The school-to-prison pipeline stands as a direct contradiction to the vision of the public school as an institution for promoting and sustaining a democratic republic. Each year thousands of students are funneled through the public schools into the juvenile justice system as a result of school policies and practices that increasingly criminalize students rather than educate them. Most are students of color, students with disabilities and students from impoverished neighborhoods.
Research indicates that both the number of school suspensions and expulsions have increased dramatically as well as the kind of behaviors and infractions that result in suspensions and expulsions. Data from the United States Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights indicate that over three million students are suspended and more than 100,000 students are expelled each year. This rate has almost doubled in the past 30 years. Research also shows a relationship among expulsions, suspensions and school dropouts and subsequent involvement in the juvenile justice system.
Zero-tolerance policies, the overuse of school discipline and juvenile court referrals, exclusionary discipline policies, excessive policing in schools, the criminalization of disability-related behaviors, and pressures and abuse from the high-stakes testing environment are often cited as contributing factors. Together these policies and practices have resulted in the violation of three of our most basic democratic principles: right to an education. right to non-discrimination, right to due process.
The disruptions and denial of education as a result of suspensions, expulsions and exclusionary disciplinary policies have threatened the right to an education, especially when students are given indefinite expulsions without recourse to an alternative education route. The disproportionate impact on different student populations, especially on students of color and students with disabilities and emotional problems, has resulted in discriminatory treatment. And the process that often funnels students from the public school into the juvenile justice system often violates fundamental due process procedures. Most important, if children learn what they experience, what are these school policies and practices teaching our children about the fundamental principles of our democracy?
A reconstructed example illustrates all three violations. A young student of color in an urban school in an impoverished neighborhood is confronted by a school resource officer in the hallway. Suddenly the young student finds himself in handcuffs and arrested for speaking back and for defiant and disruptive behavior. Infractions that would have been treated as a school disciplinary incident have now become a criminal act. This often results when the concepts of school discipline and criminal acts are not clearly defined in a school policy, and the roles of school administrators and school resource officers are not clearly distinguished. The role of police is to ensure safety and stop criminal acts, not to discipline students for breaking school rules. Are these misunderstandings that result in criminal arrest due to a lack in the training of school resource officers in cultural differences and a failure to understand the special needs of adolescent development? How aware is the student of his or her rights to due process at this point. How will this experience lead to school alienation and future dropout? What has this incident taught the student about our democratic principles?
Since the Sandy Hook shootings, the public dialogue has begun calling for more use of police in the schools. This move may actually exacerbate the school-to-prison pipeline. Despite its intent to produce an efficient and safe environment, a culture of control, surveillance, and zero tolerance may be driving youth deeper into the criminal system rather than preventing them from entering it. Dismantling the school-to-prison pipeline will require a more preventive approach with community engagement, restorative justice alternatives and a school culture that gives hope, access and opportunity to all students. Ultimately it will require a deeper willingness to face the underlying social and economic divide in our country that reinforces marginalization, disenfranchisement and lack of opportunity for too many of our children.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Lorraine Kasprisin is the editor of the Journal of Educational Controversy and a professor at Western Washington University. Readers can read about the School-to-Prison Pipeline online in the current issue of the journal, at http://www.wce.wwu.edu/eJournal, and attend a free public forum with the authors at 4 p.m. May 17 in Miller Hall, room 005, on the Western campus.