Breaking the School-to-Prison Pipeline


Less than two weeks ago, Dr. John Deasy, superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District, resigned after three years at the second largest school system in the U.S.

In his October 15th letter of resignation to the school board, he mentioned a number of efforts that had “contributed to a healthier, safer, and more respectful environment for youth to learn and thrive,” such as the student climate bill of rights, the implementation of restorative justice practices, the elimination of thecharge of “willful defiance” to suspend youth, and the elimination of citations for low-level infractions.

Deasy's accomplishments in improving school climate, with the aid of organizations such as the Youth Justice Coalition and The California Endowment, will help decrease the racial and ethnic disparities in school suspensions in Los Angeles.

In remarks recently at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, he said the number of school suspensions had dropped in Los Angeles from 48,000 a year to 8,000—with a corresponding increase in graduation rates.

Editors Note: For a video of Dr. Deasy's speech at John Jay, please click HERE.

But nationally, the statistics remain abysmal.

Every year, more than two million students in secondary schools are suspended. The vast majority of suspensions are for minor infractions, such as being late to school, dress code violations and disruptive behavior in class.

According to the U.S. Department of Education , African-American students without disabilities are three times as likely to be suspended or expelled from school as their white peers; and these disparities are not a result of more serious or frequent misbehavior by students of color but of discriminatory administration of school discipline policies.

That is why the Department of Education and the Department of Justice launched the Supportive School Discipline Initiative (SSDI) in 2011. The SSDI is focused on safe, inclusive and positive learning environments to keep kids in school instead of suspension and expulsion.

Earlier this year, the two departments issued legal guidelines to reduce disparities in school discipline—the first time ever. The new guidance is designed to assist schools in meeting their federal legal obligations to develop and implement school disciplinary policies without discrimination.

In his statement about the new guidelines, Attorney General Eric Holder said, “Too often, so-called “zero-tolerance” policies – however well-intentioned – make students feel unwelcome in their own schools. They disrupt the learning process. And they can have significant and lasting negative effects on the long-term well-being of our young people – increasing their likelihood of future contact with juvenile and criminal justice systems.”

Holder concluded: “A routine school disciplinary infraction should land a student in the principal's office, not in a police precinct.”

This guidance comes on the heels of changes in school discipline codes in state and local jurisdictions such as Chicago, Philadelphia, Los Colorado and Maryland, thanks to the pioneering work of The Advancement Project, the Dignity in Schools Campaign, the Alliance for Educational Justice and their allies. These organizations have led the national fight for justice in schools and their work is to be commended.

Last month, Mayor Bill Deblasio announced plans to revise New York City's school discipline code.

While there is still much more to do on the “school” end of the “school to prison pipeline”—such as ensuring that all school districts follow the new federal guidance, adopt new codes of conduct that reduce discrimination in school suspensions, implement restorative justice practices in schools, and tackle the issue of cops in schools and school based arrests—the advocates' success at engaging federal agencies in the effort is to be commended.

If only the same could be said of the “prison” end of the “school to prison pipeline.”

The racial and ethnic disparities in the justice system for youth are stark. For example, youth of color overwhelmingly receive harsher treatment than white youth in the juvenile justice system at all stages of case processing.

According to the Haywood Burns Institute, youth of color are significantly more likely to be incarcerated than white youth: Black youth were 4.6 times as likely; Native American youth were 3.2 times as likely; and Latino youth were 1.8 times as likely.

At the other extreme end of the system, African-American youth are 62% of the youth prosecuted in the adult criminal justice system and nine times more likely than white youth to receive an adult prison sentence. Latino youth are 40% more likely to receive an adult prison sentence than white youth.

These disparities are also not a result of more frequent or serious offending by youth of color but of discriminatory treatment of youth of color by the justice system.

We are still waiting for new federal guidance, policies and regulations to implement the December, 2012 recommendations of the Attorney General's Task Force on Children Exposed to Violence.

These recommendations would bar placement of kids in adult court, adult jails and prisons; provide incentives to close juvenile prisons and reallocate funds to community based alternatives to incarceration; and keep kids out of the justice system altogether.

Liz Ryan is a regular columnist on youth justice issues for The Crime Report. She is a campaign strategist, youth justice policy expert, and civil and human rights advocate. Follow Liz on twitter @LizRyanYJ. She welcomes comments from readers,

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