How Middle School Discipline Pushes Vulnerable Kids into Justice System

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Most children age into the criminal justice system during middle school, and with every state allowing the prosecution of children as young as 12, the impact can be severe for Black, Native or Latino boys. These are environments where suspension from school is predictive of incarceration later in life, reports USA Today. Latinx, Native and multiracial middle schoolers are still disciplined at higher-than-average rates, and the risk that classroom misbehavior ends in a suspension or a court date is acute for Black students. A study that tracked nearly one million Texas seventh-graders found Black students disciplined for some infractions at rates 31 percent above the norm. Researchers at UCLA found suspension rates among Black middle school students were double the average; in a single year at two Atlanta middle schools, more than 60 percent of Black boys were suspended.

A middle schooler who has been suspended is, by some estimates, nearly four times more likely to end up with a criminal record compared with demographically identical peers. Students suspended or expelled early in adolescence are often shunted into remedial classes and never returned to the mainstream. Studies have shown teachers are as biased against Black people as American society is broadly, and that school staff members are likely to misread the expressions of Black children, seeing anger where there is none. Black students are also disproportionately punished for breaking dress codes and disobeying hairstyle restrictions and other minor misbehavior. For Black boys and other children of color, the increased risk of being punished at school begins as early as preschool, according to government data. More holistic approaches to school discipline have been gaining traction in schools nationally for the past two decades, but experts believe that if the changes aren’t accelerated, the risk of abandoning too many of this generation’s Black, Latino and Native children to the justice system will remain high.

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