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American Bar Association

Help Us Dismantle the School-to-Prison Pipeline

By Monica Llorente – April 10, 2014


American Bar Association (ABA) groups are uniting to bring down the school-to-prison pipeline (STPP). Together, in the coming year, these ABA groups hope to convene educational stakeholders from different perspectives in order to come up with effective solutions that can be implemented. The focus is not just on discussing the issues but on propelling people and solutions into action. Advocates want to take advantage of the momentum created by the School Climate and Discipline Guidance Package release, January 8, 2014, by the U.S. Department of Education (DOE) with the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ). These federal guiding principles focus on improving school climate and culture and on ensuring that student discipline is handled without discrimination on the basis of race, color, or national origin, among other bases. 

These ABA groups need our help and want us to engage in the work together, so that we can collectively dismantle the school-to-prison pipeline and create a safer and more positive environment in our schools and communities. 

ABA Groups Gather for First of Several STPP Town Hall Meetings
The American Bar Association Midyear Meeting featured a special town hall discussion on February 7, 2014: The School-to-Prison Pipeline: What Are the Problems? What Are the Solutions? The forum was sponsored by the ABA Coalition on Racial and Ethnic Justice, the Criminal Justice Section, the Council on Racial and Ethnic Diversity in the Educational Pipeline, and the Section of Litigation’s Children’s Rights Litigation Committee. This is only the first of several gatherings that these ABA entities hope to convene throughout the nation over the next year. The goal of these town hall meetings is to connect people from different perspectives who are armed with varying solutions (such as sociologists, parents, students, administrators, teachers, and organizers) with each other to truly bring down the pipeline. The emphasis is not on talking but on taking action and implementing real solutions at all levels.

The speakers and panelists at this first town hall included:

• Opening: Justice Michael Hyman, chair of the ABA Coalition on Racial and Ethnic Justice

• Moderators: Professor Sarah Redfield, University of New Hampshire School of Law, and Wesley Sunu, Tribler Orpett & Meyer

• Professor Julie Biehl, Children and Family Justice Center, Bluhm Legal Clinic, Northwestern University School of Law, Chicago, Illinois

• Professor Nancy Heitzeg, Sociology and Critical Studies of Race and Ethnicity, St. Catherine University, St. Paul, Minnesota

• Mariame Kaba, Project NIA, Chicago, Illinois

• Robert Saunooke, Law Offices of Robert Saunooke, Miramar, Florida, and legal and policy advisor to the chairman, Seminole Tribe of Florida

• Dr. Artika Tyner, Community Justice Project: clinical faculty, director of diversity, University of St. Thomas Law School, Minneapolis, Minnesota

• Rev. Janette Wilson, National Rainbow PUSH Coalition, Chicago, Illinois

The School-to-Prison Pipeline: What Is It Really?
For too many of our young people, particularly those who are African American, Latino, Native American, low-income, or youth with disabilities, the education pipeline stands broken, and the doors to meaningful education remain closed. The problem is particularly acute with regard to students being pushed or dropping out of school, often into the juvenile or prison system—the so-called school-to-prison pipeline. Disproportionality, where certain racial groups are represented out of proportion to their student numbers, remains virtually unchecked in discipline and with regard to certain special-education categorizations and placements. The disproportionate minority contact in juvenile-justice and delinquency matters is equally troubling.

While the availability of data on pipeline issues is increasing, the problems have been known for decades and have been resistant to change. These issues are a civil-rights challenge for our society, and a costly one at that, as dropouts lose earning capacity and become more dependent on welfare or join the expensive prison population. The United States spends an average of $10,995 on school placement per year per student (Nat’l Ctr. for Education Statistics, The Condition of Education 2012, at 200) while states’ average per-inmate cost is over twice that, $28,323 (Bureau of Justice Statistics, State Corrections Expenditures, FY 1982–2010, at 4 (rev. ed. Mar. 11, 2014)), and juvenile detention is even higher, an estimated $87,981 per year (Justice Policy Inst., The Costs of Confinement: Why Good Juvenile Justice Policies Make Good Fiscal Sense  4 (May 2009)).

The town hall panelists took some time first to define and explain the school-to-prison pipeline from their perspectives and based on their experiences. The panelists were direct and honest in their delivery and assessment.

To establish a working definition of the school-to-prison pipeline, Dr. Tyner of the Community Justice Project presented the NAACP Legal Defense Fund’s description of the pipeline, which is “the funneling of students out of school and into the streets and the juvenile correction system perpetuat[ing] a cycle known as the ‘School-to-Prison-Pipeline,’ depriving children and youth of meaningful opportunities for education, future employment, and participation in our democracy.” Mariame Kaba reminded us that “[i]t’s almost a misnomer in some cases to talk about a school-to-prison pipeline, and we should really be talking about a community-to-prison pipeline or a cradle-to-prison pipeline. It starts even before young people enter the school building.”

Professor Heitzeg and Rev. Wilson agreed that we are “feeding bodies to the criminal system” through this pipeline. Young people are indirectly routed to forms of incarceration through suspension and expulsion policies and directly routed to prison through the growing police presence in schools. Thus, when we talk about the school-to-prison pipeline, as Professor Heitzeg explained, we are really talking about the rhetoric of the war on drugs, mandatory minimum sentences, mass incarceration, zero tolerance, and no discretion translated into educational policy through the concept of discipline.

Dr. Tyner seamlessly illustrated the problem as a “tangled web, because often times we can see all the different entry points, but the difficulty is how do you exit a web? And the challenge then becomes for our children, how do they get out of this web once they’re tangled?”

The School-to-Prison Pipeline: Facts and Statistics
If you are reading this article, you are probably already familiar with the facts and statistics. A public school student is suspended every second and a half, and a recent study found that 95 percent of out-of-school suspensions are for nonviolent, minor disruptions such as tardiness or disrespect. Numerous other studies demonstrate that certain students—such as students with disabilities; students of color; lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning youth; and English-language learners—are more likely to be suspended and expelled for more minor offenses. For example, as Professor Heitzeg pointed out, black students are suspended and expelled at three-and-a-half times the rate of white students and that rate may increase in some states up to six times the rate.

Highlighting Native American Youth and Chicago Students
The panelists took some time to highlight the experiences of Native American youth and Chicago public school students. There are over 600,000 Native American students nationwide, but “only about 44 percent of those actually graduate from high school and go on to any post-secondary education. In that post-secondary group, only about 1 percent complete that post-secondary education,” according to Robert Saunooke.  Illustrating the issues of suspension and discipline, Saunooke described a 14-year-old boy who was charged with a felony for hurling a projectile or missile out of a school bus, when all he did was throw a pen and it hit a nearby car. Saunooke pointed to the lack of funding and the fact that rarely does a teacher stay more than two to three years in a school serving Native American children as some of the contributing factors to this education crisis.

In Chicago, many of the young people Mariame Kaba works with through Project NIA hate school, even though they used to like it. The schools have become, for many students, places of fear and loathing. According to Kaba, 84 percent of the arrests in schools are for misdemeanor offenses that could be solved without police intervention. Matters that should be taken care of in the principal’s office get taken care of by the police. Kaba noted that there are two police officers at a minimum in each high school in the city. If police officers are in the building, Kaba explained, they are going to act as the police, not as counselors. While they may be trying to make counseling part of their job, that is not their job. That is not what they were trained to do nor what they entered the police department to do. Kaba advised that Chicago has to reframe and think about policing in schools totally differently. Also, schools need to be careful with the tools and philosophies they use to resolve conflicts and how they implement them within their existing culture. For example, restorative justice has been introduced and has begun to be implemented, but it is not meant to be a legal philosophy, so it has been problematic. 

Professor Julie Biehl also emphasized that young people in Chicago need to be in school and that when we revoke parole for young people because they were not in school, we are putting them in a place where we do not want them to be. What is their future without an education?  It does not make sense. A tremendous challenge for Professor Biehl and her team, who represent young people facing criminal charges and youth who are reentering their community after incarceration, is the myth that everything in a young person’s record is confidential.  Unfortunately, that is not the case. A young person’s record can be a barrier to school reentry, employment, housing, and financial aid for college.


What Made This Gathering Different: The Exchange Between Panelists and the Audience
What set the ABA town hall apart was that it was not about just talking and pointing fingers; it was about educating, sharing, and beginning that true discussion on this complicated issue to take better action locally and nationally. Justice Hyman opened the town hall by reminding us that we are all responsible for what has happened in our educational and justice systems. These are our children. This situation is everyone’s fault—the public’s fault, the legal system’s fault, the educational system’s fault—and it has to change. This is the reason why these ABA groups have decided to focus now on this issue.

The question-and-answer portion of the town hall truly demonstrated the determination and dedication of these ABA groups and panelists. During her presentation, Reverend Wilson described how we “have this new movement around the nation where we are going to fix the classrooms by bringing in younger, inexperienced teachers with all kinds of creative ideas and at no point have they learned the art of classroom management.” After the panel presentations, a microphone was available for anyone who wanted to come up to ask questions or make any additional comments. In this period of exchange with the audience, a speaker asked, “What can teachers do?” The panel and members of the audience were able to engage in a positive dialogue and start to come up with possible solutions, such as extending the commitment of these young teachers to five years.

Furthermore, the panelists were respectful in their support of the models presented by the audience members. Law students from Loyola and Tulane in New Orleans’s Stand Up for Each Other!, where law students represent young people suspended or expelled from school, asked the panel what they could do to be more like the panelists. The panel quickly responded that the panelists should be asking themselves what they can do to be more like them (the law students), because they are really doing the work and should be the ones outlining their model so that it can be replicated across the country.

Identifying the Barriers: Implicit Bias, Funding, and Related Trends in Education

The panelists and audience members began the arduous journey of identifying the numerous factors that present a challenge to dismantling the school-to-prison pipeline, because they negatively impact certain students. The following were discussed as barriers that would have to be analyzed and for which effective solutions would have to be developed:

Implicit and Explicit Biases: Several panelists highlighted the role of implicit and explicit biases in the school-to-prison pipeline. Implicit biases are hidden from us in our subconscious and are difficult to access even through introspection.  The persistent media representation of crimes and criminals and the criminalization of blackness can feed into the everyday interactions that students have with teachers in schools and in the resegregation of schools. Mariame Kaba was frank in saying that people are scared of black kids—even black people. Professor Heitzeg indicated that 84 percent of teachers are white women and that students of color are underrepresented in advanced placement tracks but overrepresented in special-education tracks. These biases affect how we implement solutions, as well. Professor Heitzeg pointed out that the health system is how we manage white misbehavior, while the prison system is how we  manage black misbehavior. Panelists urged people to think of the role of anti-blackness and to start changing the discourse.

Funding: Declines in school funding, particularly cutbacks on counselors, also feed the school-to-prison pipeline. The money we invest reveals what we care about. Disparity between money spent in education and money spent for jail or juvenile justice per student represents poorly thought-out investments.

Poverty: Growing rates of poverty can increase the school-to-prison pipeline as youth from poor families are overrepresented in the pipeline.

Resegregation of Schools: Many schools still remain segregated by race. Many activists consider this the civil-rights issue of this generation.

High-Stakes Testing: Pressure on students, teachers, and administrators to achieve good test results can lead to a push to exclude students who are seen as dragging down the test scores.

Prison-Like School Environments: Many schools are unwelcoming with surveillance cameras, police dogs, armed guards, school and local police on campus, metal detectors, strip searches, and visually uninviting buildings that are not clean. As Robert Saunooke indicated, “[t]his gestapo idea that we have to police instead of care for children is just the wrong approach. I think we need to get back to the basics of community, desire to strengthen each other by cultural understanding, and that will help bridge that gap and maybe correct this curve and direct it the other way.”

Zero-Tolerance Policies: While there has been some change, there is still an increased reliance on zero-tolerance policies. Students who are subjected to zero-tolerance standards are more likely to be referred directly to the increasing number of police in schools.

Increased Rates of Suspension and Expulsion: Students are being excluded from school with no help or legal representation—a true access-to-justice issue.

Lack of Counselors and Mental-Health Services: Even though the need to increase the use of counselors, social workers, and mental-health resources for students is obvious, these services are often quick to be cut.

Other Pressures and Uncertainty: There are some fundamental changes being made to the U.S. educational system that include school closures, privatization, and a growing system of charter schools that, in some cases, undermine the public school system and can lead to uncertainty within the existing system.

Why Take Action Now? DOE/DOJ Guidelines on School Climate and Discipline
On January 8, 2014, the DOE, in collaboration with the DOJ, issued federal guidelines to advise schools on how to improve school climate and discipline: Guiding Principles— A Resource Guide for Improving School Climate and Discipline. This is the first time in decades that there is a federal message on this issue, so this is an opportunity that needs to be seized by advocates to take action on this issue. The guidelines are divided into three guiding principles, which are outlined in detail. Most important of all, practical action steps for school stakeholders are included for each guiding principle.

• First, the guidelines call on state, district, and school leaders “to take deliberate steps to create the positive school climates that can help prevent and change inappropriate behaviors.” These steps would include training, including the voices of families and community partners, and using “resources to help students develop the social, emotional, and conflict resolution skills needed to avoid and de-escalate problems.” The underlying causes of misbehavior, such as trauma, mental health, and drug and alcohol abuse, need to be addressed directly.

• Second, students must be held accountable for their actions in developmentally appropriate ways. Expectations and consequences to address student actions should be “clear, appropriate, and consistent,” and schools should rely “on suspension and expulsion only as a last resort.”

• Third, schools must “ensure fairness and equity for all students by continuously evaluating the impact of their discipline policies and practices on all students using data and analysis.”

In addition to releasing these guidelines, the DOE and DOJ have simultaneously published a directory of federal school climate and discipline resources outlining federal technical assistance and other resources available to schools and districts, a compendium of school-discipline laws and regulations, and an outline of recent federal initiatives on these issues.  Furthermore, the Obama administration’s 2015 budget prioritizes education investments to implement these guidelines. President Obama has proposed a new initiative called Race to the Top—Equity and Opportunity and a comprehensive plan titled Now Is the Time to reduce gun violence and increase resources available in schools. 

At the same time, the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) will continue to investigate OCR complaints, make recommendations, and implement changes by reaching agreements with different school districts and issuing and enforcing findings.

“Don’t Sleep Through the Revolution”: What Can You Do?
“There is nothing more tragic than to sleep through a revolution,” Dr. Tyner stated to remind us of Dr. Martin Luther King’s message. These are revolutionary times, we can no longer allow this pipeline to expand, and we can no longer allow things to continue the way they have. We need to seize the moment and band together as lawyers and social engineers to say that we can make a difference, because the school-to-prison pipeline is wrong and needs to be dismantled. The panel explained how this is our problem, and we must be the solution.

Robert Saunooke brought it down to the individual level for us by explaining what he tries to remember every day: “I know I’m only one and I can’t do everything, but because I’m one and I can’t do everything, I am not going to refuse to do the something that I can do. So, everyone in here, you’re just one but you can do something, so go do that one thing you can do and that will make the difference.”

Here are some ideas discussed at the town hall that might be the “something” that you might be able to do to make a difference on this issue:

Join us at a future ABA STPP town hall. The next one is in Boston, Massachusetts, on Friday, August 8, 2014, from 9 to 11 a.m. during the ABA Annual Meeting, and the organizers need your help to plan it. Plans are also under way for town halls in Washington, D.C., and Miami, and the organizers would like to hear from you about other potential locations, as well as your ideas for potential speakers. (Please contact: Sarah.Redfield@gmail.com.)

Let us know what is going on in your town, region, or state pertaining to these issues so that we can better build that web and power to make a change. (Please contact: Sarah.Redfield@gmail.com.)

Join the Education Subcommittee of the Children’s Rights Litigation Committee to work on the Educational Civil Rights Accountability Project. This project works for strong monitoring by the DOE’s Office for Civil Rights and the DOJ to ensure that no group of students is disparately subjected to school discipline, arrests at school, or exclusion. (Please contact: Cathy.Krebs@americanbar.org.)

Let the community be at the forefront to bring forth the change. There is always a temptation for lawyers to take care of it and have the community step back. Engage with community members on this issue and have an honest conversation. Ask community organizations and members what you can do to help them make a change. Also, continue to educate and mobilize your community, for example, by providing “know your rights” workshops in schools. This will help you develop relationships, gain a better understanding of what is happening, and go from there.

Reshape the narrative. Try to reframe and think about the issues outlined above, such as policing in schools and the impact of race, totally differently. Change the discourse, thinking, and actions. Challenge the world and people around you, including communities, churches, advertisements, on these issues, particularly on implicit biases. Don’t let those uncomfortable moments pass. If something doesn’t sound or seem right, talk about it, and confront it. Change is never easy and painless. We have to go beyond the dialogue—past our silos and comfort levels.

Look at and follow the money carefully, and analyze what is cut and why. Challenge these decisions. Connect with your state advisory group in charge of distributing federal and state juvenile-justice amounts.

Identify and share strategies to take advantage of the new federal guiding principles issued by the DOE in collaboration with the DOJ.

Figure out what it will take to change the law in your city, state, or region.

Make recommendations for change and be specific. Make policy recommendations for change at the local, state, or federal level. Write letters of support, provide new language for legislation, draft a policy paper, or get involved in a policy committee.

Spread successful models throughout the country, such as the Stand Up for Each Other! suspension and expulsion project or the Legal Prep Charter model, a school with no metal detectors, no police, open enrollment, incoming levels of students that mirror the neighborhood, and a conflict-resolution process.

Join the efforts of others nationally, locally, or both, working on these issues, such as Advancement Project, Dignity in Schools, the Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana, Project NIA, Suspension Stories.

Take a case, criminal or civil, major or minor. Consider taking a suspension or expulsion case, and look at Titles IV and VI.

Make OCR and Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) complaints. FERPA protects the privacy of students’ records, but a lot of information is given informally orally and in writing to police, prosecutors, service providers, and other third parties to investigate, discipline, and prosecute youth. You can make complaints to the DOE relating to FERPA violations and to the Office for Civil Rights regarding OCR complaints based on discrimination.

Donate to a group working to end the school-to-prison pipeline.

Train others to take cases or do community workshops and think about developing a program for other pro bono volunteers, even if it is small.

Teach and mentor young people.

Volunteer at your local school.

Work with a social worker and other different stakeholders and service providers to get a different perspective and come up with more effective solutions.

Support teachers because teaching is a position that should be paid and valued.

Diversity and anti-oppression trainings are important, but remember that trainings alone will not solve this problem.

Develop and focus on alternatives, like restorative justice, but make sure they are well implemented.

Keep fighting against the continuously emerging new ways of criminalizing behavior. For example, restorative justice and ankle bracelets in some jurisdictions have become new arms of the state. We need to dismantle this pipeline completely.

Keywords: litigation, children’s rights, school-to-prison pipeline, school discipline, expulsions, suspensions, policing schools, zero-tolerance policies, implicit bias, funding, educational trends, ABA town hall meetings

Monica Llorente works on local and national campaigns with youth, parents, educators, lawyers, organizers, and others to advocate for changes in education and juvenile justice, and she teaches law to undergraduate students at Northwestern University in Chicago, Illinois.

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