Historically, the American education system has been in dire need of reform, mainly to bridge the opportunity access gap, as well as address the glaring school-to-prison pipeline that exists in countless communities.
Now, thanks to a $122 billion infusion of federal stimulus funds into the education system, advocates say this is a “pivotal turning point,” according to the latest report by the Sentencing Project.
The report, written by Richard Mendel, a Senior Research Fellow, details how the new funding will allow communities to invest in resources that will keep children in school, help them “progress along the path to educational success” — and stay out of the criminal system.
These funds also come at a critical time where the pandemic has aggravated the already “enormous education and youth development challenges.”
Mendel writes, “Since the COVID pandemic began in March 2020, US school children’s pace of learning has slowed considerably, and millions of children have become disengaged from school.”
Because of this disengagement, researchers worry about the long-term impacts, citing studies that have shown disengaging in one’s own education as an adolescent substantially elevates risk for poor behavior and attendance problems.
These factors could snowball into criminal behavior, Mendel details, noting that without the proper allocation of the funding, the school-to-prison pipeline could be deepened.
Established Educational Challenges
Even before the pandemic, the American education system had “problematic practices” Mendel details, adding that young people are sometimes pushed out of school and shoved into the justice system due to systemic inequalities.
First, Mendel explains that there are too many police officers stationed inside schools, “despite evidence that school-based police tend to increase counterproductive arrests for low-level offenses but do not protect public safety.”
Because of the over-abundance of officers, there’s an overreliance on arrests and suspensions to address student misbehavior, inadvertently putting a potentially at risk young adult back out onto the streets — doing more harm than keeping them in school.
These arrest and suspensions are also glaringly and overwhelmingly children of color, as well as those with disabilities, according to the Sentencing Project report.
While there are too many officers, Mendel finds that there are conversely, too few mental health counselors, and individuals qualified to help students work through stress and trauma.
The Pandemic’s Toll
While all of these challenges and disparities existed within the education system long before the pandemic, the virus brought the system to its knees, and now students are at risk of being left behind.
Mendel writes that the damage has been especially acute for Black and Latinx students, and for others in low-income households, English language learners, and children with disabilities.
Moreover, the pandemic has exacerbated mental health challenges for a substantial amount of adolescents, particularly by stunting the conventional adolescent development.
“As a result, schools will likely see substantially elevated behavior and attendance problems in the coming school year,” Mendel warns, adding that research shows school disciplinary can quickly escalate, turning into a risk for suspension or subsequent arrest.
‘Prioritize Opportunity, Not Punishment’
Now with the $122 billion in federal funding, Mendel urges the American education system to work with community members, and adopt effective strategies researched and designed to reduce longstanding disparities while supporting vulnerable students.
Specifically, Mendel writes that schools must:
- Close the school-to-prison pipeline by removing resource officers, minimizing arrests, and reduce discipline;
- Improve school climate by forging community connections with organizations and residents; and,
- Re-engage at risk youth and those who are chronically absent by offering them interventions and teaching promising skills to stay on track.
Mendel concludes, “After more than a year of isolation, learning loss, missed adolescent development opportunities and trauma, states and local school systems must partner with communities and pursue a two-track approach to meet the challenges and seize the opportunities of this pivotal moment.”
Richard Mendel is a Senior Research Fellow for Youth Justice, where he conducts research and writes reports to promote reform of our nation’s youth justice systems. Prior to joining The Sentencing Project, Mendel spent more than 20 years as an independent writer and researcher on youth justice and other social justice issues.
The full report can be accessed here.
Andrea Cipriano is a TCR staff writer.