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The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights

The Nation's Premier Civil and Human Rights Coalition

The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights  & The Leadership Conference Education Fund
The Nation's Premier Civil and Human Rights Coalition

Breaking the School-to-Prison Pipeline

Feature Story by Janel Johnson - 3/27/2008

With a mounting number of youth facing time in detention centers instead of classrooms, civil rights advocates and legislators are beginning to think of ways to keep students in school and out of the criminal justice system. 

On March 21, advocates, legislative aides, local community members, and education officials gathered in Washington, D.C., for a roundtable discussion sponsored by the Campaign for High School Equity (CHSE) on breaking the "school-to-prison pipeline." This term is used to describe the practice of funneling students, primarily children of color, out of public schools and into the juvenile and criminal justice systems.

In its 2007 report "Dismantling the School-to-Prison Pipeline," the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF) said that the pipeline begins with underfunded and neglected schools. 

It states: "The inadequacies of the public educational system, especially in areas of concentrated poverty, have set students up to fail, as continuing resource deficiencies—evidenced by a lack of experienced or certified teachers and guidance counselors, advanced instruction, early intervention programs, extracurricular activities, and safe, well equipped facilities—lock many students into second-class educational environments that neglect their needs and make them feel disengaged from their schools."

The report also documents how school administrators have responded to increased behavioral problems and schools administrators' "irrational" fears of violence with a variety of "overzealous" discipline policies that remove students from their schools – and involved the criminal justice system. Participants in the discussion noted that school discipline seems to have been taken out of the hands of school officials and placed in the hands of police officers.

"There is no bright line between the role of teachers and the role of (police) officers," stated Damon Hewitt of the NAACPLDF.  "Excessive school discipline policies are replacing the role of parents.  The line between discipline and punishment is becoming blurred."

This "blurred line" was addressed in a 2006 report released by the Florida Chapter of the NAACP, Advancement Project and the NAACPLDF.  The report, "Arresting Development: Addressing the School Discipline Crisis in Florida," paints a disturbing picture of how police are being used as disciplinarians in Florida's schools. 

According to the report, there were 444 arrests in Pinellas County high schools and 244 arrests in Pinellas County middle schools in the first semester of the 2004-05 school year alone.  Most students were arrested for offenses such as "school disruption" and "disorderly conduct."

School administrators' use of expulsions and suspensions as punishments also faced the criticism of roundtable participants.  These disciplinary actions are increasingly being used for offenses that formerly would have warranted in-school detention or a warning.  

Legislative officials are beginning to address the problem of the "school-to-prison pipeline."  Ilana Fisher Brunner, the legislative director for Rep. Bobby Scott, D. Va., talked about two bills the congressman introduced in 2007 in hopes of diverting students away from the criminal justice system. 

The Every Student Counts Act would hold schools accountable for high school graduation rates of all subgroups of students, including low-performing students.  This accountability would counteract any pressure some schools might feel to push low-performing students into the prison pipeline so they aren't included in testing statistics.

Rep. Scott's second proposed bill, The Youth Promise Act, would authorize the creation of community councils that would develop programs and initiatives to address youth gang and crime problems in their specific communities.  The Act would also create a National Center for Proven Practice Research, which would work to help communities develop programs that would use proven methods to successfully address juvenile delinquency and criminal street gangs. 

Both bills have been introduced in committee – the House Education and Labor Committee and the House Judiciary Committee, respectively – but have not come up for a vote in committee.

Other speakers at the roundtable included: Michael Wotoroson, director of the Campaign for High School Equity; Catherine Kim, a staff attorney with the ACLU, and Hilary Shelton, the director of the NAACP's Washington Bureau.

The Campaign for High School Equity (CHSE) is a coalition of 10 major national civil rights and education organizations, including the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights Education Fund and the Alliance for Excellent Education, which promotes federal leadership in high school reform.  Though it sponsored the forum to promote debate and awareness of the issue, CHSE has not formally endorsed the legislation – or any legislation – presented at the forum.  

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