Closing the School-to-Prison Pipeline

Ending Overly Harsh School Disciplinary Policies that Lead to Dropouts

A new initiative aims to improve disciplinary procedures in schools to help end our nation’s alarming dropout crisis, writes Calyssa Lawyer.

Joe Clark, izquierda, director del Centro de Detención Juvenil del Condado de Essex, conversa con un preso en Newark, New Jersey. (AP/Mike Derer)
Joe Clark, izquierda, director del Centro de Detención Juvenil del Condado de Essex, conversa con un preso en Newark, New Jersey. (AP/Mike Derer)

On July 21 the Departments of Justice and Education released an important plan to combat education policies that push students out of school and limit their educational opportunities. While the plan isn’t perfect, it takes a significant step forward in closing the “school-to-prison pipeline,” a set of school policies and practices that wind up funneling students out of school, providing a one-way path to the criminal justice system, and causing them to drop out altogether.

Attorney General Eric Holder and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan issued the new initiative on the heels of a study about Texas schools that revealed that 60 percent of Texas students received punishment such as expulsion or in-school suspension between 7th and 12th grade. Studies have demonstrated that students who were suspended were more likely to underperform academically, be retained a grade, drop out, commit a crime, and to eventually end up incarcerated as an adult.

This initiative comes at a critical moment. Around the nation an unparalleled number of children are suspended or expelled as a result of excessive punishment for matters that could be handled by serving in-school detention or calling home. In Virginia a 13-year-old girl was barred from coming to school for seven weeks and required to attend several disciplinary hearings before eventually transferring schools—all because she brought acne medication to school in violation of a policy that requires medication to be checked in at the school clinic and signed by a parent. In Florida a kindergartener was arrested and handcuffed for throwing a temper tantrum.

Overly punitive policies such as these have indubitably contributed to the school-to-prison pipeline. Currently, more than 3 million of America’s students are suspended at least once each year and more than 100,000 are expelled, according to data from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights. Worse yet, these rates have doubled since the 1970s as a result of the rise in zero-tolerance policies. In certain places the statistics are even more alarming: In Chicago the number of out-of-school suspensions quadrupled to 93,312 between 2001 and 2007. In the 2007 school year in Florida, there were 21,000 school-based arrests and 69 percent of those arrests were for misdemeanors.

These practices, in and of themselves, are troubling. But there are additional reasons to be alarmed at worsening trends in school discipline. First of all, school disciplinary actions disproportionately impact children of color and students with disabilities. African American students are nearly three times as likely to be suspended and three and a half times as likely to be expelled as their white peers. Numerically, African American students make up 17 percent of students in school but account for 34 percent of suspensions. Hispanic students are one and a half times as likely to be suspended and twice as likely to be expelled as their white counterparts. And although disabled students only constitute 8.6 percent of the school population, they account for 32 percent of juveniles in correctional institutions. While these trends are not solely a result of school-based arrests, they can be largely attributed to the use of the punitive discipline tools of the criminal justice system that are seeping into American classrooms.

Secondly, inequitable discipline policies exacerbate America’s already-staggering dropout rate by discouraging students from continuing their education. Thirty-one percent of America’s students do not graduate. And an article from the New York Law Review reports that 66 percent of youth in custody drop out of school after they are released. Also, students who drop out before finishing high school face lifelong economic consequences. The median income in 2008 for an individual with a bachelor’s degree was $46,000, compared to $23,500 for those without a high school diploma. In sum those with a bachelor’s degree earned 96 percent more than those who did not.

Not only is personal income affected but America’s economy also suffers a blow from the alarming dropout rate. Cutting our dropout rate by half would increase earnings by $7.6 billion and add $9.6 billion in economic growth and $713 million in increased tax revenue, all in an average year. In sum, it is evident that channeling students into the prison system and deviating them from the pathway to college will only magnify the dropout crisis and affect one’s life prospects later on.

In order to effectively ensure all of America’s students have access to a quality education, it is imperative that initiatives such as the Supportive School Discipline Initiative are developed and implemented to combat policies that prevent an education from becoming a reality.

The initiative aims to do four things in order to improve these disparate policies:

  • Build effective action by building consensus for action among federal, state, and local education, and justice stakeholders.
  • Research and accumulate data on alternative policies and disciplinary practices that work more effectively.
  • Ensure policies and practices are in accordance with federal civil rights laws, which is especially important considering the widespread lack of due process rights for students who attempt to re-enroll in school upon release from the justice system.
  • Increase awareness of effective policies and practices that prove beneficial for combating the school-to-prison pipeline.

The initiative’s aim to build consensus, build a bank of research on the topic, and foster awareness on effective practices is a step forward in the right direction and will indubitably set us on the right path toward closing the school-to-prison pipeline once and for all.

Calyssa Lawyer is an intern with the Education Policy team at the Center for American Progress.

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