Suspending and expelling students from school and taking them through the juvenile and criminal justice system for minor infractions has created the school-to-prison pipeline. According to a U.S. Department of Justice complaint, officials in some schools give armed police the authority to stop, question, search, frisk, detain, and arrest students both on and off the school grounds.
Zero-tolerance practices are often used for nonviolent offenses and actions that are disruptive. They promote a one-size-fits-all punishment for many behaviors that have caused the school-to-prison pipeline to be crowded.
Zero-tolerance policies sound like a quick fix, but these policies criminalize minor infractions of school rules. Resource officers arrest students for behaviors that would be handled best by the school administration rather than a juvenile court judge.
Many students who commit minor infractions are children with histories of poverty, disabilities, abuse, or neglect. Programs that would help them with additional educational and counseling services should be enacted, but instead, these children are punished, singled out, and pushed out of the school system.
Teachers feel victimized by these students. The only punishments available to the teacher are to make threats, send the student to the principal, or contact the school’s resource officer.
In 2010, more than 3 million kids were suspended from school. Additionally, a number of these students were referred to the resource officer.
One high school teacher in a local high school was dismayed that a student she sent down to the principal for discipline ended up suspended from school. This was his third time swearing under his breath, but was suspension the answer? Studies show that suspensions and expulsions do more harm than good to students.
Keeping at-risk kids in class and learning is difficult. Teachers are under pressure to meet accountability measures, yet teachers have a unique position to keep students out of the school-to-prison pipeline.
Teachers get to know the student and are vested in keeping the students in the classroom. It’s difficult, but when teachers are trained to take a more responsive approach and forget the knee-jerk reactions, students are more than likely to stay in school and stop their behaviors.
The Problem With Suspension
Suspended students lack supervision during the day. Out on the streets, they do not benefit from positive peer interactions, adult mentorships, or the teaching provided for them at school. Suspending students does not help students develop the skills and strategies they need to improve behavior and avoid future problems. Once a student is suspended, he/she is more likely to be expelled again, repeat a grade, drop out of school and become a part of the juvenile justice system.
Not too long ago, NEA Executive Committee member Kevin Gilbert talked to a student who lived for 21 days in a juvenile detention center. All he did was talk back to the teacher. In 2013, a 7-year old was suspended for shaping his breakfast bar into a gun shape. Really? A Michigan senior was expelled for forgetting the pocketknife she had in her purse. How about the seven teenagers in North Carolina arrested and suspended for an end-of-the-year water balloon fight. What are educators thinking? Are we all so afraid to let kids be kids?
What is Changing?
Lawsuits and civil rights complaints against districts with zero-tolerance practices are being filed. These complaints have brought about an awareness that teachers need more support and training to enact effective discipline. The school needs the tools for behavior modification to keep kids in school and learning.
Recommendation for change demands a strategic action. The Department of Education and Department of Justice recently partnered to provide new tools for educators. In 2014, they jointly issued federal guidelines to advise schools on how to improve school discipline. The Guiding Principles - A Resource Guide for Improving School Climate and Discipline was written and divided into three themes:
Create a favorable school climate that helps prevent and changes inappropriate behaviors. Train staff, engage families and the community, and find resources to aid students in developing the social, emotional, and conflict resolution skills needed to de-escalate problems. Provide mentors and counselors, and give students a way to address the underlying causes of their misbehavior.
Make sure there are appropriate and clear expectations and consequences in place to prevent misconduct. Hold students accountable for their behavior. Teach them responsibility, respect, and form the boundaries of acceptable behavior. Relying on suspension and expulsion as a last resort should only be used for severe infractions. Equip staff with strategies to address problem behaviors while keeping students engaged in learning.
Create ways to ensure fairness and equity for all students no matter their race or condition they are in. Continuously evaluate discipline policies and practices by using data and analysis.
How to Avoid The Pipeline
Schools and families have the power to divert students from the school-to-prison pipeline. It will take work and action, but it can be done by taking several steps.
- Recognize positive behavior.
- Work with police departments and court systems to limit arrests at school.
- Explain infractions and the prescribed punishments to the student body.
- Train teachers on using positive behavior modification for at-risk students.
- Use home and family interventions designed to create behavior modifications for both students and families.
It is important that the community supports schools with family intervention programs designed to take a student with behavior issues and help them at home, at school, and in the community. One such program is Multisystemic Therapy (MST), a scientifically proven intervention for at-risk youth. MST therapists work with the child in their home, school, and community. They are available 24/7 to the child and family. Multisystemic Therapy is intensive and designed for families and communities to address the problems impacting at-risk children. The program works to empower parents to focus on their children in school and learning life skills.
For more related content, visit our Juvenile Justice Reform Resource page by clicking here.