admitted as much.

“Racial discrimination in school discipline is a real problem today, and not just an issue from 40 to 50 years ago,” Arne Duncan, the secretary of education, said Wednesday.

“The need to rethink and redesign school discipline practices is long overdue. Too many schools resort too quickly to exclusionary discipline, even for minor misbehaviours. Exclusionary discipline is so common that in some cases … students as young as three- and four-years old are getting suspended.”

Throughout the United States, the number of secondary-school students being suspended or expelled each year has increased by around 40 percent over the past four decades, today affecting some two million students a year. Further, Duncan noted that some 95 percent of those suspensions are for nonviolent offences, including tardiness, dress code violations, or being generally disruptive.

In the state of Texas, for instance, six out of every 10 students are suspended or expelled sometime between 7th and 12th grade. In California, out of the 700,000 suspensions that took place during the 2011-12 school year, half of those were for “wilful defiance”.

While zero-tolerance approaches to discipline may have initially been meant to ensure a safe learning environment, such widespread disciplinary appear to have had multiple unintended consequences.

“Suspended students are less likely to graduate on time – and are more likely to repeat a grade, drop out of school, and become involved in the juvenile justice system,” Duncan noted.

“The school-to-prison pipeline must be challenged every day. In Texas, a single suspension or expulsion for a discretionary offense that did not include a weapon almost tripled a student’s likelihood of becoming involved in the juvenile justice system the next school year.”

Reprioritising budgets

While many are lauding the new reforms, some education groups are criticising policymakers for failing to make available the funding they say would be necessary to actually implement many of the new ideas included in the guidelines. U.S. school budgets have been repeatedly cut in recent years, and hiring new counsellors and mental health workers would be costly, as would retraining current staff.

As part of the new federal initiative, the government will be making available grants aimed at helping more than a thousand schools train staff members to implement new strategies for reforming classroom environments. Beyond this, however, there is little new money being made to actually implement the initiatives.

“The federal government made many positive suggestions, but policies in a vacuum without actual resources and support will not succeed,” Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, a trade association, warned in a statement.

Yet the Advancement Project’s Robinson-Mock says many of the recommendations outlined by the Justice and Education Departments need not be overly expensive, particularly if money were to be shifted around under new priorities.

“If we’re spending money on heightened security measures that haven’t been effective – such as on metal detectors – this is now an opportunity to look at the budget and see where funds can be redirected,” she says.

“Really, we can’t afford not to make these changes – the costs that would be incurred later far outweigh what we can do now to take preventive measures. It’s in the interest of school districts everywhere to keep these kids in school.”

Others are urging the government to take additional steps to ensure that the new guidelines are being fully implemented.

“This guidance alone will not eliminate our country’s dropout crisis, race- and class-based achievement gaps, and the school-to-prison pipeline,” Wade Henderson, president of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, a coalition of 200 national organisations, said Wednesday.

“The real test of the government’s commitment to fixing these entrenched problems will be its willingness to take strong and immediate enforcement actions regarding school districts with the worst records.”

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