At the Schoolhouse Door - Clearing Out the School-to-Prison Pipeline

December 14, 2012
By Chris Hill

This week, the United States Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Human Rights held a hearing entitled “Ending the School-to-Prison Pipeline.” The committee members were familiar with the disproportionate application of discipline rules on poor and minority students. (Advocates for Children’s Services, part of Legal Aid of North Carolina, submitted a written statement to the subcommittee.)

North Carolina’s school-to-prison pipeline is filled students who are low-income, are minorities, or have disabilities. There are several reasons for the disproportionate application of discipline. Unfortunately, even in 2012 and as we creep up on 2013, race and ethnicity play a role in who gets suspended and for how long.

In addition, children with disabilities are often undiagnosed. While the law prohibits the suspension of a student for behavior that is a manifestation of his disability, the student can’t use that defense to challenge a suspension if the school has not identified him as having a disability in the first place.

The school-to-prison pipeline is not merely a function of a student being suspended or expelled and then going straight to jail—although, the overcriminalization of student conduct can lead to that result. This pipeline is more insidious. If a student is repeatedly short-term suspended or long-term suspended, he or she may feel that school is nothing but a place of persecution and refuse to attend. We call these students drop-outs, but they are more likely push-outs.

North Carolina used to have a Committee on Dropout Prevention. There was also a dropout prevention grant program, but it was eliminated in the 2011 state budget. The grant money was given to “local school administrative units, schools, local agencies, or nonprofit organizations” to help at-risk students stay in school or help students return to school.

In the 2011 legislative session, the North Carolina General Assembly passed a law that would create a “Dropout Recovery Pilot Program.” This time, for-profit corporations could participate. The program requires the service provider to pay for the students’ services up front and receive the state funding later.

This way of funding favors for-profit corporations that are more concerned about the bottom line than students’ futures. It would be difficult for a local nonprofit to participate in the program because it probably wouldn’t be able to front the money. As a result, it is unlikely that community stakeholders will be involved in addressing the problem in places that they know better than the administrator of a for-profit corporation. This is yet another example of how state leaders are working to privatize our education system.

There are solutions that could help end the school-to-prison pipeline. For example, schools can implement sensible discipline policies. The General Assembly can pass a bill that would raise the age of juvenile jurisdiction so 16- and 17-year olds are not sent to adult courts. School systems can use funds that put police in the schools to provide positive behavioral intervention services. There is a partnership between the National Opportunity to Learn Campaign and Dignity in Schools Campaign that is calling for a moratorium on out-of-school suspensions, which would ensure that students are in a learning environment while being punished and that they are not being pushed out.

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