Editor’s Note: From time to time, Lionheart welcomes guest bloggers to write about topics aligned with our mission. If you would like to be considered for an upcoming guest blog, please contact us at: firstname.lastname@example.org Many thanks to Denise Tomasini-Joshi for contributing the following article.
Four Thoughts on Shutting Down the School-to-Prison Pipeline
by Denise Tomasini-Joshi
On December 2012 the US Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights held a hearing on the school-to-prison pipeline. After years of research and attention to this phenomenon by academics, non-profits and advocates, focus by the highest levels of government seems overdue. As the hearing’s chair, Senator Richard Durbin (D-IL), noted: for many children the schools are increasingly a gateway for the criminal justice system, depriving them of their right to an education. While we wait for the glacial pace of federal action, is there anything that cities, municipalities, and even individual schools can do? Here are 4 broadly supported recommendations that can be implemented at the local level:
1. Eliminate “zero-tolerance” school discipline policies – In a landmark study titled “Breaking School’s Rules” the Council of State Government’s Justice Center revealed that 23% of children with a disciplinary action – which included suspensions ranging from 1 class to several days – had contact with the justice system as compared with only 2% of children not disciplined. The study looked at every student in Texas in the seventh grade from the years 2000 to 2002, and found that “frequent violators” – students with more than 11 disciplinary actions – had a 50% chance of having contact with the justice system.
One troubling finding of this study is the arbitrary nature of disciplinary actions. While “zero tolerance” invokes an image of uniformity and consistency, the reality is that disciplinary actions are highly subjective and applied most often, and more harshly, to certain types of students; namely, children of color and children with educational or psychiatric disabilities. The study found that controlling for other factors, black youth where 32% more likely to receive disciplinary actions than white or Hispanic students.
While these finding are upsetting the study also points to signs of hope; the most significant being that schools with similar demographics have used different modes of school discipline to different results. This means that schools can reduce exclusion without sacrificing safety.
The implications of the study are clear: “zero-tolerance” policies ultimately hurt particular groups of children as well as the system as a whole. These policies and the ensuing suspensions should be replaced with other forms of behavior assistance.
2. Invest in Restorative Justice Programs – While the first point above, signals a need to reduce the number of disciplinary actions leading to suspensions, schools struggle with addressing misbehavior, particularly when that behavior has consequences for other students. In these cases it’s important not just to discourage and correct the behavior, but to provide recourse to the person affected and send a message of institutional responsiveness. One tool for accomplishing this is restorative justice.
Restorative justice is a form of conflict resolution in which those harmed by crime or conflict, and those responsible for the harm, are brought together into communication, enabling everyone affected by a particular incident to play a part in repairing the harm and finding a positive way forward. It’s a method that can work without involvement in the criminal justice system, but also along with a criminal justice proceeding, and at different stages of that process (pre-trial, pre-sentence, post-sentence). For youth, restorative justice at the earliest stages of conflict can serve as a form of diversion from the criminal justice system.
A group of California educators recently spoke to the need for restorative processes at a State’s Senate Education Committee hearing in favor of a bill to ban suspensions for “willful defiance”. They explained that “California schools urgently need strategies for discipline that help children learn from mistakes, make reparations for harm, and go on to succeed.” While that bill was approved and sent to the full Senate for a vote, the legislation only prevents suspensions and does not require the type of restorative function that educators endorsed. Restorative justice school programs can serve as an alternative to suspensions for educators and help interrupt the flow of the school-to-prison pipeline.
3. Improve After-School programs – It’s well known that arrests for juvenile crime peak between 2pm and 6pm on school days. One reason, is that 69% of all married-couple families have both parents working outside the home, while 71% of single mother households and 85% of single father households have the custodial parent working outside the home. The gap between in-school time and work schedules means that children spend 20-25 hours per week unsupervised. There is therefore a great need for supervised, constructive activities during the post-school hours.
After-school programs (ASP) provide this service and have been shown to reduce delinquent behavior, but like any other program, the quality of the ASP will determine the level of impact. Research suggests that positive outcomes are strongest in programs that incorporate a high emphasis on social skills and character development – such as the curricula currently offered by the Lionheart Foundation. ASP’s that incorporate emotional literacy would be a great tool to eliminate delinquency and keep kids in school.
4. Improve Educational Services for Children Already in the Justice System – The Sentencing Project notes that despite the strong connection between school truancy, dropouts, and delinquency, reenrolling youth leaving detention into school is a low priority for the justice system. Most children involved in the criminal justice system will eventually get out. As noted, failure to attend school is strongly co-related with delinquency, making linkages with education a vital part of reducing recidivism. A number of barriers prevent justice-involved kids from availing themselves of the benefits of education. For example, education within prisons and jails is generally substandard, and children locked in adult facilities often receive no education services at all, making reintegration to school upon release intellectually and emotionally overwhelming. The result is that two-thirds of children leaving closed detention never return to school.
Reentry programs that focus on school reintegration are a crucial component of preventing recidivism. It’s important to note that around 70% of youth sentenced to some form of confinement have been convicted of strictly non-violent acts. It is therefore imperative to ensure that those children stay out of prison to prevent them from adopting the behaviors of other incarcerated persons who may be engaging in higher levels of violence and offending.
In 2012, Attorney General Eric Holder and Education Secretary Arne Duncan announced the joint Supportive School Discipline Initiative, which includes, among other things, the development of a consensus report on strategies to block the school-to-prison pipeline. There is already consensus on the recommendations above, let’s not wait another moment to begin implementing changes that can improve children’s lives.
Denise Tomasini-Joshi is an attorney of Hispanic descent and expert in
criminal justice policy. She has most recently worked on issues
related to vulnerable populations involved in the criminal justice
system, and on alleviating the harms of unnecessary pretrial
detention. Ms. Tomasini-Joshi is a graduate of Columbia Law School
and the Columbia University School of International and Public
Affairs. She has worked on criminal justice reform globally, and has
published in English and Spanish. In September Ms. Tomasini-Joshi
will join the International Harm Reduction Program of the Open Society
Foundations as Deputy Director. Follow her on Twitter @DMTJoshi.