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School-to-Prison Pipeline Can Be Dismantled Using Alternative Discipline Strategies

The school-to-prison pipeline refers to the streamlining of at-risk students from schools to incarceration or related correctional-type facilities that results from punitive discipline practices and criminalizing misconduct in schools. Ultimately, the school-to-prison pipeline is the consequence of zero tolerance policies that originally mandated schools to penalize students for bringing weapons and drugs onto school grounds.

This penalty has grown to include nonviolent offenses that do not pose an immediate threat or harm. An alarming rate of students have been suspended and/or expelled for noncriminal acts such as disruptive behavior, violation of dress code, displays of affection or defiant behavior toward authority. In the 2011-12 academic year, 260,000 students were referred to law enforcement and 130,000 were expelled due to minor infractions. During that same time, more than 3 million students were suspended at least once. It has been discovered that a student is 23.5 percent more likely to drop out of school after receiving exclusionary discipline.

With individual schools having discretion to apply zero tolerance, a recognizable pattern has developed of minority students being disciplined more harshly, and at disproportionate rates, for minor subjective behaviors that do not cause physical or mental harm, such as verbal aggression, being disrespectful toward authorities or cellphone usage. Students of color have been found to be lower academic achievers, overall, and are detrimentally impacted by the low expectations set forth by school systems.

According to the Civil Rights Data Collection (CRDC), African-American students represent 16 percent of the national student population, but 34 percent were expelled and 42 percent were suspended multiple times in 2014. Similar statistics are reflected for Hispanic and other racial minority youth nationwide.

Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) youth and students with disabilities are also found to be negatively impacted by this pipeline. LGBT youth are often victimized by their peers and blamed as the cause of problems by their teachers, and students with disabilities are often misdiagnosed and more likely to be held back a grade, which often leads to dropout. With such staggering statistics found in the available research, it is imperative that newer approaches to school discipline be considered and implemented to decrease the negative impacts such policies have on students and to decrease the streamlining of students into incarceration.

Alternative discipline strategies

While strict disciplinary actions such as expulsion are vital for punishing behavior that threatens the safety of others in school settings, it is not effective in correcting more minor problematic behaviors. Schools should instead use more positive-based strategies for addressing and modifying defiant behaviors.

Protecting the most vulnerable students from the dangers of incarceration and recidivism must be of primary concern. The school environment should be one of the main settings to help these students work on eliminating such undesirable behaviors, particularly for those who lack effective discipline at home.

Methods such as the On-Campus Intervention Program (OCIP) and Consistency Management and Cooperative Discipline (CMCD) program are alternative approaches to suspension and expulsion that have the ability to create a shift from a punitive learning environment to one that is warm and welcoming for all students.

OCIP provides counseling and support services to help students address and modify challenging behaviors by giving them opportunities to learn from their mistakes and focus on personal development. This program also emphasizes the development of essential life skills such as effective communication, goal setting, decision making and issues surrounding sexuality and healthy relationships. A Harvard report found that students enrolled in the OCIP demonstrated improved behavior and had a noticeable decrease in disciplinary referrals.

CMCD is another program that is an alternative approach to many of the harsh disciplinary actions associated with zero tolerance policies. Designed to improve the overall environment of inner-city schools, it has the primary goal of having teachers and students collaborate to set classroom rules. Such a method creates a fundamental shift in the ways students are disciplined and expected to behave and allows for a more shared power dynamic. This program also focuses on rewarding positive behavior, which is imperative for improving school climate, especially for schools that have poor attendance and poor academic performance. Such programs as these have made drastic changes within schools and helped to dismantle the pipeline.  

Cultural competency training

As previously mentioned, there has been an alarming rate of students of color being suspended and expelled from schools due to minor infractions over the last decade. Several studies have negated the probable cause that the basis of race alone is the reason behind minority students engaging in negative behaviors.

In fact, there is no evidence that African-American students engage in more problematic behaviors than their Caucasian counterparts, yet they are expelled or receive more serious forms of punishment at higher rates. The racial disparity of the school-to-prison pipeline reveals a deeper-seated issue, systematic racism within American schools. While minority students and students from the majority may display the same behaviors, there’s an identifiable correlation with stronger negative perceptions and negative feedback for minority students.  

America’s historic racial narrative has transformed into implicit bias, which is one of the main causes of the pipeline and helps to explain the disproportionate rate of minorities being disciplined for subjective behavior. Implicit bias training and cultural diversity training are potential solutions to resolve consequences from actions motivated by implicit bias. Implicit bias training allows professionals to self-report their innate decisions and teaches how these decisions impact the lives of youth.

Cultural diversity training allows professionals to become more aware of others’ culture, and prompts the exploration of how and why certain stereotypical and discriminatory beliefs exist. Being made aware of the potential stereotypes and biases that exist in the subconscious minds of professionals working with students can have a significant impact on the ways in which school personnel interact with students and can also help make the shift from making biased decisions to choices that are objective and more concrete.

It is up to schools and associated administrators to eliminate the cultural biases and conflicts prevalent in all school systems and work against the academic progress and successful development of all students, with at-risk students from minority groups in particular. Learning from such shifts has the potential to transform how students are disciplined into ways that better facilitate the necessary maturation to become successful adults and members of society.

Policy considerations

Considering the impact policies such as zero tolerance have had on the school-to-prison pipeline, it is necessary to advocate for new policies that reconsider how to discipline problematic students in more effective and rehabilitative ways. The school environment is where students learn and grow, and it only makes sense that in this environment they are also exposed to and experience better approaches to development that occur outside of textbooks and classroom lectures. Students must learn how to act appropriately and how to respond to external stressors that can often provoke undesirable behaviors.

With evidence from research that proves zero tolerance and related policies that incorporate mandatory punishment for minor offenses do not work and, in fact, exacerbate misbehavior, newer approaches must be considered. Not only have studies found such policies to increase problematic behaviors, they also point to unsafe school climates and a lack of improvement in terms of students’ academic performance. School policies need to be revised to only use suspension and expulsions for the highest level of violent offenses and alternative effective methods for minor nonviolent offenses.

Some states have been diligently revising their code of conduct and rules. For example, Oregon replaced its zero tolerance policy with rules that only allow expulsion for conduct that threatens the safety and well-being of others within the school environment. Other schools across the nation have cleared up grey areas concerning disciplinary action and limited including law enforcement during disciplinary decision-making practices. While research is ongoing and necessary to track results from such changes, more needs to be done to increase the rate at which changes are being made to strengthen America’s youth and schools.  

Schools have been a prominent cornerstone for youth’s overall development and the learning environment for them to become contributing members of society. However, far too many students have been robbed of their right to be comprehensively educated due to the school-to-prison pipeline. We dim the light for students and the nation's future when we continue to push problem students out of schools and funnel them into the juvenile/criminal justice system, thereby feeding the belly of mass incarceration.

School personnel and administrators, lawmakers, social workers and counselors must make dismantling this pipeline a top priority and consider this small sample of strategies for improving the lives of our most vulnerable students and our school climates. The utilization of such solutions needs to be incorporated into the future and advancement of all schools to strengthen our school systems and the educational experience of all students.

Kendra Cheek is a social work senior at Middle Tennessee State University with a passion for research and serving youth in marginalized populations. She’s an emerging leader, currently serving as the secretary for Phi Alpha National Honor Society in Social Work and vice president of the National Association of Black Social Workers.

Justin Bucchio is an assistant professor of social work at Middle Tennessee State University, with expertise in child welfare and LGBT foster youth. Justin’s experience with social work and the child welfare system stems from his early years in foster care, which ignited his passion for serving youth in out-of-home care.

JJIE Opposes Champion of Inequality

The publisher of the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange, the Center for Sustainable Journalism, has had a long and meaningful relationship with our host institution in Georgia, Kennesaw State University.

That partnership has helped us grow as a nonprofit endeavor by providing about 20 percent of our total support. For this, for the firmer financial footing this gives us, we are grateful. In return, we have offered a newsroom humming with professional editors, reporters and business staff where paid student workers, paid interns and volunteers soak up the glorious profits of experiential learning.

The other 80 percent of our support comes from earned income and from national and regional philanthropic funders, which support the editorial work. As is appropriate under professional journalistic standards, the university has never made any editorial demands nor read anything in advance of our publishing it. As is probably evident in this editorial.

It has been, and we hope it remains, a professional, fruitful, mutually beneficial endeavor.

We call attention to all this now because of growing concern over the increasing likelihood a new president will be appointed at this institution, via an opaque process, who has a track record contrary to our long-held editorial positions supporting rights of the LGBTQ community.

Sam Olens is Georgia’s current attorney general. Since his election to statewide office in 2010, he has fought against same-sex marriage. More recently he joined other state attorneys general in a suit that temporarily blocked Obama administration guidelines around the treatment of transgender students.

The argument goes that he’s anything but a gay basher. Indeed, by his public pronouncements it’s clear the man has no personal animus towards the community.

And the argument — the legal argument — goes that these challenges, whether they be against the Department of Justice or the Obama administration or the courts, is a question of federal overreach.

This is comforting rhetoric to the supporter of states’ rights. It is frightening to the supporter of LGBTQ equality.

This publication gives voice to young people and their supporters across the country — a colorful, incredibly diverse collection of people stretching from the parks and streets of New York City to the beaches of Southern California and the towns, cities and crossroads in between.

And these kids and their supporters speak to us, and to you, from the city streets and country roads of Georgia: For if anything, we are as deeply rooted in the red clay of this state as the attorney general and the administrators who contemplate his appointment.

We hope, then, it’s clear to everyone that we come from a place of credibility when we say Attorney General Olens’ arguments are jarringly familiar. For this is the language of the wrong side of the civil rights movement.

Equality for the LGBTQ community is clearly a civil rights issue of today. He has chosen to oppose that struggle.

We value our partnership with Kennesaw State University and its foundation, which serves as our fiscal agent. Yet we cannot remain silent as a champion of inequality is considered for its leadership.

We hope the decisionmakers in Georgia agree.

Discrimination Lands Many LGBT Youth in the Justice System, New Report Says

LGBTQ Youth Overrepresented Graphic

Stigma and discrimination, unsafe schools and discriminatory policing drive lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer youth into the justice system where they are overrepresented and subject to unfair treatment and abuse, says a new report.

Studies show that while LGBT youth make up about 7 to 9 percent of the population, they account for larger percentages of youth in juvenile justice facilities, according to the report by the Movement Advancement Project and the Center for American Progress.

In a survey by the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics, 12 percent of youth in juvenile justice facilities self-identified as nonheterosexual.

Another survey by the National Council on Crime and Delinquency of seven facilities found that 20 percent of youth identified as LGBT or gender nonconforming. In the same survey, 40 percent of girls in juvenile justice facilities identified as LGBT, while 85 percent of nongender-conforming youth were youth of color.

“This report confirms once and for all what many of us have known for some time: LGBTQ young people are grossly overrepresented in the juvenile justice system, and it’s no coincidence. We live in a society where discrimination and stigma too often lead to criminalization and mistreatment at the hands of law enforcement,” said Ineke Mushovic, executive director of the Movement Advancement Project (MAP), in a news release.

The report highlights research on the experiences of LGBT youth to create a portrait of what factors help push them into the justice system, what happens once they are there and recommendations for change.

The hope is that a comprehensive round of the research can encourage a conversation about solutions that can make a difference for LGBT youth. The report’s recommendations include reducing homelessness for LGBT youth, reforming policing strategies and improving support for LGBT youth when they are released from facilities.

Naomi Goldberg, MAP policy and research director, said the field has taken an interest in LGBT youth once they are in custody, as part of a broader conversation about conditions of confinement. But conversations about how LGBT youth end up in the system also are beginning, especially at the local level.

“I think there are places where city officials and advocates are recognizing that LGBTQ youth are overrepresented and are particularly vulnerable, but it doesn’t feel like a conversation that is happening systemwide the way conditions of confinement conversations are,” she said.

One opening for a broader conversation could come as cities consider how to improve policing policies, Goldberg said.

“My hope is that LGBT people will be a part of those conversations,” she said.

The new report is a companion to one the co-authors released earlier this year that looks at the experiences of all LGBT people in the justice system, including youth.

Youth experiences

The report traces some of the reasons LGBT youth are disproportionately likely to end up in the justice system.

For example, family stigma or mistreatment in the child welfare system can mean youth run away and stay on the streets, making it more likely they will encounter law enforcement. Similarly, students who are bullied in school because of their sexual orientation or gender identity may be more likely to miss class or drop out. They then could face charges such as truancy or otherwise come in contact with the justice system.

Once in the system, studies show LGBT youth are more likely to be held while awaiting adjudication, are vulnerable to sexual assault and abuse, and do not receive the services they need for a smooth re-entry into the community.

“Their experiences in these systems are a huge threat to their lives and life chances, and we are doing far too little to prepare them for a healthy and productive life after release,” said Shannon Wilber, youth project director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights.