Ending the 'School to Prison Pipeline'


School disciplinary policies in New York City aimed at isolating disruptive youth have trapped too many kids unfairly in a cycle that lands them in the justice system, members of a task force on schools and justice warned yesterday.

“Courts are just not a good place for kids to grow up in,” said former New York State Chief Judge Judith Kaye, who chaired the two-year-long New York City School-Justice Partnership Task Force.

“They need to grow up with families, in schools, with communities.”

In its most significant finding, the task force reported that African American, Hispanic and disabled youth are disproportionately more likely to be suspended, issued summonses or arrested in New York City schools.

The task force report, “Keeping Kids in School and Out of Court” was released yesterday at a special meeting in the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, attended by some of the city's prominent educators.

According to the report, there were 69,643 suspensions and 882 arrests during the 2012 school year— over with over half of them for students of color and disability.

The study noted that there was a direct relation between the disciplinary measures and students' future educational careers. Those who received “discretionary” summons—for low-level disciplinary behavior—were four times more likely to drop out of school.

“School outcomes and justice outcomes are intertwined, “said Kathleen DeCataldo, Executive Director of the New York State Permanent Judicial Commission on Justice for Children, who presented the report's research findings.

DeCataldo cited a 2011 study, Breaking Schools' Rules, which followed almost one million Texan students for five- years, and found that students suspended or expelled were three times as likely to be in contact with justice system the following year.

In New York, where data detailing school suspensions and school-related summonses only became publicly available in 2011, black students were the most affected. They representing 28 percent of the student population, but had almost 63 percent of the arrests and half of the suspensions.

“We have come to expect these type of results, but don't have to accept these results,” said Damon Hewitt, Director of the Education Project of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, and a member of the Task Force.

The 44-member Task Force met with a broad cross-section section of New York school administrators, teachers, social service agencies, judges and prosecutors—as well as experts from other cities.

“New York City should really be at the forefront of dealing with this issue,” said Joan Gabbidon, senior deputy district attorney for Kings County, New York.

Message for the Next NYC Mayor

With the city in the midst of a mayoral campaign, the Task Force's most prominent recommendation was that the incoming Mayor develop a mayoral-led initiative that establishes a shared goal among agencies and courts to keep kids safely in school.The only mayoral candidate to show up at yesterday's meeting, former New York Comptroller Bill Thompson, said he planned to do just that if he were elected.

Thompson , who served as President of the New York City Board of Education from 1994 to 2001, said initial plans to improve the safety of schools included a requirement that low-level disciplinary issues be kept out of the courts—-but that requirement was ignored.

The result, he said, was “everything we never wanted to see.”

Other task force recommendations included improved capacity across schools to implement positive discipline strategies; refocusing the role of school safety officers, improve educational planning for court involved youth, and improve educational re-engagement for placed and sentenced youth.

Most of the arrests, suspensions and summonses happened in a small number of New York City schools. Students were suspended mostly for minor discretionary infractions. Of the 1,666 teens that were issued summonses, most were for disorderly conduct, which can include “annoyance” and “unreasonable noise.”

Most interactions were for common school misbehavior that in another setting would not have escalated to arrest.

Judge Monica Drinane, Supervising Judge of Bronx County Family Court, and a member of the Task Force, told a story OF in which two students fighting over money to purchase a cupcake were sent to Family Court, even though the quarrel had long since been forgotten and they had resumed their friendship by the time they entered the courtroom.

“We have to wonder, where was the mediation process?” she said, noting that the reflex disciplinary action could easily have been handled without the courts being involved—and staining the students' records.

Lack of Coordination

The Task Force found this reflex action often occurred because of the lack of training and coordination between school safety officers and police.

There are approximately 5,000 school safety agents and 200 police officers in NYC schools. The most common “offenses” coming before the courts in which safety agents were involved were on charges of obstructing governmental administration, but often there was no underlying criminal behavior, the report noted. They arose out of confrontations that spun out of control—often involving students who were already under stress.

In The Crime Report's recent report on School Resource Officers, Mo Canady, executive director of the National Association of School Resource Officers said, “When SROs are doing the job right, and they go into school environment, the arrest rate doesn't go up, it goes down.”

“If it's done right,” he continued. “It's the epitome of community-based policing. Done wrong, it's a nightmare.”

New York City is not alone in seeing a troubling rise of school arrests and suspensions.

A March 2013 consent decree banned the disproportionate suspensions and arrests of mainly black, brown and disabled youth in Meridian, MS. And in January 2013, the UCLA released Out of School & Off-Track: The Overuse of Suspensions in American Middle and High Schools, a 2009-2010 school year survey of 26,000 schools, which concluded that one in nine students was suspended.

But several communities have pioneered new approaches and revamped their disciplinary policies. The Baltimore and Cincinnati, OH public school systems were recognized by the Task Force as potential models.

“We all know now what needs to be done,” said Kaye.

EDITORS NOTE: for additional reporting on this issue, see also “LA Schools Push Back Against Columbine-inspired Zero Tolerance” (May 13, 2013) and “School-based Officers Push (Houston) Students into Criminal Justice System” (April 12, 2013). The U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) this morning release new data depicting school-associated violent deaths, homicides, and suicides. To see the BJS data, click HERE.

Cara Tabachnick is Managing Editor of The Crime Report. She welcomes comments from readers.

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