In December the U.S. Senate held hearings on ending the “School to Prison Pipeline.” As discussed previously in this blog and elsewhere, the “school to prison pipeline” refers to exclusionary disciplinary practices (e.g., suspension, expulsions, or even arrests) resulting from blind adherence to zero tolerance policies, which critics harshly state criminalize otherwise normal behavior and are disproportionately used on minority and special needs students. African American males are 3 ½ times more likely to be suspended or expelled than are their white peers, and students with special needs are twice as likely to be suspended or expelled than are their non-disabled peers. The Senate hearings, which were held before the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights and chaired by Senator Dick Durbin, were the first ever held to address the overall question of school discipline and how it has gone so terribly wrong. But perhaps more importantly, the hearings discussed what needs to happen to “plug” the pipeline.
So how many students are being suspended or expelled? According to data collected by the Civil Rights Project and released last March, 3 million students were suspended from our nation’s schools in 2009-2010. As graphically illustrated in the report, “Opportunities Suspended: The Disparate Impact of Disciplinary Exclusion from School” and discussed in a previous blog, this is enough students to fill every seat at every major league ball park and NFL stadium in the country. And for many of these students, suspensions or expulsions may be their entry into the school to prison pipeline. According to a Texas study, students who are expelled or suspended are three times more likely to become involved with the juvenile justice system within the year.
This last example highlights the arbitrariness and frankly foolish application of zero tolerance policies. Steven Teske, the chief judge of the juvenile court in Clayton County, GA who has characterized zero tolerance as “zero intelligence,” also addressed the Senate hearing. Judge Teske had been appalled by the sharp increase of referrals to his court room from schools: from 46 incidents in 1995 to over 1,200 in 2003. The increase correlated with the introduction of police officers in the school as well as a decrease in graduation rates. According to the judge, 90% of these referrals were for misdemeanors that should have been handled in the principal’s office, not the courtroom.
Judge Teske introduced a tiered response to student misconduct. Students and parents receive a warning from the school on their first offense, a referral to a conflict skills workshop on the second offense, and finally, a referral to the court system on the third offense. The judge also created a “system of care” comprised of education, juvenile justice, and community-based child service providers. The judge has the data to demonstrate the success of his program. By 2011, referrals to his court had decreased by 83%, the presence of serious weapons in schools was down by 73%, and graduation rates had increased by 20%. Not surprisingly, his model has served as a basis for other programs in the country.
And there are other programs being developed and instituted to address the issue of “push-out” of students. Mr. Ward, the previously mentioned college sophomore, responded to what he had seen in his school by becoming involved in Blocks Together, a Chicago-based community organization that seeks to introduce restorative practices as an alternative to suspension and expulsions in Chicago schools. Blocks Together is also a member of the Dignity in Schools Campaign. The Dignity in Schools Campaign in turn has joined with the Opportunity to Learn Campaign and other groups to launch “Solutions, Not Suspensions.” The Dignity in Schools Campaign has also released the “Model Code on Education and Dignity,” which advocates the use of research-based practices like Restorative Justice and School Wide Positive Behavior Intervention and Supports (PBIS) to improve discipline in schools and promote better academic performance. According to the Dignity in School Campaign, PBIS is used in more than 10,000 schools and is shown to reduce disciplinary referrals and improve attendance rates and academic achievement.
Such grassroots organizations have begun to effect change. Several states have passed bi-partisan legislation that limits use of exclusionary discipline or provides support to educators in implementing practices that can reduce the use of suspensions and expulsions. Some cities, such as Chicago, have expunged zero-tolerance language from its discipline policies. The numbers of students suspended in New York City and Baltimore are declining with modifications to the school policies.
So what can the Senate committee do to eliminate what are known as “push out” practices? For starters, the committee can urge re-introduction of several pieces of legislation that were drafted in the last Congress in both the Senate and the House that offer training and technical support to school districts which are implementing non-exclusionary discipline practices. In the House, the Positive Behavior for Safe and Effective Schools Act advocates the use of PBIS and provides training in best practices for school discipline, the Restorative Justice in Schools Act focuses on conflict resolution, and the Youth PROMISE Act offers strategies to lessen the number of youth entering the justice system. In the Senate, the Successful, Safe, and Healthy Students Act would provide funds and technical assistance to schools implementing restorative justice and PBIS.
There is no easy solution to the crisis of student push-out in our schools, but clearly the conversation on how to fix it has begun at the federal level. Witnesses at the conference not only described the school to prison pipeline and its potentially disastrous effects on our youth, particularly minorities and students with special needs, but also addressed how to fix the problem. And many of the representatives from the different community organizations who attended the hearing felt that the Senators were listening. We need to expect better outcomes of our school systems and certainly better than a prison sentence as the final destination.