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What It Feels Like to Be Kept in Los Angeles Prisons When You’re a Teen

LOS ANGELES — Kim McGill was only 12 years old when she was first arrested and incarcerated for grand larceny. As a young girl, she had taken order requests from individuals, stolen and sold the items. At 13, she was charged with a felony for the second time and imprisoned in a juvenile detention center for shoplifting more than $1,000 worth of merchandise. After that she was prosecuted for several misdemeanor cases, both as a youth and an adult.

As a former felon and now the lead organizer of the Youth Justice Coalition, McGill is against confinement.

“It's not about fixing the system so people re-enter with more resources,” she said. “It's about knowing that you can't get well in a cell, you can't grow in a cage.”

McGill’s memories still gnaw at her today. She described sleep deprivation due to extreme air conditioning, fluorescent lighting and lack of sufficiently warm clothing. She recalled the absence of any external stimulation: the lack of windows, the inability to see the sky and the deficiency of engaging activities.

The walls were all one color, usually beige or white. Steel cells, tables and beds were the only items in the lock-ups, unless a concrete slab protruded from the wall as a makeshift frame. Sleeping on the floor was not uncommon, nor was seeing the physically most vulnerable people being forced to sleep with their heads next to the toilet in an overcrowded cell. McGill remembered how inmates were talked at, not spoken to; and how the explicit use of her last name made her fail to feel like a human being, let alone like a child.

The United States leads the industrialized world in the number and percentage of children it locks up in juvenile detention facilities, according to Human Rights Watch.

In California, 71,923 juveniles were arrested in 2015 according to a report from the California Department of Justice. Slightly more than 58,000 were referred to probation, about 13,000 were counseled and released, and approximately 1,000 youth were turned over to another agency.

Meanwhile, improvements have been made. Lawmakers unveiled a list of bills in March 2017 in an attempt to divert youth from a school-to-prison pipeline and keep them out of the juvenile justice system.

“We have made really big progress, we just have to do a lot more,” said Dr. Bo Kyung (Elizabeth) Kim, assistant professor at the University of Southern California’s Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work. “We still incarcerate the most vulnerable population in this country. ... More than any other country in the world.”

Confinement conditions

Among her bad memories were the powerlessness: “As a young person you’re in cells usually with no bathrooms. So, you’re pounding on the door or a plexiglass window ... in the door, to try to get someone’s attention so you could pee. [You are] especially desperate in the middle of the night when you’re locked in, and having people either know that you’re pounding and ignore you, or pretend not to hear you, and having to pee into a towel or into a corner or hold it all night. That was particularly horrible.”

But the boredom was the worst.

Being in a place where pencils, pens, books and paper are all considered contraband, she said, inmates could spend hours, days and sometimes months without the ability to read or write, let alone do anything else to stimulate your mind.

“Once I had a nickel on me that wasn't caught during the search and I wrote with it into an entire cell wall,” she remarked. Although there would be dayroom time, it was rarely programmed to help you grow.

Contemplating whether she had found solace in anything or anyone during her most vulnerable moments, she said, “[I] can't think of any positive thoughts that got me through anytime.”

Young people who go into the system are particularly vulnerable, McGill said.

“Because of your age or because of your lack of experience, you’re introduced to people who have been much more involved in the streets,” she said. “So, prisons, jails [and] juvenile halls are also breeding grounds for violence.”

McGill pauses for a moment before saying strip searches were obviously another distinct memory. She would have to “strip down naked in front of total strangers, not only the people that you’re locked up with but the guards. In [the] case of the youth system, it’s probation officers. In [the] case of the adult system, it’s usually sheriffs, sometimes police officers.”

The stench of the facilities is another feature she vividly recalls as being unbearable. “I think that anyone who’s been locked up can smell … exactly how it smelled when we were there,” she said. “And you can differentiate between the facilities you’ve been based on the smells they had.

“Sounds at night are also something that never leaves you,” McGill said, “whether it’s the pounding of doors, crying, screaming, people mumbling to themselves, people rhyming … yelling, arguing with each other.”

But even so, McGill said she was better off than many other people who have been in solitary confinement and were sentenced to life in prison.

Racial profiling

One of the most impactful things for her development was growing up in communities of color, she said.

“I think I had the benefit of seeing the obvious issues in the system from a very young age … When you’re white [like me], and you’re going through it, it’s really obvious to you that you’re getting preferential treatment.”

On the streets, McGill was treated as a victim while her friends were viewed as criminals. She recalled being taken aside by police twice and asked if she had been kidnapped. She was constantly queried about why she was in specific areas, if she knew they were dangerous and if she wanted a ride home.

A 2017 report from Human Impact Partners found that in 2015, 88 percent of juveniles in California who were tried as adults were youth of color.

The record also cited evidence of “rampant racial inequities … in the way youth of color are disciplined in school, policed and arrested, detained, sentenced, and incarcerated.”

Crissel Rodriguez, the Southern California regional coordinator at the California Immigrant Youth Justice Alliance, agreed.

“We see that the zero tolerance policy has actually really affected communities of color,” Rodriguez said.

Kim said youth of color are much more likely to be in touch with police negatively at every single point of contact in the system, and they are more likely to be taken further into the system than out of it.

“The justification for that for the judges themselves, is that ... it’s dangerous, so we are going to detain them,” Kim said. “It’s a way to protect them. But under the purview of protecting them, they’ve further introduced them to a system that brings them back over and over again.”

Detention dispute

In 2012 Gov. Jerry Brown signed Senate Bill 9, which supported judges reconsidering the sentences of juveniles punished to life in prison. After that, most of the state’s juvenile life-sentenced prisoners are being resentenced, according to The Sentencing Project.

Brown signed SB 394 in October, legislation that now outlaws the state from sentencing youth offenders to life in prison without possibility for parole.

Today McGill, 36, leads the Youth Justice Coalition, an organization that challenges the U.S. “addiction” to incarceration and race, gender and class discrimination in the juvenile “injustice” systems. To her, and most people in the coalition, this crusade is personal.

“The greatest feeling that myself, and I think other people, have got has come through our organizing and fighting back to change the system,” she said. “It’s healed us more than any other single thing has.”


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Social Media: The New School-to-Prison Pipeline for Black Youth

The school-to-prison pipeline is gaining fuel based on inappropriate behavior on social media. The pipeline is the trend of funneling students from public schools into the criminal justice system. African-American youth have been the most impacted by the pipeline.

Even worse, the U.S. Department of Education has new research that shows the pipeline starts at preschool for black students. According to the American Civil Liberties Union, black students represent 31 percent of school-related arrests. It started with the zero tolerance policies of the 1990s that saw students being criminalized for minor school infractions such as improper dress, disruption of a public school, obstruction, etc.

Although zero tolerance policies have started to fade away, inappropriate conduct on social media is bringing new fuel to the pipeline. New issues such as cyberbullying have traditionally been perceived as an activity that takes place online in the comfort of the cyberbully’s home.

New research indicates that cyberbullying is now crossing over from the online world to the offline world. Guess where those incidents are taking place? At your local school system. School systems have noticed this trend and have started to put in place measures to address these issues.

More than 45 states, plus local governments, have laws and policies that protect victims from bullying and cyberbullying. Some state cyberbullying codes protect victims on the school ground and outside school grounds.

For example, Georgia laws on cyberbullying covers events within the walls of the school, during extracurricular activities, on the school bus and even at designated school bus stops. Therefore, a kid who is engaged in cyberbullying at the bus stop is in violation of the law if caught and turned in to the school administration. Missouri has a new law that considers inflicting emotional distress a felony. Cyberbullying incidents fall under this new law, which requires school systems, under mandatory reporting statutes, to refer incidents to law enforcement.

Unfortunately, most of these laws do not have specific guidelines for schools to follow. Principals are handicapped in determining when to handle a cyberbullying incident at school or when to refer it out to law enforcement. One principal of a Title 1 school in Clayton County, Georgia, told me about a similar situation. He said:

“Man, I get these students that get involved in this cyberbullying beef over the weekend on Instagram. When they come to school on Monday they are ready to fight. I had two young men in my office that I literally had to stand between them to prevent a fight based upon something that happened on social media.”

No school wants to be subjected to a civil lawsuit from a family for not following the law. Thus, most schools refer out to law enforcement and allow juvenile courts to sort it out, which only cements the school-to-prison pipeline.

In most cases, this pipeline causes nonviolent offenders to be introduced and admitted into the criminal justice system. Students can spend up to 72 hours in a juvenile detention center before coming before a judge. That’s 72 hours of meeting and being introduced to antisocial peers at the detention center. That’s 72 hours of learning new criminal activities or a hustle to try when you return home.

In 2004 Clayton County decided to act on their school-to-prison pipeline. Juvenile court Judge Steven Teske noticed a heavy increase in referrals to law enforcement from school officials. This trend started around the same time the Board of Education stationed school resource officers in the school system.

To decrease the number of youth coming to court for school-related nonviolent offenses such as disruption of a public school, the Clayton Juvenile Court collaborated with the juvenile justice system, the school system, social service providers and law enforcement to create a memorandum of understanding (MOU) to limit the number of referrals made to juvenile court.

Minor delinquent acts such as obstruction, disorderly conduct and disruption of public school have to go through a three-step process before the filing of a complaint. For the first complaint, youth receive a written warning based upon their behavior. For the second, youth are referred to school mediation to resolve the problem. A third complaint results in the filing of a complaint to be referred to juvenile court.

Director of Court Services Colin Slay told me “the MOU with the school system has eliminated the school-to-prison pipeline in Clayton County.” Students who are engaged in internet “beefs” that cross over to school are handled through normal school disciplinary procedures and the outlined MOU.

More counties should create policies that mediate social media “beefs,” conflicts, etc. before formal charges are filed and youth end up in the juvenile justice system. As we know, teenagers will be teenagers, but it is also time for adults to be adults and shut down this emerging pipeline that is impacting black youth.

Sedgrid Lewis is the state director of Community Solutions, a nonprofit organization that specializes in evidence-based programs to prevent the school-to-prison pipeline.

Getting Restorative Justice Approved By Your State Political Body Is Worth the Trouble

It is becoming increasingly clear that diverting individuals from the juvenile justice system, which is consistent with public safety and still holds offenders accountable, is generally a best-practice concept. This can have a significant impact on public safety by increasing successful life outcomes for young people. A crime prevented is far better than a crime successfully adjudicated.

Having spent my career in the juvenile justice field and now serving as a Virginia state senator, I have gone through a complete metamorphosis in my thinking on how best to deal with juvenile delinquency. Throughout most of my career, my efforts involved laying out ground rules for youngsters on probation and holding them accountable to those expectations while trying to help them through counseling (individual, group and family), changes in their education platform or opportunities for placement in residential treatment environments.

Mostly, I was in the lesson-teaching business, which I now believe to be a simplistic and largely unhelpful approach to changing behavior and providing public safety. I should have been focused on providing them with skills and better capacity to deal with their circumstances.

The best information regarding what works in changing the behavior of delinquent youth is to keep them out of court and out of placements. To this end, restorative justice programing can be a very effective tool that can be used by courts, police and communities to offer an alternative to the court appearance, investigation and probation that has been traditionally offered. Restorative justice is defined by the Center for Justice and Reconciliation as:

“A theory of justice that emphasizes repairing the harm created by criminal behavior. It is best accomplished through cooperative processes that include all stakeholders which can lead to the transformation of people, relationships, and communities.”

In the 1980s and 1990s, the Norfolk, Virginia, Court Service Unit began to use restorative justice as a means to deal with their probation clientele. While this certainly had benefits, the impact and effectiveness of restorative justice could have had greater impact by using it as a diversion from traditional court/probation services. It brings all parts of the criminal justice system and the community together in an effort to focus on the child instead of the fulfillment of traditional justice system roles and responsibilities, which can take a protracted amount of time and be very frightening and confusing for low- to moderate-risk offenders.

Fairfax County, the county I represent in the state General Assembly, has introduced restorative justice into the diversion process. Virginia General Assembly authority was required to allow sharing information among the Fairfax County Juvenile and Domestic Relations District Court, Fairfax County Police Department, Fairfax City Police Department, Fairfax County Schools, Northern Virginia Mediation Service, Fairfax County Neighborhood and Community Services and other county agencies and nonprofits.

But it was not easy! The first time I introduced this legislation I was not aware that restorative justice was viewed negatively in the Virginia House of Delegates Courts Committee. While the measure moved easily through the Senate, this committee killed the bill based on a previous restorative justice effort that failed in the adult sector.

The following year we got the bill through with a different bill patron and no mention that it was a restorative justice program. Never underestimate the difficulty in obtaining legal authority just because something looks like a no-brainer. Titles and words matter. These efforts were a necessary step in authorizing Fairfax County to determine who was appropriate and eligible for the program.

These agencies are using restorative justice conferencing techniques as a:

  • Proven approach to reduce the number of youth who are court involved and have criminal records;
  • Hold youth accountable for their actions without exposing them to risk factors with having a criminal record;
  • Create appropriate, incident-specific responses for each case;
  • Reduce reocurrences of criminal acts by youth; and
  • Provide support for victims to participate in identifying how their harm is addressed.

The program focuses on critical issues including:

  • Reoffense and recidivism of harmful criminal and discipline acts;
  • Minority over-representation of youth in criminal justice and disciplinary proceedings;
  • Community stakeholder harm from youth crimes; and
  • Victim impact.

Restorative justice used in this way brings county agencies, nonprofits and families together in responding to unacceptable criminal behavior in ways that improve a child’s opportunity for a better life outcome. Diversion gets services to kids quickly and sends a positive message to the child that he is not inherently bad but has made a mistake that can be rectified in ways that meet the goals of public safety, education and rehabilitation.

What I find most interesting in this diversionary restorative process is that it provides better mechanisms for police to have a role in ensuring future public safety, provides schools with an opportunity to avoid zero tolerance policies and maintain youngsters in their education process, and allows courts to focus on more serious offenders while allowing the community to deal with lower-risk youth.

For years police officers were taught they should just write up the charge but not judge it. What we are now asking officers to do in Fairfax is to have a role in screening and diverting offenders and reinforcing with them the notion that this is evidence-based crime prevention that improves the odds of a youth not reoffending.

I often joked with people during the legislative process that led to authorizing this in Fairfax County that the hardest thing for decision-makers in this process was to resist the urge to teach a sulking, smirking or indifferent child a lesson through detention or a court appearance and exercise what we now know is a best practice by minimizing that child’s penetration into the justice system. A court appearance and further disciplinary action is always available if restorative justice is unsuccessful.

Having our communities respond to the needs of our young people with timely, informal and best-practice alternatives to juvenile court is the growing wave of the future. This, combined with the use of structured decision-making instruments that help determine service needs and level of risk at the time of arrest and detention, can only lead to better decision-making and better outcomes.

Preserving the dignity and self-worth of youngsters in ways that are consistent with public safety can only lead to fewer young people leading criminal lifestyles. This is a less costly and more efficient means of responding to delinquent behavior than expensive court processes that lead to counterproductive residential care. Let’s keep moving in this direction.

Dave Marsden served as a probation officer, group home director and secure juvenile detention superintendent in Fairfax County, Virginia from 1970 to 1999. He was chief deputy and acting director of the Virginia Department of Juvenile Justice from 2000-02 and also worked at the Development Services Group Inc. He has served in the Virginia General Assembly in the House of Delegates from 2006-10 and the state Senate from 2010 to the present.

Untrained Police Officers in Schools Focus on Girls of Color, Report Says

WASHINGTON — Black girls are nearly four times more likely to be arrested at school than their white counterparts and Latina girls are almost three times more likely to be arrested in elementary school than white girls, a new report says.

Researchers at the Georgetown Law Center on Poverty and Inequality and the National Black Women’s Justice Institute found that the explosion of police in the nation’s schools is forcing increasing numbers of black and brown girls into the school-to-prison pipeline.

There are police officers in nearly half the nation’s high schools — a list that grows with each new school shooting or move to zero tolerance disciplinary policies. Police find themselves being asked to intervene in routine disciplinary matters or end up haranguing young black and brown girls to be “more ladylike,” said the report, released Tuesday.

Officers are thrust into school systems with little training and even less structure: Fewer than half the states that allow police to patrol their schools require formal memoranda of understanding between police departments and school officials. Plus, many of the girls told researchers that the police in their schools were prejudiced against them and they couldn’t get a fair break.    

In some cases, the school-to-prison pipeline followed a direct line, the researchers found. Broadly or vaguely worded laws making it a criminal offense to “disrupt school” landed some 29,000 South Carolina students in the juvenile justice system in the first decades of the century, the report said.

It recommends better and more thorough training for school police and a shift away from heavy-handed law enforcement and toward counseling and early interventions. The report is intended as a toolkit for school systems and police departments. But it also makes clear that its authors hope this is the beginning of a conversation, not the end of one.

It’s a discussion that’s long overdue, juvenile justice reform advocates agreed.

“It brings a really important perspective to the work and I think that the focus on girls of color in the school-to-prison pipeline isn’t nearly engaged in enough,” said Sarah Bryer, executive director of the National Juvenile Justice Network. “It’s critical to the whole debate and will provide really concrete ideas and actions going forward.” This report complements her organization’s work on implicit bias, she said.

Marcy Mistrett, the chief executive officer of the Campaign for Youth Justice, said she wasn’t entirely surprised by the report’s findings — she and her allies have been warning about the school-to-prison pipeline for years — but was frustrated by the complexity of a problem that didn’t have to exist in the first place.

“To me, the thing that just continues to befuddle me is why there are such loose guidelines around this,” she said. “There’s no mandatory training for these guys on youth development, on cultural competence, on appropriate responses to regular, adolescent behavior. These arrests — it’s kids talking back, it’s kids being too loud, it’s kids being late to class — that’s all typical, adolescent behavior.”

What’s especially frustrating, Mistrett said, is that the solutions are so easy. “If they took the money they paid those officers and actually trained the teachers and principals in de-escalation and conflict resolution, they wouldn’t need the police in these schools,” she said.

Michelle C. Thomas is a veteran family court lawyer in Washington and former chair of the National Bar Association Young Lawyers Division. For her, the report’s lessons are pretty straightforward.

“It matters a lot that young black girls feel safe at schools — like they matter, and not like a target,” she said.

Matt Fraidin, a professor at the University of the District of Columbia’s David A. Clarke School of Law who has been a longtime advocate for child welfare reform, believes the report points to larger racial problems.

“More than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, many of us live in segregated neighborhoods, which feed into segregated schools,” he said. “That’s the broader context in which these findings arise — a setting which makes it tragically unsurprising that girls of color experience disparate, harsh treatment in institutions that should be safe and welcoming.”

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.

Data Don’t Lie: Erasing Zero Tolerance Adds Graduates, Lowers Crime Rate

Judge Steven TeskeWhen we began our journey in 2003 to dismantle our zero tolerance disciplinary system in our schools, an interesting thing happened along the way.

The crime rates went down, but not until we changed the way we disciplined kids in school.

I am not sure how many folks similarly situated in juvenile justice understand that how we treat kids in our schools is one of the most essential factors in reducing crime among juveniles, and later in reducing crime among the adult population.

As go kids, so go adults.

Our graduation rates were at an abysmal 58 percent when we embarked on our journey. Since creating our school-justice partnership program, our rates have increased every single year. This significant hike in graduation rates parallels a significant decrease in school arrests and suspensions.

Our school-justice partnership approach has resulted in a 91 percent decrease in school referrals to the court while simultaneously the overall graduation rates increased 24 percent from 2003-15. Since changing in 2012 how we report these rates from overall to on-time rates, our rates have continued to climb another 16 percent.

The correlation between school arrests as an independent variable and graduation rates as a dependent variable should not be underestimated. A regression analysis done on these two variables shows a strong statistical relationship between school referrals and graduation rates.

This is also true for suspension rates.

When undertaking reform in your system, you should guard against unintended consequences, and this requires an understanding of how differing systems interact with shared populations. When a change occurs in one place, there is a risk that a shift may occur in another place that will create problems.

This brings me to another important requirement: that data must be collected along the decision-making continuum.

For example, by removing school arrests as an option in the schematics of school discipline, how does it impact the other remaining disciplinary options? We did not plan for this, but we did collect data on out-of-school suspensions after we implemented the protocol to reduce school arrests. We discovered that these kids were shifted to the suspension option despite providing an educational alternative for these kids.

We were still battling the punitive disciplinary culture.

This brings me to another best practice in school-justice partnerships, sustainability using written interagency agreements. We would not have identified this problem shifting had we not placed our protocol in writing to include a continuing partnership. That group meets to review data to determine if the protocol was being implemented effectively, to watch out for unintended and harmful consequences and to provide oversight.

This conversation about our population being shifted from one poor response to another did two things: 1) it identified that the good news of decreasing school referrals by 54 percent within six months of implementing our partnership was not so good if we replaced it with another harsh option, and 2) it provided the opportunity to discuss how to solve the problem.

[Related: Strong Education Programs, Supports Can Be Potent for Justice-Involved Youth]

This led to the school system changing its code of conduct so that the minor school offenses that were no longer subject to referral to court were also removed from the list of suspensions. This was to prevent administrators from using out-of-school suspensions to replace arrests. We also introduced Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) as a tool for educators in the classroom. These changes have reduced the suspension rate to the levels they were in 1994 before zero tolerance policies were introduced and wreaked havoc on our graduation rates along with school arrests.

When including suspensions along with school referrals as independent variables in a multiple regression analysis, we found what we hypothesized in the beginning: Keeping kids in school and out of courts will significantly improve graduation rates.

But this brings me to the one thing we didn’t consider — the influence of graduation rates on crime as the new dependent variable.

Despite those who deny a “school to prison pipeline” exists, the research shows that school arrests double the likelihood a kid will not graduate and quadruple the likelihood if the kid appears in court. I am surprised that these “deniers” do not connect this statistic to the extremely high number of inmates in adult prisons who dropped out of school (70 percent in Georgia).

If that doesn’t grab you, consider that only 30.73 percent of Georgia kids with 15 or more days absent from school (including suspensions) graduate from school. The more we suspend and arrest kids on campus, the more likely they will drop out of school and enter our adult prisons.

A regression analysis of multiple variables including the reduction in school arrests and suspensions and the increase in graduation rates revealed a statistically significant relationship between these variables and a reduction in juvenile crime.

We hypothesized early on that as go kids, so go adults: Reducing juvenile delinquency will eventually influence the adult crime rate. Thus we looked at the crime index rates before and after enacting the protocol. What we found suggests there is a relationship between this model and growing kids into a healthier adult population with reduced risks for criminality.

Our crime rate index for the baseline year (2004) was 57 per every 1,000. The year we enacted the protocol, our crime index rate was 57 crimes for every 1,000 persons. By 2015, the rate fell to 48 for every 1,000. We also found that in the years of zero tolerance preceding our protocol, the crime index rate increased into the 60s per 1,000 suggesting a statistical relevance between zero tolerance policies and the increase in crime rates.

If such a correlation exists between crime rates and graduation rates, it would follow that the more kids we graduate, the fewer crimes. If true, this would suggest that over time, as more kids graduate each year, as in my county, and become economically mobile, the crime rate increase will slow and eventually take a downward turn.

I opine that a community that pursues a school-justice partnership with fidelity will not only improve the academic success of kids, but will improve the quality of life for the entire community in a matter of years.

It is my hope that one day our understanding of what really works to reduce crime will be so ingrained in our culture of justice that it will become intuitive for us, and no longer a challenge to do what is right for kids, which we consider counterintuitive today.

Steven Teske is chief judge of the Juvenile Court of Clayton County, Georgia, and vice chairman of the Governor's Office For Children and Families. He is a past president of the Council of Juvenile Court Judges and has been appointed by the governor to the Children & Youth Coordinating Council, Department of Juvenile Justice Judicial Advisory Council, Commission on Family Violence and the Governor's Office for Children and Families.

More related articles:

Racial Disparities Persist Even as School Suspensions Decrease, Federal Data Shows

GAO Calls for Reducing Barriers to College for Foster and Homeless Youth

Resilience: Our Nation’s Great Social Justice Issue for Kids

Book Review: Ending Zero Tolerance: The Crisis of Absolute School Discipline

black comp finalIn November 2015, a video of a young girl in South Carolina’s Spring Valley High School classroom being “thrown to the ground” by Richland County Sheriff Deputy Ben Fields swept the nation. In March, another video surfaced of a Baltimore school officer kicking a high school student. In May, an autistic 10-year old girl was dragged and handcuffed by police in Louisiana. This comes on top of scientific data declaring that children as young as preschool age receive excessive punishments in school and after-school settings. Children of color are specifically more at risk, receiving expulsions or suspensions when their white counterparts receive referral to medical care or a warning.

These types of excessive punishment meted out upon school-age children are the subject matter of the upcoming release by Derek W. Black, “Ending Zero Tolerance: The Crisis of Absolute School Discipline.” Black, a professor of law at the University of Southern California, draws upon a wealth of individual narratives, case law and thorough analysis to highlight the irreparable, lifelong harm zero-tolerance-based punishments are having on youth today.

The first part of Black’s book, divided into two, describes what brought about this educational crisis. Writes Black:

One of the most obvious flaws or irrationalities of zero tolerance and harsh discipline is that they lump so many dissimilar students in to the same groups. The first grader whose mother puts a cough drop in his backpack without him knowing is treated the same as the seventh grader who knows that cough drops are prohibited but brings them anyway because his throat hurts and he does not want to miss school. And the seventh-grade cough-drop smuggler is treated the same as the student who brings Advil to school and sells it. And the Advil-distributing student is treated the same as the student who sells steroids or marijuana to his classmates. They are all drug offenders according to their schools and subject to long-term suspension.

Black’s book is necessary reading for educators and those who work with youth, whether during classroom hours or in an after-school setting. It posits questions about the role of discipline — and how best to ensure that discipline helps children succeed, rather than break them down. It is common knowledge that expulsions and suspensions lead to a higher school dropout rate and correlate with higher levels of unemployment and imprisonment. Of particular note is Black’s argument that, “like inadequate funding or teacher quality, dysfunctional discipline policy prevents students from receiving adequate and equal educational opportunities.”

What is the function of a teacher? Black asks. To teach, to instruct. And so, he questions, should we choose to teach our children to respond to another human being with violence? Or should we choose the path of least pain — understanding and compassion?

Children are learning all the time. Their brains constantly take information from the world around them and process it into an understanding of the rules of life. “In just a two-year period between 2013 and 2015,” writes Black, “numerous stories made national and regional news, including stories of school resource officers and officials choking, handcuffing, restraining, and locking up in isolation rooms elementary and middle-school students, including those with special needs.” Thus, the second half of Black’s book offers suggestions on how to “make discipline rational.”

What we realize, reading Black’s clear, logical, prose, is that authority figures meting out drastic punishments are teaching children. They are teaching children that violence is right. In effect, these authority figures are saying: You do not have the right to protect yourself. You have the right to be hurt. You do not have the right to be treated with respect. You do not matter.

“Harsh discipline practices,” writes Black, “are contrary to many of our many basic values, both social and legal.” This book offers information for school counselors, teachers, after-school program leaders and administrators to consider when establishing the best policies for disciplinary measures among the youth they serve.


Further Reading:

“Closing the School Discipline Gap: Equitable Remedies for Excessive Exclusion,” by Daniel J. Losen, Teachers College Press, 2015, 288 pages. An examination of the role race, gender and disability play in unequal school suspensions and posits solutions from successful models of working school disciplinary programs.

“Responsive School Discipline: Essentials for Elementary School Leaders,” by Chip Wood and Babs Freeman-Loftis, Center for Responsive Schools, Inc., 2011, 260 pages. A practical handbook for nonviolent discipline in schools based on mutual respect from two elementary school educators and administrators.

“Improving Learning Environments: School Discipline and Student Achievement in Comparative Perspective,” by Richard Arum and Melissa Velez, Stanford University Press, 2012, 360 pages. A compendium of work by leading scholars exploring the relationship between school environments and student achievement through detailed case studies and analysis.

It Takes Zero Intelligence to Still Support Zero Tolerance in Schools

Judge Steven TeskeOn the first day of kindergarten every year, public school teachers and administrators stand at their school portals with arms opened wide to embrace every child.

Teachers comfort every student readying their cerebral blank slate to be filled with the three R’s — reading, writing and arithmetic.

There is only one problem.

Kids don’t come to kindergarten with a tabula rasa mind, a blank slate of perceptions, ideas, thoughts and emotions. This may be true for the three R’s, but the experiences that have branded their brains from the moment of birth to that first day of kindergarten can make or break a kid’s chance for academic achievement.

For more information, visit the JJIE Resource Hub

What many educators don’t understand, much less are equipped to overcome, is the emotional baggage these little people bring to their classroom. Baggage that is not readily visible to us adults, but contains emotional pain that hurts so much inside those little brains that learning the three R’s becomes a titanic feat. The painful baggage dominates their thoughts, impeding their learning, and sends them on a trajectory toward an emotional iceberg waiting to sink them in adolescence.

Our systemic failure to respond to the needs of these very vulnerable children the moment they set foot into that kindergarten classroom later becomes OUR collective iceberg. We scramble to reduce crime, but become frustrated because our attempts are as futile as changing the course of the Titanic.

Futile because we waited too long to fix the underlying determinants of their delinquent conduct in adolescence. When that conduct appears, most juvenile justice systems treat the symptoms and not its causes. We chip away at the iceberg we see above the water, but never touch the real dangers that are hidden below.

We have become so naïve in our belief that education is the great equalizer, but the three R’s can’t equalize the damage trauma has done to brain development in a child. Educating hurting kids begins with healing the hurt before the learning can begin.

It doesn’t matter how great the teachers are or how much money we throw at education if we don’t configure our systems to be trauma-informed, to identify these wounded students for trauma-focused treatment.

It begins by removing harmful disciplinary practices that exacerbate trauma. Too many believe these zero tolerance policies deter future misconduct. This belief is fueled by the expedient consequences made possible by its most essential rule — no excuses, explanations or defenses.

There is no research demonstrating a deterrent effect or that zero tolerance policies make schools safer and improve school climate. There is also no evidence that these policies remove racial bias, as some proponents assert. On the contrary, kids of color in all studies are anywhere between four to six times more likely to be suspended or arrested than their white counterparts.

So why do so many educators still promote these ineffective practices?

My guess is it’s for their own convenience, though they would not admit such a selfish and harmful tactic.

Unless these educators are utterly ignorant of what works and what doesn’t in school disciplinary practices, the only reasonable explanation is that it serves their own interests and not those of the children.

[Related: Georgia Court: Students Can Stand Their Ground]

Even the few who will admit its harmfulness fall back on the catchall phrase, “We don’t have the resources to try alternatives.” And so they accept what doesn’t work as the default for school discipline.

The advent of zero tolerance policies in public schools marked the erosion of “public” in our schools. Public schools aren’t “public” just because they accept every child in the beginning but promote a practice of zero tolerance that results in a selective process of educational extinction.

Zero tolerance is painless for the educators, but painful for the students.

Suspend, expel and arrest is the simple and effortless solution. However, it creates inconvenience for the rest of us down the road, not to mention the pain exacted on students who already suffer from trauma.

Pushing kids out of school pushes them to the streets and into the open arms of gangbangers and other insidious folks in need of accomplices and puppets. It’s the rest of us who pay the price for the laziness or ignorance of some educators.

They complain of being victimized by students, but their zero intelligence support of zero tolerance pushes these kids to alternative education, and I mean the alternative education found on the street that hand out diplomas for prostitution, drug dealing, robbing and gangbanging.

Why should we be surprised, knowing that traumatized people traumatize people.

What started as chronic disruption in schools has evolved to criminal activity on the streets. The only thing accomplished is a shifting of victims from one place to another, except that victims on the street suffer greater pain, including death.

And the sad irony is when one of these educators falls victim off-campus to a former student pushed out of school.

Who would ever think that keeping kids in school would increase graduation rates?

Despite the simplicity of this concept, one would think that educators with all their education would construct alternatives to suspensions and arrests that keep kids in school and target the trauma that causes their disruptive behavior.

This ignorance is unacceptable.

When we created the nation’s first school-justice partnership in 2003 to stop unnecessary school arrests, we had no resources, none whatsoever. Within six months the arrests declined 54 percent. Today they are down 91 percent; the suspension rate is below the 1995 rate; graduation rates have increased over 24 percent; and juvenile arrests in the county are down 71 percent.

And many others have followed in these steps with similar outcomes.

While whining about what they can’t do, too many educators fall back on zero tolerance policies that effectively push kids out of our public schools, mostly kids of color. That exciting first day of kindergarten is a façade hiding the ugly path to expulsion that is analogous to a genocidal selection process.

There comes a point in time when the unintended consequences of good-intentioned practices is no longer accepted as negligent. That’s when the published evidence of its harmfulness is notice to all that the continued practice constitutes purposeful intent.

Steven Teske is chief judge of the Juvenile Court of Clayton County, Ga., and vice chairman of the Governor's Office For Children and Families. He is a past president of the Council of Juvenile Court Judges and has been appointed by the governor to the Children & Youth Coordinating Council, DJJ Judicial Advisory Council, Commission on Family Violence, and the Governor's Office for Children and Families.

More related articles:

Implicit Bias: More Than Just a Few Bad Apples

Truth About How to Reduce Juvenile Crime Is Not Political

Interrogations Encourage False Confessions from Students

Zero-Tolerance Policies in U.S. Schools are Ineffective and Unaffordable

Despite public concerns about youth crime, particularly in schools, research has shown that policies based on incapacitation theory have failed utterly to affect crime rates. In fact, while youth crime rates have fallen significantly over the last 30 years, they have continued to plummet despite recent trends towards community-based alternatives (e.g., the ‘Missouri Model’). The evidence suggests that not only do punitive disciplinary approaches often fail they are also unnecessary. It is particularly troubling, then, to consider the police presence and draconian disciplinary measures that have increasingly found their way into America’s schools.

Schools typically have rules forbidding mobile phone use, profanity and the like. Taken at face value, these rules seem sensible and necessary to ensure order. However, when combined with broad zero-tolerance policies that often mandate inordinately harsh punishments like suspension or even expulsion from school for trivial infractions, breaking such rules can have dire consequences.

For example, a student suspended from classes for several weeks as a result of disruptive behavior may have significant trouble completing missed coursework upon returning to school. Additionally, the youth may well be unsupervised during their suspension. Here, the possibility of gang involvement or exposure to other negative influences can be significant. Youth of color and/or lower socioeconomic status are at particularly high risk in this respect.

Critically, there is often little investigation of causal factors behind students’ “aberrant” behaviors. Many youth act out as a response to previous trauma — sometimes within their families — or as a result of undiagnosed learning disabilities. In such instances, sending them home and keeping them from their studies for weeks at a time seems entirely counterproductive, aggravating rather than mitigating the problems at hand.

Even more disturbing, children are now sometimes subjected to arrest, physical restraint, and even the use of tear gas and pepper spray by police officers and security guards in schools. Media and researchers have identified these trends and the related school-to-prison pipeline, in which troubled and disadvantaged youth are singled out and schooled for a future in prison rather than university or the trades. Actions once viewed as minor transgressions—normal, if annoying, examples of adolescent socialization—have now been criminalized.

Given this untenable situation, it is imperative that other less punitive and more effective strategies for dealing with troubled (or merely troublesome) youth be explored and implemented.  These strategies should aim to explicitly benefit students, their schools, and their communities in the long term.

For example:

  • Less formal mediation is a practical alternative to law enforcement involvement or strict, zero-tolerance responses to misbehavior.
  • Academic evaluations should be used to generate individualized plans to address students’ unique needs (e.g., learning disabilities or developmental deficiencies.)
  • In addition to identifying students struggling with mental health issues, school social workers and psychologists can work to unmask and address conflicts or instabilities in students’ homes. Recent studies of trauma-informed care support such efforts.

In line with this thinking, California has made significant progress this year with the passage of four bills aimed primarily at keeping at-risk youth in school and out of the criminal justice system. Notably, the legislation calls for community service and other restorative disciplinary tactics to be tried before administrators may suspend students. As well, schools will no longer be able to routinely deny enrollment to youth who have had previous trouble with the law.

While suspension and expulsion can appeal to harried administrators and teachers as “quick fixes” for visible disciplinary problems, the potential collateral negative consequences and costs of these sanctions are clear. It is common knowledge that the less education a person has, the less money that person is likely to earn over their lifetime. Where unaddressed social or psychological co-factors exist, the probability of lower wages—and potential reliance on public funds—seems even greater as troubled youth transition to adulthood.

Finally, consider the expense of incarcerating someone over time versus providing them with needed support early on that could very well keep them out of the criminal justice system to begin with. Clearly, the smart money is on keeping kids—even troubled ones—in class and ensuring they graduate. It is imperative, then, to reframe students’ negative behaviors as just that: childish behaviors that can be addressed, changed, and grown out of; not crimes that must be punished.

An Unjust Solution

Not long ago in Georgia, a six-year-old named Salecia Johnson was handcuffed and taken from her elementary school to the local police station. The school chose to do this, instead of sending her to time-out, or home to her parents or to the principal’s office.

Zero tolerance in our schools has become an excuse for a blatant abdication of leadership, fairness, compassion, and common sense. When children are arrested for being children (Salecia apparently had a temper tantrum, something the local police in Millidgeville, Ga., figured out after they all went down to the station) who is impacted, what are the implications for our future, and what can we do?

Increasingly, it is children with disabilities and minorities who are impacted the most. A study released by the Department of Education in March of this year confirmed that African American children are three and a half times more likely to be suspended or expelled than their peers who are white. More than 70 percent of school-related arrests or those referred to law enforcement are Hispanic or African-American. Children with disabilities are twice as likely to receive out-of-school suspensions. Aided by the excuse of zero tolerance and increased police presence in our schools, suspensions, expulsions, and arrests have become the unjust solution to routine disciplinary problems.

Our future well being as a nation is at stake. At a policy briefing hosted by U.S. Rep. David Scott (D-Ga.) about over incarceration and its negative impact last year, Matt Cregor of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund said, “The harms of suspension pale in comparison to the harms of arrest. A first-time arrest doubles the chances a student will drop out. A first-time court appearance quadruples them.”

When students drop out, the human resource, what that student could have contributed to society, tends to be lost. The economic impact is devastating. We spend far more to incarcerate than we do to rehabilitate.

I remember being arrested in high school in my junior year and being too embarrassed to return to that school. I’m not saying I should not have been arrested; I failed to appear in court for a drug possession charge. However, the police had a choice, my home address as well as my high school address was on file. The following year, I dropped out of high school totally.

Salecia’s parents Ernest Johnson and Constance Ruff asked the same questions. In a video interview, Salecia’s mother, who only has access to a pre-paid cellphone, said her phone was out of minutes and that is why she did not receive the phone call from the school.

Just as I believe there were alternatives to coming to school and arresting me, Salecia’s parents want to know why the police did not contact someone else on the emergency list, such as her sister Candace. Salecia’s parents report their child is now having nightmares and waking up screaming, they are “coming to get me.” As statistics confirm, school arrests increase dropout rates, increase future incarceration rates and in some cases, like Salecia’s, causes psychological trauma.

Schools as gateways to prisons must be dismantled. Zero tolerance polices impose severe punishments, regardless of circumstances. In Connecticut, a bill has been introduced requiring formal agreements detailing roles and responsibilities for police officers stationed at schools. The bill is an attempt to stem the tide of inappropriate arrests of students.

There are models of public education that have said yes to education, yes to inclusion, and yes to excellence. Andrew Jackson, a public elementary school in Chicago has closed the opportunity gap. Nearly 70 percent of students are Asian/Pacific Islander, American Indian/Alaska Native, black or Hispanic. Yet, there is almost no achievement gap between groups of students in reading and math at Andrew Jackson. The school reports a very different pattern around school suspension rates than the rest of Chicago Public Schools (K-8) – less than one percent of African-American and Hispanic students received an out-of-school suspension.

This is a call to community action. Our legislators, administrators and concerned citizens must work together. Parents cannot protect their children from misguided disciplinary actions alone. Teachers cannot cope with disciplinary challenges alone. The police are ill equipped to adjust their training for a school setting; and we are all subjected to the lethal stereotypes that constantly bombard us falsely, casting people of color as dangerous and violent. Couple this with inflexible polices and our future -- for surely our children are our future -- is in peril. We cannot get so desensitized that we fail to speak up and speak out.