While federal studies show that the rate of school-related homicides and nonfatal violence has fallen over most of the past decade, over the same period and perhaps in response to highly publicized incidents of school violence such as the shootings at Columbine High School and Virginia Tech, schools across the United States have adopted zero-tolerance policies to address discipline problems. Zero-tolerance policies aimed at reducing school violence and removing children deemed to be “problems” from schools have created alarming levels of school disruption for children–disruption that begins a process moving these children from the school system into the prison system. This process, which entails the criminalizing of childhood classroom disruptions and the increase in attendant school-based arrests, disciplinary alternative schools, and secured detention, marginalizes at-risk youth and denies them the very education that could prevent future incarceration. Put simply, it has created a “pipeline” that moves the most vulnerable of school-aged children from the school system to the prison system.
Poor children, children of color, children who lack access to medical and mental health care, and those who suffer from abuse or neglect begin their school experiences with multiple strikes against them. Government policies such those espoused under the No Child Left Behind Act, which reward schools for academic achievement and restrict funding for under-achievement, create a climate where struggling children are unwelcome. Racial disparities loom large in school discipline as well, with minority children shown to be overrepresented when it comes to harsh sanctions. Black students have been shown to be more than twice as likely as white students to be suspended from school.
In cases of vulnerable populations, learning differences or disabilities may not be detected until the child enters the public school system. Studies have shown that most children who end up in detention facilities have disabilities that would make them eligible for special education services, but only 37% of them have received any kind of services at school, either because the schools failed to identify their disabilities or due to lack of parental awareness of the child’s limitations.
Emotional disturbances, which are a qualifier for special education consideration, create particular risks for students, including the worst graduation rates, the highest dropout rates, and higher arrest rates and pregnancy rates than those for these students’ peers. Children with emotional disturbances make up seven out of every 10 children in the juvenile justice system and are three times more likely than their peers to be arrested before leaving school. Almost three-fourths of children with emotional disturbances will be arrested within five years of leaving school.
Clearly, the safety needs attached to the very real dangers of school-based violence must be addressed, and real responses are needed for legitimate threats. However, zero-tolerance disciplinary policies represent a “one size fits all” response to school based incidents that impose severe discipline on students without taking into account their individual circumstances. These policies and the resultant suspensions, expulsions, and arrests are often the first step in a child’s journey though the school-to-prison pipeline.
Equally concerning are the racial disparities resulting from the enforcement of these zero-tolerance policies. Black children are four times as likely as their white peers to be incarcerated. Black children are almost five times and Latino children more than twice as likely to be incarcerated as white children for drug offenses. Black children are twice as likely as white children to be put in programs for mental retardation, twice as likely to be held back a grade, three times as likely to be suspended, and 50% more likely to drop out of school. While black children make up 16% of the U.S. youth population, they represent 32% of the children in foster care; while minority youth in general make up 39% of the overall youth population, they account for 60% of the children in the juvenile justice system. Studies have reported that as many as three-fourths of all incarcerated children have mental health disorders and one in five has a severe disorder; Latino children show the highest percentage rate of unmet mental health needs. Today 580,000 black males are serving prison sentences in the United States, while fewer than 40,000 black males earn a bachelor’s degree each year. Often, poverty is a factor in incarceration; while wealthier families can provide options such as counseling or private rehabilitation programs, drug counseling, or even military school as alternatives to detention, poor families have limited options–another factor that contribute to their disproportionate representation within the justice system.
As early as kindergarten, some children may begin to show signs for potential risk of offending. In particular, the 10% to 11% of children who enter the school system lacking the social skills that would prevent them from arguing or fighting with teachers are at a significantly higher risk for school failure, delinquency, and potential incarceration. Mandatory expulsions for offenses committed by children as young as age five, while intended to make schools safer, may create the unintended consequence of pushing children–often the most vulnerable children– into a trajectory of delinquency and incarceration.
As concerns for safety grow, a growing number of school districts have begun to rely on police officers to patrol hallways and enforce discipline. These officers often focus on using the legal system to discipline students for conduct that might otherwise be addressed by school programs, counseling, or parent education, thereby moving children from the school yard to the prison yard. Once a child enters the juvenile justice system, reentry into traditional schools can be negatively impacted, initiating a trajectory that may lead toward adult incarceration.
Zero-tolerance policies, harsher drug laws, and rigorous gang intervention tactics have all contributed to a broadening of criminal offenses that affect school-aged children. Behavior that historically would have been handled in the principal’s office, such as schoolyard fights, is now being attended to by school-based police officers, who move students directly into the local courts and detention centers. While initial offenses such as truancy, defiant behavior, or fighting might result in a minor punishment, these offenses often begin a paper trail or “record” for the offending child; as these offenses add up over time, the courts’ and school’s reaction to the child’s behavior tend to become harsher. Many areas do not have comprehensive rehabilitation and support programs; as a result, incarceration becomes the only option for at-risk youths.
Marginalized children, when labeled by the school system as “deviant” at a young age, may feel that they are not wanted, or valued, or smart–which puts them on a downward spiral from the beginning of their school experiences. Many begin to mentally drop out as early as the third or forth grade, when the academic and behavioral demands of school may outstrip their earlier academic development and home-based support. Lack of mental health support and early intervention for children with severe emotional and behavioral problems and their families, issues of substance abuse, the absence of a positive home-based support system, or a combination of these factors often bring children into the juvenile justice system. The deeper a child gets into this system, the harder it is to get out. Once expelled from the school system, it is difficult for the child to return, making the risk of dropping out of high school a very real possibility. High school dropouts are 63 times more likely to be incarcerated than graduates from four-year colleges, and four times as likely as their peers with a higher education degree to live 125% below the poverty line. The average high school dropout will cost taxpayers more than $292,000 relative to an average high school graduate.
Addressing the harsh realities of the school-to-prison pipeline will require a shift in emphasis from punishment to support. This support is necessary even before high-risk children enter the school system. Resources for at-risk families, including health, nutrition, and mental health support and preschool to give children a more level social and academic entry process into the school system, can contribute to fewer disparities in the classroom. School resources that address the social, developmental, and behavior needs of our most vulnerable children can keep them in school rather than taking them out of the only known indicator for future success. Support for educational deficiencies, combined with a reduction of suspensions, expulsions, and arrests, can minimize disparities in achievement and outcome for all children, but especially those at highest risk. While it is important to keep schools safe for all students, implementing interventions such as mediation, counseling, and conflict resolution as first-line alternatives can contribute keeping all children in mainstream educational environments and help them build the skills they need to realize their full potential.
- America’s cradle to prison pipeline report. (2007, October 10). http://www.childrensdefense.org/child-research-data-publications/data/cradle-prison-pipeline-report-2007-full-highres.html
- Homeland insecurity. (2009, January). Retrieved April 17, 2015, from http://www.everychildmatters.org/storage/documents/pdf/reports/homelandinsecurity3.pdf
- SchooltoPrison.org. (n.d.). Retrieved February 26, 2010, from https://www.schooltoprison.org/
- Southern Poverty Law Center launches “school to prison reform project” to help at-risk children get special education services, avoid incarceration. (2007, September 11). Retrieved February 26, 2010, from http://www.splcenter.org/get-informed/news/splc-launches-school-to-prison-reform-project-to-help-at-risk-children-get-special