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The School to Prison Pipeline Issue
By Jennifer Hulvat, J.D., Full Time Faculty, Undergraduate Criminal Justice, School of Social and Behavioral Sciences
Published: 02/24/2014

Minority youth “He who opens a school door, closes a prison.”
Victor Hugo

The phrase “School to Prison Pipeline” has been widely used to describe what happens when school misconduct is answered with suspension, expulsion, and police intervention, as opposed to primarily internal consequences and sanctions. This “criminalizing” of student behavior, it is suggested, unfairly targets minority juveniles, often injecting them into the juvenile justice system, and increasing the opportunity for premature incarceration as a juvenile offender. The type of conduct discussed encompasses offenses like truancy, drug use, fighting, dress code violations and sustained willful disobedience, not the unimaginably violent situations like those occurring at Sandy Hook and Columbine. As a result of this often disproportionate treatment, those targeted juveniles tend to drop out of traditional schools, miss academic opportunities for success, and most likely enter the adult criminal justice system later in life.

Statistics concerning the ethnic composition and socioeconomic status of students being suspended, expelled or arrested for school infractions are alarming. Based in part from research gathered by the Department of Education, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund opines that, in 2000, African Americans represented only 17% of public school enrollment nationwide, but accounted for 34% of suspensions. Likewise, in 2003, African-American youths made up 16% of the nation’s overall juvenile population but accounted for 45% of juvenile arrests. Moreover, studies show that African-American students are far more likely than their white peers to be suspended, expelled, or arrested for the same kind of conduct at school.

Regardless of our individual opinions regarding the basis for these statistics, the topic has certainly captured the attention of our Federal Government. In early January of this year, the Department of Justice and the US Department of Education issued a new joint “School Discipline Guidance Package” designed to restore equality in the disciplinary process in our schools. At the time of its introduction, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan stated that the guidelines were intended for a broad range of stakeholders--educators, principals, district administrators, school board members, charter school heads, school resource officers, counselors, social workers, parents, community leaders--and, importantly, students themselves. The goal of this joint initiative is to reinforce equality and fair treatment in our schools, including a re-education of our school administration and staff concerning the value of progressive discipline, rather than delegating that task to law enforcement authorities.

According to the materials published by Department of Education, the resource package distributed to schools consists of four components:

  • The Dear Colleague guidance letter on civil rights and discipline, prepared in conjunction with DOJ, describes how schools can meet their legal obligations under federal law to administer student discipline without discriminating against students on the basis of race, color or national origin;


  • The Guiding Principles document draws from emerging research and best practices to describe three key principles and related action steps that can help guide state and local efforts to improve school climate and school discipline;


  • The Directory of Federal School Climate and Discipline Resources indexes the extensive federal technical assistance and other resources related to school discipline and climate available to schools and districts; and


  • The Compendium of School Discipline Laws and Regulations, an online catalog of the laws and regulations related to school discipline in each of the 50 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, compares laws across states and jurisdictions.


Many believe that the efforts by the Obama Administration simply reinforce existing mandates to eliminate discrimination in our schools, which is relatively without debate. The guidelines also reinforce the need to retrain school administrators and staff about fair discipline, not based on race, gender, sexual orientation or other factors. Suggestion is made to eliminate law enforcement involvement in that process where possible. It appears that an effort to educate our teachers in the art of dispute resolution is part of this movement.

It is important to note that the suggested guidelines appear to be nonbinding. They are not legislative in nature. They do, however, send a very clear message to our schools that the Federal Government is watching, and that fairness and equality must return to the process of discipline in our schools. Attorney General Eric Holder has identified well-intentioned zero tolerance policies as the primary impetus for the suggested change. In a letter distributed to schools, he states, “A routine school disciplinary infraction should land a student in the principal’s office, not in a police precinct.” Certainly, this country has endured school violence tragedies never before imagined, and it is understandable that our schools are now vigilant in their efforts to protect our children. Reformers argue, and the current administration tends to support, the position that a retreat from zero tolerance for certain types of infractions would go a long way toward restoring equality and equitable treatment for conduct violations in our schools, and ultimately decreasing the number of juveniles set on a path for incarceration.

Because the policies enounced by the Departments of Justice and Education are not legislative in nature, one might question what consequences might be appropriate if the most “offending” schools simply refuse, or fail, to modify now identified discriminatory disciplinary practices. The Department of Justice enforces Title IV of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of race or national origin in public schools, and Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color or national origin by schools, law enforcement agencies, and other recipients of federal financial assistance. One can make the logical jump, then, that failure to adhere to these suggested guidelines might jeopardize federal assistance to these nonconforming schools.

Despite the overall reduction in juvenile violence over the last few years, we continue to struggle understanding violence in our schools. It is only natural, then, to default to more stringent security measures. What many believe, however, is that the resulting zero tolerance policies have now caused an unfair and unacceptable focus on offending kids from poor, impoverished and minority communities. Juvenile detention facilities are filled with kids who began their “criminal careers” with a school discipline event. The question of whether a “School to Prison Pipeline” exists is certainly subject to debate. One thing is certain, though, any reasonable effort taken to reduce the chance that a school-age child will end up in a correctional facility is worth a try.

Since 2009, attorney Jennifer Hulvat, from the Chicago area, has been a full-time faculty member at Kaplan University, where she teaches law-based courses in Criminal Justice. Ms. Hulvat is a 24-year practicing lawyer, holding law licenses in both Illinois and Florida. She has been a prosecutor in Miami, Florida as well as in the Chicago area, and also spent several years representing the criminally accused. She was a staff attorney for Chicago’s CLEAR Initiative Project, an aggressive, non-state-funded project to review, edit and align the Criminal Code and the Unified Code of Corrections in Illinois.



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  2. khadimkhan on 12/12/2018:

    The well-known sentence “School to Prison Pipeline” has been utilized to explain what happens when school misbehavior is responded in form of suspension, expulsion, and police intervention, as opposed to basic internal penalties. This outlawing of the behavior of students recommended dishonestly targets minority juveniles that mostly adding them into the juvenile justice system, and increases the chance for premature custody as a young person. I try to know about best resume writing service reviews but here i must say that information contained above post is superb.

  3. bwmatthews on 04/30/2014:

    I agree with the facts in this article, and fully support any efforts to change the existing policies. I am starting a career in the mental health field, where most of the clients are African American males, and ex-offenders. I would greatly appreciate more information in this area. Thank You B.W. Matthews


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